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A conversation with Mary Kay Devine of Women Employed

by Aida Kajs

Women's History Month may be over, but women's issues in the workplace seem to be never-ending. Last month, we sat down with Mary Kay Devine, Senior Director of External Affairs at Women Employed, to talk about the challenges that face women in the nonprofit industry.

Aida Kajs: So we’re talking about sexism within the nonprofit sector. On the surface, it seems very woman-dominated in a lot of ways, and especially in some subsectors. From your perspective, what would you say are the biggest challenges facing women in the nonprofit sector?

Mary Kay Devine: I just wanted to share some level-setting data, because I think that that speaks to the implicit and explicit biases we see. Because especially in a field that seems at the surface dominated by women, I think that one thing that’s really important to keep in mind just for context is that the nonprofit sector is the third largest sector in our country. Only retail and food service employ a larger body of workers. So there are about 12 million people working in the nonprofit sector in the US. And I think the reason we’re here today is because the race and gender and class power structures that exist in the wider world also play out in the nonprofit sector. So when I was thinking about our conversation today, I really approached it both from a gender lens and a racial lens. Over 80% of professionals in nonprofits are women, as well as over 70% of people leading organizations. So I just offer some of those numbers because it’s a huge industry, huge representation from women, and just because we rule in numbers clearly does not mean we’re ruling the industry, and especially not in pay. I think a big issue Women Employed sees play out across sectors, is that as industries and sectors get seen as “women’s work,” then wages get drawn down. And so the contradiction is that you have a majority of women employees, women in leadership, huge numbers working in this field, and because it’s women’s work and considered women’s work, then we see the numbers of salaries really dragged down. And I think one of the things that I wanted to talk about, is that the highest jobs, highest salaries in the nonprofit sector, are held by men. And the larger the budget of the organization, the more likely that that organization is led by a man.

So then you’ve got this gender wage gap playing out, and probably for a lot of folks in the Young Nonprofit Professionals’ Network, a lower salary in the short term you consider, “Can I pay my rent? Can I continue to invest in education? Can I pay for childcare if I need it to get to my job every day?” And very immediate impacts. But the gender wage gap for women in nonprofits doesn’t just impact their paychecks, it impacts their lifetime. So then you’ve got it compounded. It’s like the opposite of interest. It’s like the negative version of compounded interest. Because then you’ve got women as they age in this industry with lower retirement savings, lower personal savings, obviously lower social security payouts, and regardless of age, women in this industry would even receive lower unemployment pay. And I bring that up especially in the wake of COVID. And I think the gender wage gap is a huge issue.

At Women Employed this is one of our primary issues that we are fighting for. And we’ve created a toolkit to help both employers and job-seekers understand a recent law that went into effect in 2019 called the “No Salary History Law.” And so it seems like such a basic, simple law, because it literally just means that an employer is no longer allowed to ask what your salary was at your prior job. And especially for women, it seems so simple, but for a woman, if you need to leave the workforce for caregiving, if you leave the workforce to pursue education, if you leave the workforce now because of COVID, because you’re the primary caregiver in your house, and then you don’t get back into the workforce for a couple of years, then your salary appears lower. And so by the time you’re interviewing, a year, two years, three years from now, then that boss is getting you at a discount rate. Because he or she is like “heck, you said your salary was $40,000? Well that’s great, then that’s all I have to pay you. You don’t have to know that other people at the same title or ability are making $50,00 or $60,000.” There’s a lot of reasons that compound the gender wage gap. One is that women start with lower salaries.

