KNOWLEDGE: Gender Issues in Fundraising – why are women under-represented in leadership roles?

Picture a fundraising leader. If the image in your head is of a man, Heather Hill says you need to read this blog.

This blog is part of the Gender Issues In Fundraising Project run by Rogare – The Fundraising Think Tank.

Think of a leader in the fundraising profession. Think about the qualities that leader possesses. Think about what makes that leader effective. Now tell me whether you pictured a man or a woman. If you pictured a male leader, why? 

Nearly 75 per cent of members in the Association of Fundraising Professionals (North America) and 68 per cent of members in the Institute of Fundraising (UK) are women. Recent data shows that anywhere from 41-53 per cent of leaders in fundraising (those in senior management positions) are men – hardly congruent with the composition of the profession. What’s more, the bigger the organization, the worse the gap and it begins at the top. In US nonprofit organizations with budgets of $50 million or more, only 18 per cent had a female CEO and in the top 50 charities in the UK, only 30 per cent of CEOs and 36 per cent of trustees are women. Given the majority role women have in the profession, why don’t leadership roles mirror that ratio? And why, as Elizabeth Dale found, are those who are in leadership doing so in smaller organizations earning far less?

Is this how you picture a fundraising leader? This image – which is taken from a business blog about leadership – uses the King chess piece to symbolise/signify leadership, rather than the Queen.

The gender imbalance extends to boards and trustees. In a 2018 US study of nonprofit board diversity, women represented 47 per cent of board members and only 35 per cent when the organization had a budget of $25 million or higher. The 100 largest UK charities mirror these statistics, with 42 per cent of trustees who are female. For boards with higher percentages of women, the following results were found: 

  • Greater engagement in oversight and governance
  • Higher commitment and involvement
  • Greater engagement in advocacy work
  • Higher grades by CEOs for fundraising performance
  • Greater engagement in fundraising

One theory for the disconnection might be that more men are likely to be donors than women, so male leaders may be better suited to connect with donors. This, however, seems unlikely to be the case. Research by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University has shown that women are increasingly taking the lead when it comes to charitable giving, being more likely to give, and give more than men. When it comes to high net worth individuals, men are no more likely to give than women, neutralizing any gender advantage in leadership.

Perhaps men possess traits that make them more effective leaders. That, too, is debatable. According to research done by the Pew Institute, women in the workplace were perceived by the public as better than men for seven out of nine qualities associated with effective leaders. These included:

  • Being compassionate and empathetic
  • Serving as a role model for children
  • Working out compromises
  • Being honest and ethical
  • Maintaining a tone of civility and respect
  • Standing up for what they believe in
  • Being persuasive.

Women were seen as equally skilled at working under pressure as men. The only quality for which men scored higher than women was a willingness to take risks. 

If it’s not the number of women in the profession, stakeholder relationships or possession of leadership qualities, then what reason is there for the absence of women in fundraising leadership roles?

Perception of gender roles as they pertain to suitability for leadership has been shown in numerous studies as a significant barrier to leadership. Not only are women less likely to be selected as leaders, their behavior is evaluated more negatively than the same behavior attributed to a male. A recent study published in the Academy of Management journal revealed, for example, that when female employees speak up in the workplace they are ignored while their male counterparts are rewarded. 

This is not the first time the issue of gender bias in leadership has been researched. This is not the first time these statistics or findings have been shared. Surely, as awareness has increased about the gender leadership gap, progress follows, doesn’t it? 

Why aren’t things changing?

Unfortunately, workplace environments, even in those places where there have been stated intentions of inclusivity and non-discrimination, have not yet transformed. The idea that sexism will improve ‘naturally’ with time minimizes the influence of existing structures in workplaces historically led by males and gender-based stereotypes that are slow to change. This is referred to as ‘second-generation bias’. According to research from Indian academic Vijay Grover, “second generation gender bias is related to the hindrance for women to be accepted as a leader or reach at the top of an organization. These biases may be simply in the form of maintaining the status quo, or an active approach to strengthen the existing structures of male-benefiting traditions, customs, values and beliefs.” 

The Leaders and Daughters study found that only 54 per cent of women had access to mentorship form a female leader.

