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</