By Lisa Cornish @lisa_cornish05 January 2016
Statistics from Australia and the United States show women dominate the nongovernmental organization workforce.
In the United States, it’s estimated that as much as 75 percent of the nonprofit workforce is female, while recent statistics from the Australian Council for International Development show Australia’s NGO workforce to be 69 percent female.
But that representation still doesn’t translate to the C-suite, where men remain the dominant sex at the CEO and board level. Just 16.3 percent of nonprofits with budgets over $50 million in the United States had a female CEO in 2009, for example, according to a 2013 study by The Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver.
Devex caught up with several women from the Australian-based Women in Development group — who are working together to overcome barriers, such as a lack of flexible working conditions, and to increase networking opportunities — to find out where they think the biggest hurdles remain.
The juggling act
“The barriers seem to do with networks and opportunities to connect with other people in the sector,” said Rebecca MacFarling, deputy CEO of CUFA, a nonprofit focused on alleviating poverty in the Asia-Pacific region. “The challenge is always about how you craft a career in the sector — which is mostly about opportunity, participation, learning, expertise, reputation, connections, mentoring, advocates and sometimes luck.”
These things take time to develop, she noted, especially if you're juggling a family or other personal commitments and time isn’t as available to you.
“I think lack of opportunities for women to progress up the career ladder and lack of flexible working conditions, such as working part time or working from home, are barriers preventing women from having equal representation at the top of NGOs,” Manasi Kogekar, program policy and research officer with ChildFund Australia, told Devex.
The inability to balance work and home responsibilities is a consistent message emanating from women in development. Megan Calcaterra of UnitingWorld, also a member of Women in Development, struggles with the way her career path has been laid out — and how it doesn’t appear to be conducive for women who want children.
“The way that I see it, progression sort of works in three steps: entry level, mid level, and high level,” she said. “With entry level and high level, the job tends to be a bit more focused on what’s happening within the organization in the delivery of services. Mid level is when you’re managing projects and programs which require you to travel a lot.”
The issue, as Calcaterra and many before her have pointed out, is that many women are looking to move into mid-level positions right around the time they might be trying to have children.
“I’m not sure what the solution would be, but it’s definitely something I stress about,” Calcaterra said.
How does development stack up?
How the development sector compares to other sectors in terms of opportunity for women is highly dependent on the previous work experience of the women themselves. For women joining a different NGO from within the nonprofit sector, opportunities for advancement are much the same.
“The opportunities seem no better or worse for women in development than in other sectors ... ” MacFarling said.
But for those coming into the sector from the government and private sectors, NGOs appear behind the times when it comes to developing opportunities for women, Kirsten Armstrong of the Fred Hollows Foundation told Devex.
“There is enough evidence in the corporate sector to show successful organizations are the ones with more balanced leadership,” Armstrong said. “I see no reason why the NGO sector would be any different, but I still feel we are 10 years behind corporates.”
The NGO sector has a dedicated female workforce, she added, but this can be counterproductive to achieving gender equality at the top level.
“Change only occurs by being proactive — diversity in leadership does not just trickle up, it needs a hand,” she said. “I get the sense that NGOs have not needed to be proactive in this area.”
One reason for the nonprofit sector’s lagging progress in this area could be the difference in competition for high-quality staff. People passionate about the nonprofit sector are more willing to move into a less-than-perfect role, accept a lower salary or a less-than-stellar benefits package in order to break in, she explained. In the corporate world, on the other hand, there is more recognition that to compete for quality staff and to excel, they need to work hard to attract the best and brightest.
“It has been about staff retention, which means moving women into leadership positions,” Armstrong said of the private sector.
Does a gender gap at home affect support for women in developing countries?
“There is absolutely a dichotomy in promoting the rights and equality of women and girls in developing countries — one of our key goals — yet still being underrepresented at the executive and board level in the aid and development sector,” Michelle Turpie, head of marketing, communications and fundraising with Habitat for Humanity, told Devex.
Regardless, the women working in development who spoke with Devex don’t believe gender inequality at the top level of NGOs affects the work to support women and girls in developing countries.
“I think that there are a lot of people who are out there and on boards now who have strong focus in all agencies for programs that focus in on women and recognize the big impact a focus on women can make to the world — health care, education, finance and more,” Chris Franks, convenor of the Sydney group and chair of Habitat for Humanity, said. “And I think that this is independent of whether there are men or women around.”
Kogekar agreed, adding that because most of the work to support women through NGO programs was being done at the lower levels, gender inequality at the top had little impact.
“People in the field would most often deal with NGO workers who aren’t at the top level, with the majority being female,” Kogekar told Devex. “I also think many people in developing countries may not know or may not be interested in the gender of who is working at the top level if this doesn’t directly affect their daily lives.”
But Jackie Lauff, CEO of Sport Matters, explained to Devex that there needs to be a discussion in light of the significance gender plays in the Sustainable Development Goals.
“Gender equality is a global issue that is significant enough to have its own standalone global goal in SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” she said.
How can NGOs drive change?
Significant changes in thought and practice will need to occur within the development sector for NGOs to build gender equality at the top level, including greater on-the-job support.
“More career development opportunities, including jobs, as well as training, mentoring and coaching for women that are facilitated and encouraged by the NGO itself would help to overcome barriers women are facing in career advancement,” Kogekar told Devex.
But funding may be a problem for some NGOs in this space.
“The challenge in the NGO sector is that there is a dearth of money,” Franks said. “The big guys have good plans in terms of supporting people to develop their skills and knowledge, but the smaller organizations rarely can provide these development opportunities for staff, including women.”
Male leaders will also need to have a greater understanding of unconscious bias within the workplace to deliver the necessary changes, according to MacFarling.
“Working with male leaders to ensure they are conscious of their gender biases and the hiring decisions they make is important and will contribute to change,” she said.
But some, like Armstrong, believe there is not enough movement to bring about dramatic change in the near future.
“Financial institutions, consultancies and big corporates were very conservative 15 years ago, some not allowing women to wear pants,” Armstrong said. “But today they have set targets and are increasingly moving women into leadership positions. This has required a fundamental shift in thinking. Because there is not blatant sexism within the NGO sector and everyone thinks that we are doing well, it has been a slow burn — people just don’t realize that change still needs to occur.”
In the meantime, Sydney’s Women in Development group attracts women at a range of career points — from those new to the sector to those who have been around longer than they would care to mention. And the roles of women range from recent graduates to CEOs. Men are also welcome.
But it’s the focus on the development sector that makes this group of about 30 regular members unique.
“The idea is to encourage women to first and foremost meet other women in the sector,” Franks, the group’s convenor, told Devex.
Men and women do have different ways of engaging with one another and different ways of experiencing work, MacFarling of CUFA said, adding that she finds the opportunity to talk and listen to other women extremely helpful.
For example, Franks, whom MacFarling described as a woman with remarkable experience and expertise, shared her experiences working on boards and her career path at the last WID meeting.
“I sat there thinking ‘Oh, so that's how you do it,’” MacFarling said. “She leads by example and other women are able to relate and see a path forward for themselves.”
Above all, the group provides support for women to understand they are not alone when it comes to issues they are facing in the development sector.
“I believe strongly that women should enable and support each other,” MacFarling said. “As Madeline Albright said, ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.’”
About the author
Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through news.com.au. Lisa has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.
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