Underrepresentation of women in senior leadership reinforces implicit biases and maintains the status quo because when women are not part of the decision-making leadership, they are limited in their ability to influence policy and effect change within their organizations. Recognition and encouragement of emerging leaders who do not look like the current senior executives is rare. Compounding this, there are fewer female role models and mentors because there are fewer female leaders, which also means lack of access to a network of support and sponsors. In the Leaders and Daughters 2019 study by Egon Zehnder, 74 per cent of women indicated aspirations for attaining senior leadership roles but only 54 per cent of women reported they had access to mentorship from female leaders. This subtle gender bias also disrupts women’s access to the learning cycle of leadership development. 

The consequences of this leadership gap perpetuate the problem. Less visibility of females in leadership roles and as role models functions as an inhibitor for other women progressing in their careers. This is mirrored in industry thought leadership. Male-dominated keynotes and speakers at conferences send the message that females are not leaders in their profession.

When good intentions and non-discrimination policies fail, what interventions are there that can affect change?

There is no simple or easy solution and, given the research on ‘second-generation bias’, it’s unlikely anything will change without intentional and proactive disruption to the hiring process. Current counsel from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recommends blind evaluation for jobseekers, which removes physical gender attributes, such as names and pronouns, from the initial application process. It does not, however, prevent the possibility of unconscious bias interfering further in the hiring process. Data analysis on compensation and promotions can help inform organizations about potential gender bias issues, but only if the data drills down all the way into root causes of any discrepancies. For example, a study in an investment firm showed that female brokers were compensated less than male brokers, but the difference was due to the amount of commission earned on accounts. Additional analysis revealed, however, that this was due to female brokers being assigned inferior accounts and opportunities. 

“Male-dominated keynotes and speakers at conferences send the message that females are not leaders in their profession.”

The ILO also recommends structured recruitment and evaluation criteria to decrease the potential for bias. A set methodology that is uniformly applied and used by all managers ensures job performance for employees of all genders are judged by the same metrics. Does this completely eliminate the chance of unconscious bias? No. It is, at least, a framework for prevention.

The implementation of quotas has been explored as another potential strategy for addressing the gender leadership gap. The research on this practice indicates as many potential pros as cons, with pros such as creating a pipeline of female leaders and eliminating (or reducing) stigmas by creating representative rather than token presence and cons as failing to address root causes of discrimination and reduced employee engagement. Norway imposed gender quotas of 40 per cent for all corporate board of public limited companies in 2008. After ten years, the data showed that it did not have a trickledown effect of increasing female presence in other roles. Further, while decision making processes changed, quality of decisions didn’t improve by having greater female representation. Perhaps simply imposing quotas on board composition is not enough.

A number of European countries have mandated gender quotas for corporate boards that are accompanied by penalties for noncompliance. While, as seen in the case of Norway, simply ensuring a baseline percentage of female representation does not create wholesale change in an organization, the penalties do mandate the beginning of the change process. 

Are fines and sanctions ultimately the way to dismantle gender-biased organizational structures? Daniel Kahneman’s research in behavioral science found  people are more motivated by loss aversion than by equivalent gains. In other words, the pain of a fine or penalty is more likely to incentivize action than rewards. One example is that of carbon emissions. While carbon tax credits promised to reduced carbon emissions by rewarding companies utilizing green fuel sources, what ultimately lowered fossil fuel consumption was taxing carbon emissions. Is there a way to accelerate closing the gender leadership gap that draws from this model? 

For women in fundraising, the best advantage for overcoming gender bias is strength in numbers. Not to lean in, or to raise each other up to “break the glass ceiling” but, rather, to lean out and knock down the constraining walls of an unresponsive construct so that something new may be built. Females already outnumber males in the profession yet generational transitions in leadership have not created space for female leaders, nor have hiring policies or quotas found much traction. A roar of female voices demanding – and actively working en massefor – change may be where hope is found in toppling the patriarchal leadership structures. 

This will only happen, however, with significant intervention to dismantle existing structures and processes. Without it, the research shows the status quo will remain. 

  • Heather Hill, CNM, CFRE is assistant vice president at KEES/Alford Executive Search and chair of the Rogare board.

Further reading (on gender and leadership):

Further reading (on Rogare’s Gender Issues in Fundraising project)

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