And on the note of negotiations, some of it is very straightforward. Do your research, so make sure you’re comparing apples and apples. Preparing, just like you would prepare for a job interview, prepare for your negotiation session. Because this is your session, this is the time where you get to present yourself, you get to make the case, make your pitch for why you should deserve more compensation or better benefits. And really, and I know it can be hard for women because we are so trained by society to be deferential or to not want to make waves or cause trouble, but this is really an instance when you’re negotiating for yourself to hold your ground. And if you feel like you’re losing ground, hit pause. Be able to say “it seems like we won’t be able to reach an agreement today. It seems like we haven’t seen eye to eye. Let’s take a break and revisit this.” Convincing women that they actually have control over this conversation. And then if an employer is asking you about your salary history, obviously in our state, we can say that now we have a law that protects folks, and that’s not relevant, because what you should be hiring me for is my skills, my experience, how well you think I can do this job. And for folks outside of Illinois, it’s also just redirecting, and kind of bringing those employers back to the key elements that they should be looking for, or negotiating if you’re in the middle of a raise. And so I’ll stop there, because I would also love to being in some of the issues particular to women of color in nonprofit organizations.

AK: How do these challenges look different for women of color? What other challenges are facing women of color?

MD: As we’ve seen in the Race to Lead Report, brown and Black women are experiencing a lot of the same issues that white women and men of color experience in the nonprofit sector, and they bear an even heavier burden because of the intersection of race and gender. And I know you all are familiar with intersectionality and how a person with multiple identities is not just a sum of all their parts, like Kimberlé Crenshaw says, it’s about this person as a whole. And especially the double-bind of the multiple biases that women and women of color face. And I just pulled a couple of points from the Race to Lead report about the same biases that exist in the wider world. They reported being passed over for new job promotions. What we’re seeing is that, if you take that further, typically Black and brown women in nonprofits have some of the highest training and credentials, and still experience getting passed over for promotions with their colleagues. And we know you take the gender wage gap, you overlay the racial wage gap, and then women of color are being paid even lower than white women in some nonprofits. So there’s just pure biases, sexism, racism, that play out. They play out in promotions, play out in benefits, play out in compensation.

And then there’s that additional work. The pressure to conform to frequently white-led organizational culture. You have predominantly white leadership in organizations. And there’s a particular expectation for women of color to speak for all women of their race. Or all women of their ethnicity. And so there’s this contradiction that you’ve got these nonprofits that are white led, with very predominant white culture, asking women of color “You need to be a spokesperson. We want you to be the one that’s interviewed. To speak when the press comes.” There’s emotional labor that women of color are doing in the workforce, and this representation work. This expectation to represent. There was a New York Times opinions piece, from 2019. The author of the piece was Vanessa Daniel, and she’s the executive director at Groundswell. And she talked about the role of philanthropy, of the role of funders feeding this experience of women of color in nonprofits. Because they recognize that women of color, and especially Black women, are the “MVPs of social change.” And yet, philanthropists continue to fund white-led organizations with maybe a sub-grant to a woman of color-led organization. Or, even in some respects, she talks about, white-led organizations are receiving money with community-based organizations, and the expectation is that the women of color are going to train these white led groups in their successful organizing tactics and strategies to use in the community. Vanessa Daniel refers to this trend as “the gentrification of social change movements.” And I just thought that it just hit the nail on the head: how powerful the funding pipeline is and its impact on women of color in nonprofits. And one thing that I think is a bright spot is that here in Chicago we have so many great examples of philanthropy specifically led by Black women and women of color. Starting with the Chicago Foundation for Women and Felicia Davis. The Field Foundation with Angelique Power, or the Chicago Community Trust, with Dr. Helene Gayle. So I think in a landscape where philanthropy is frequently part of the problem, at least here in Chicago, we can feel some pride over big time funding organizations, where we’re seeing not only women-led philanthropic organizations, but also being led by women of color.

AK: A lot of young women in the nonprofit sector can tend to feel exploited sometimes. Do you have anything to add particularly about the kinds of issues that can face young women in the social sector?

MD: I think you’re exactly right. You’re coming into organizations, bringing the lowest salaries. I think they’re having different experiences from some of their older colleagues. Even at Women Employed, we did a thing about financial aid and the cost of college, and some of our older donors, who are obviously showing up because they care about the issue, their experience is so disparate. It’s “I worked this summer job and I paid for college,” versus the burden of student debt that women are experiencing today. So I think there’s this disconnect between the older colleagues in a workplace like “oh, I was able to do this with a summer job, that salary paid for my rent and then some…”

AK: One question that I had was surrounding negotiations. How do negotiations tend to look different, or do they look different, in the social sector?

