We frequently hear about how difficult it is for women to reach top leadership positions in corporate America. What we don’t often recognize is that many nonprofit organizations also have a male-entrenched leadership culture. For example, in health care women make up 74% of the workforce, but only 18% of hospital CEO positions are filled by women. This isn’t a surprising statistic. Even in female-dominated professions, men rise faster through the leadership ranks than women.
Think for a moment about teachers. How often do you still see a divide between female teachers and male principals or administrators? Social workers and nurses are other examples. Over 80% of social workers are women, yet many, many social service organizations and community agencies have a man at the helm. In nursing, despite, or perhaps because of, the fewer number of men in the profession (around 10%), many male nurses rise quickly to positions of leadership in health care settings.
We hear excuses and explanations for these discrepancies, things like “Women don’t want to leave the classroom,” or “Women make better clinicians and it would be a waste of talent to put them in an administrator’s role.” In reality, women make excellent managers, administrators, and CEOs. They bring their classroom and clinical problem solving abilities and a spirit of collaboration and teamwork that transfer nicely from the bedside or classroom to the boardroom.
Why is it so easy to pass over women in favor of men when a top leadership position opens? Partly, it is because “like begets like.” Partly, it is because many organizations are male-entrenched. Men are in the top positions and men select the person for the open position. Compounding the problem is that many organizational boards of directors for nonprofits are also predominantly men who seem to have more confidence in male CEOs. Then there are those hard-to-prove gender biases and hidden stereotypes.
The male-dominated workplace is often less hospitable to women. There may be little flexibility for scheduling or working from home, poor maternity leave benefits, or an old boys network that conducts business at the gym or on the golf course. There may be few women mentors and fewer yet examples of women in top positions. These factors can cause a “lack of fit” between a woman, her work world, and her career ladder.
How can these gaps be addressed? If you find yourself in this type of environment, the only option isn’t to leave. Instead, be aware of the biases and issues and be sure you don’t inadvertently buy into any of the stereotypes. Find a mentor or organizational supporter. If a female mentor isn’t available, find a man who can, and will, serve in that role for you. Don’t let the environment make you overly cautious or fearful. Instead, volunteer for challenging assignments. Be sure your annual goals and evaluation are based on objective criteria. Learn as much as you can about the organization and its culture, then work to obtain enhanced benefits and flexibility. Finally, find and recommend excellent women candidates for every open position. Even a small number of women in top positions can begin to positively change that male entrenched culture to one based more on competency and equity.