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The Case for Gender Equity in the Charitable Sector

Three women stand in front of a blue and white wall

The social sector has a gender equity problem. While women make up three-quarters of the sector workforce, they comprise only 16 percent of CEOs of nonprofits and foundations with budgets over $50 million.


This post was originally published in Gender Equity in the Charitable Sector Learning Guide, a collaborative project of the 2015-2016 American Express NGen Fellows, a program hosted by Independent Sector. This post represents one piece of a collection meant to provide a cohesive and comprehensive analysis of gender equity in the charitable sector. As such, it focuses primarily on gender equity while other pieces emphasize the critical intersection points between gender, race and other identities. While this piece was written specifically to address gender equity, the action steps described below can also be used to combat other forms of institutional bias. Photo courtesy of #WOCinTech chat


The importance of talent diversity became particularly clear a couple years ago when I attended a panel discussion that included Bob Schieffer, Paul Begala and Neera Tanden at City Year’s annual summit in Washington, DC. I was struck by Begala’s comment that the increasingly partisan nature of our political system and short-term focus of financial markets have forced the social sector to assume a role once embraced by government: that of innovator for social change. The perceived political and financial consequences of making a mistake have dramatically lowered our tolerance for taking the risks—and accepting the failures—that inevitably accompany large-scale social innovation. Nonprofits, foundations and social businesses have begun to serve as a de facto research and development function for the broader ecosystem of government and private sector organizations that provide services to our most vulnerable people and communities. While the panelists debated the potential for government to change, they agreed on one thing:

In order for our sector to fully step into this role as the incubator for large-scale social innovation, we must get serious about the area we most often ignore—our own talent.

Active readers of the Stanford Social Innovation Review or members of groups like Independent Sector and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations will recognize the growing movement to find “transformational” solutions to our most complex social problems. Much of the recent research and debate has centered on new delivery models and scaling strategies, the need for new and different sources of capital, and the emerging clarity on the adaptive leadership skills our organizations will need to be successful. However, comparatively little research has been conducted on how our sector can build the types of teams and organizations needed to develop bold, sustainable solutions to our most challenging social problems. As a 2015-16 American Express NGen Fellow, I and my cohort of twelve emerging leaders were challenged by Independent Sector to identify an issue we wanted to use our unique platform to influence. After much debate, we identified gender equity in the sector’s leadership as the priority we felt most strongly about as a group. I learned a tremendous amount about the topic from early conversations with my colleagues and became curious about the connection between increased gender diversity and the pursuit of transformational change—something I spend significant time working on in partnership with our clients.

Below is a brief summary of my findings and insights from the research, but you can click here to read the full report and view videos from the 2015-16 NGen Fellows cohort and to read my essay in its entirety. The full report provides a critical complement to this piece, emphasizing the intersection points between gender, race and other identities.

Will talent diversity (and gender diversity in particular) really affect our success?

Leading nonprofits and foundations must begin taking intentional action to cultivate the diversity of our leadership with the same focus and discipline as we put into funding models and program strategy. Recent research findings from private industries have begun making a strong case for focusing on gender diversity as a driver of innovation and high performance within teams and organizations. A 2007 study conducted by the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that increasing the gender diversity of management and leadership teams resulted in improved corporate performance. McKinsey evaluated data from 101 public, private and nonprofit organizations. They found that executive teams with three or more women outperformed other organizations on all dimensions of performance: leadership, direction, accountability, coordination and control, innovation, external orientation, capability, motivation, work environment and values.

Ok, so gender diversity is important, but do we really have a problem?

When looked at in aggregate, the social sector seems to be a bastion of opportunity for women compared to other industries, and in some ways it may be. While there is no definitive data set on the sector’s workforce, recent analysis of 2011 GuideStar data by the Colorado Women’s College of the University of Denver found that women comprise roughly three-quarters of the social sector’s total workforce.

That means we’re succeeding, right? Wrong.

Female CEOs earned up to 23% less than their male counterparts in 2013.

Click the image to learn more. This infographic comes from “How Charitable Sector Organizations Can Help Women Leaders Reach the Top,” by Cecilia Fong of the Hawai’i Community Foundation and Janet Arias Martinez of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, in the 2016 Independent Sector Gender Equity in the Charitable Sector Learning Guide.

When we factor in organizational budgets and look more closely at the topmost leadership positions—those that have ultimate authority over organizational strategy and budget decisions—the problem becomes clearer. According to the same benchmark report by the Colorado Women’s College, approximately 43 percent of the membership of nonprofit boards and roughly 40 percent of all nonprofit CEO positions are held by women. Furthermore, those numbers drop precipitously as budget size grows. Women fill only 33 percent of nonprofit board roles and approximately 24 percent of CEO roles in organizations with budgets over $25 million. For organizations over $50 million, the number of woman CEOs drops to just over 16 percent. At the highest levels of leadership in the sector theoretically committed to equitable outcomes, women continue to be drastically underrepresented.

Rethinking the status quo

For most organizations, taking steps to intentionally address gender diversity (and diversity more broadly) can feel intimidating. A new article on addressing the gender challenge by McKinsey offered a terrific analogy: “Gender parity is a huge undertaking, with many decisions—a challenge akin to urban planning—in which executives must re-imagine their ‘city’ and culture, put in place multi-year building plans, add infrastructure, and improve services.”

Following the old adage “less is more,” here are three actions that any leader or organization can take—without significant cost or burden—to significantly advance gender equity in their organization and the sector at large.

1. Get your data out there!

Publicly release data on the diversity of your workforce to create self-accountability for your diversity goals. If you’re a foundation, consider encouraging or requiring grantees to report data on staff and board diversity while doing so yourself. GuideStar launched its new platform in 2014 in partnership with the D5 Coalition to allow nonprofits and foundations to publicly report diversity data. We have the infrastructure. Now we have to build the collective will and courage to act.

2. Educate board members and staff about implicit bias, and explore organizational solutions to challenge it.

Powerful but invisible barriers arising from unspoken cultural norms, workplace structures and practices of interaction inadvertently create disadvantages for women, particularly women of color, to advance into senior or executive leadership roles. Emerging research on the role bias plays in workplace decision-making suggests that education alone is not enough to reduce the effects of gender bias in our organizations. We must find solutions that combine changing individual mindsets (like training programs) with institutional practices (like hiring protocols) intentionally designed to address the structural foundations of gender bias.

3. Become a sponsor.

Sponsorship, a practice in which sponsors make an intentional decision to advocate for specific individuals in the workplace, has the potential to tackle gender equity head-on. But it is not risk-free. Actively advocating for a colleague to take on a new assignment or role forces both sponsor and protégé to put their reputations on the line. It is critical to encourage sponsorship within your organization by both serving as a sponsor yourself and actively and vocally helping to create a safe space for your colleagues to feel comfortable acting as sponsors.

The path to equity requires not just institutions to challenge barriers created by prevailing organizational practices or cultural norms; it requires individuals to do the same.

John Kern

About John Kern

As Vice President, John Kern engages in strategic partnerships with leadership teams, provides client engagement oversight and supports the overall growth and development of the firm. John has worked extensively in education, health and poverty-related issues across multiple sectors. He is a skilled facilitator with over 10 years of experience advising senior nonprofit, foundation, and government executives on organizational strategy, program design and evaluation, governance, and organizational capacity. See John's full bio.

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