MD: They do look different in the social sector. I think across sectors, employers can always try to push back on a woman negotiating for herself. “Oh, it’s just not in the budget right now, well if we’re looking at an increase we need to think about everybody, well, let’s wait for the annual review process even though you’re taking on a larger role or a stretch project or greater responsibility. So I think there’s classic employer tactics across sectors where they want to push back with all the reasons why it’s not time to advocate for increased pay or benefits. I think in the nonprofit sector, what makes it more complicated, is that people are attracted to work in this sector for mission-driven, and likely a deeper intrinsic motivation, “I’m Mary Kay and I care about this issue, I want to wake up every day and fight for this issue, I know the people for whom I’m advocating and want to benefit and improve their lives.” And so then employers in the nonprofit sector can say “you know if we start increasing salaries that’s going to come from programs.” And it’s very important for staff and leadership to really be on the same page on the budget. Because there can be circumstances where yeah, maybe it’s not in the deck this year. Maybe it’s not possible at this time. I am fully aware of the challenges that have compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic. At Women Employed, we’re really intentional about sharing the full budget with our team, so that every single staff member, no matter how new you are, no matter where you are on the organizational chart, that you have an understanding of the organization’s finances. So that you can see where there’s growth opportunities, so that you can see new investments or new frontiers that we’re taking on, so that we can talk about resources that aren’t always full-time staff. And pushing yourself in the realm of nonprofits is being more creative, maybe it’s not hiring another person but we could think about a strategic partnership. Maybe we could go back to one of our funders and see if there’s anything available pro bono, or one of our donors. I think it's just staff engagement, and trusting your staff to be a part of those conversations and be a part of that process.

And then fundamentally it’s still about advocating for yourself. And really trying to hold that ground so that you’re not emotionally hijacked. So that your employer can’t be like “gosh, I thought you really cared about this issue, and by advocating for yourself I have to doubt this.” That’s like emotional harassment. And so I am not naive to believe that that isn’t happening very frequently, on a regular basis in the nonprofit sector. But I firmly believe that if leadership and staff can be open, can be honest about budgeting, then staff likewise can be responsible and an active participant in then seeing where we can invest more in the staff. When and how? But not falling victim to the constant emotional hijacking that if you care about this mission, that if you care about this program, then you have to be selfless. Because then that’s fundamentally communicating a complete lack of care and investment in one of the most important parts of your organization, and that’s your human capital team.

AK: I wanted to actually go back to something you said a little while ago about the social sector being “women’s work,” and that pay tends to go down in fields that are seen as women’s work. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that, what you mean by that, and are there other fields we can compare it to to kind of understand that?

MD: Any field that has a predominant female workforce, and so that could be the childcare and daycare industry, that can be frankly the education industry, that can be the healthcare industry specifically when you’re looking at nurses, CNAs, home healthcare workers, that’s just to name a few. So you’ve the issue in some industries where women have a very low representation. And then the flip side of that, where women have a very high representation in an industry, like the ones I just mentioned, but suppressed wages. And even in those industries, men frequently earn more. Even when it might be a male nurse, a male caregiver, healthcare worker, teacher, you start going down the line, and even in those woman-dominated industries, we were seeing where men were some of the highest earners. And I think that's what we’re seeing in many of these recent reports in the nonprofit sector. That even though women represent a majority of the workforce, as the budgets go up, as the rank of job and classification go up and increase, the men are holding these jobs and the men are earning some of the highest salaries in our sector.

AK: I know that you mentioned that the bigger a budget of an organization, the more of their upper-level executives will be men. What does that look like on the ground? When it’s happening, how are those decisions being made?

MD: This report is really just bananas. This is from Guidestar, in 2019. It shows that when a budget is less than $250,000 then about 55% of those organizations are represented by women. And then you start going up to half a million, a million, multi-million and then when you get up to the major players, you know, 25 million 50 million, then women are less than 25% of the leadership. Like 18% of the leadership. And so I think the issue is not even how it’s playing out on the ground. It’s all of the different factors really at the top. Not only who’s the CEO, but who’s your board chair? Frankly, who are your board members? Because some of the reports were seeing that intersection where it’s not just the person in leadership of a nonprofit, but the board chair and their board members. And once you see women holding the president and CEO roles, and you see women board chairs, and you see more women sitting on the board of executives, at those organizations, you see women’s salaries increase. Particularly for the women who are leading it.

And even then, there are like microcosms of women’s work. You can think about just because of the sheer number of women in the nonprofit sector, certain stereotypes or certain attributions get assigned to them. But then you zoom in to a particular organization, where men are leading the board, men are leading the organization. So then the women’s work is then running the programs, or front line service delivery, community engagement, administrative work, and I think for an organization like Women Employed, we’re currently 100% women on staff. And Cherita Ellens is our CEO, a Black woman leading our organization after 40 something years of being a white-led organization. So a lot of significant investments and changes in direction. And it is still so important for our organization, it’s not even sexism playing out, this is more class and power. And so what are the positions that women of color are serving? I’m sure you guys have heard about the glamour work versus the house work within organizations. So glamour work is making the presentations, engaging the donors, hosting and running events, the very forward facing work. And house work is exactly what it sounds like. It’s setting up meetings, it’s preparing materials for the forward facing staff to go out. It’s who’s taking notes, meeting minutes when folks gather. And you just try to be very intentional to disrupt those habits within our organization. And it’s simple stuff. Literally rotating who takes minutes during a meeting. I take minutes, our colleagues take minutes. It’s not, “okay who’s our administrative assistant? You take notes.” Or when we’re in person, it’s not “okay, you do all the set up and take down.” We’re really trying to disrupt those habits so that we can not only be aware of them but do something about them as a team.

ABK: Is there anything else that you wanted to add or wanted to bring up?

MD: Yeah, I think that there are solutions at every level and I’d like to rearticulate those. It starts with the board of directors. The leadership in the organization making sure that they are representing women and women of color at the top level of leadership. I think there’s a whole piece that nonprofit leadership can do around audits, and this is one way that Women Employed frequently engages with for-profits. Audit your payroll, look for discrepancies, so that if you have people with the same job title, same education level, same level of experience, and they are earning different levels of compensation or benefits, zoom in and look at why. See is there an argument that can be made to why? And if not, fix it. Adjust that compensation and benefit package immediately.

I think there’s work that Women Employed as an organization is trying to do to embed equity into our strategic priorities. Like our racial equity and inclusion work isn’t just kind of happening “over there” as a parallel effort, or “something we should do.” No, this is embedded into our strategic plan that our board just voted on. We’re asking “how does this get cooked into the work?” And I think for nonprofits, the current landscape shows that people’s awareness around diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are high. And especially coming out of this summer, when the world really had to face the dueling pandemics of racism and COVID, it’s “this is real, and we’ve tried not to talk about it for a long time, what can we do systemically to address it?” And nonprofits need to find out how they individually can contribute to that work.

We also do market landscapes, and we see, what are the peer nonprofit organizations paying? What kind of salaries, compensation, benefits packages? And then looking at our own, to make sure that we’re on par. For every job posting that we’re offering, we post the salary, so that people are not trying to guess how much they’ll make. So if someone has a threshold of $50,000, $70,000, and it’s not going to pay at that level, then they’ll know. “Okay maybe I thought this position would more align with my skills and experiences, but maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it doesn’t meet my threshold.” So even that level of transparency when you’re working with new job candidates.

I think some nonprofits offer “maternity leave” and it makes a difference to talk about “family leave,” because even beyond paternity leave, family leave can be more expansive. Build that into the culture. So whether it’s maternity leave, paternity leave, caregiving responsibilities that they might have for a parent, or for themselves. People might be single, but if they have an illness, knowing that they can take the time off that they need without penalty is important. I think that many of the types of policies that Women Employed advocates with for for-profit employers wholesale apply to the nonprofit sector.

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