Angel in the Office: The gender wage chasm, nonprofits, and what I thought I knew

photo by only alice, via Flickr Creative Commons

Fellow Women of America, happy Equal Pay Day! We have earned as much in the past 473 days as men earned in the 365 days of 2011. (Although if you are a woman of color, you’re going to have to work even longer.) According to Lori Bettison-Varga of Scripps College, as a result of this difference,  the average woman will make $400,000 less in her lifetime than she would have made as a man doing the same job.

(Just a terminology note here: I can’t bring myself to refer to this as a gender pay “gap,” although that’s the most-used description. Gaps are something you can step over. 3 months and 17 days worth of work is not a gap.  $400,000 is not a gap. I’m going to call it the gender pay chasm. If we are going to get to the other side of it, we have some serious work to do.)

I assumed that, because I work in the nonprofit sector, things would be better. After all, nonprofits are run by nice people who are generally striving to make the world a better place. Workers in the nonprofit sector are more than half female. Surely, the disparity between what men and women make would be less.

But last week, Gov. Scott Walker pissed me off enough that I felt motivated to do a little research. What I found in three simple Google searches shocked me. (As a politically active feminist with almost a decade of all-women’s education under my belt, I did not expect to find that things were even worse than I thought they were.) Here’s a bit of what I thought I knew, and what I learned about women, our paychecks, and the world of nonprofits:

Myth #1: Things are getting better.

Whether or not you work at a nonprofit, the chasm between what women make and what men make for similar work is not getting smaller. (Informative infographic here.) College-educated women have seen the gap between their pay and the pay of their male classmates hold steady at round 25% since the mid-1990’s. In 2011, that translated to $998/week median pay for women with a college degree, and $1,332 a week for men with a college degree. Women without a college degree had a narrower gap by all of 2% – their median salary was $554 in a week, and men with a similar education made $730.

Women make, on average, 77 cents to every dollar made by a man (or 62 cents if you’re an African American woman, or a measly 54 cents if you’re a Latino woman.) If that doesn’t sound like a big difference, add in some zeros.

To top it all off, Governor Walker’s incredibly ignorant remarks (including, “You could argue that money is more important for men. I think a guy in their first job, maybe because they expect to be a breadwinner someday, may be a little more money-conscious.”) sound a lot like something someone said to my mother in her first job interview out of graduate school in the mid 1970’s.

Myth #2: Increasing leadership by women decreases the gender pay chasm.

In a study of nonprofits in the rural south, Rural Support Partners found that  although women lead nonprofits more often than men (56% of respondents’ organizations were led by women, 44% by men), women make less money than men in those positions.  Similar trends persist nationwide. According to the 2011 Guidestar report, women may make up a sizeable portion of nonprofit leadership, but they get paid less to lead, and they are far less likely to hold leadership positions in larger nonprofits, where salaries are higher.

To top it off, we may have leadership positions, but we still don’t have more of the real decision-making power in our field. Women account for 43 percent of the board seats among all nonprofits but hold only 33 percent of the board seats at nonprofits with incomes of $25 million or more, according to the White House Project.

Myth #3: Gender wage discrimination happens in other places. It doesn’t happen in nonprofits, where we’re all good people.

The gender wage chasm is very present in the world of nonprofit compensation. As a general rule, the larger the organization, the wider the gap. According to Guidestar’s 2011 compensation report,  women nonprofit CEOs made 13.4 percent less than men at nonprofits organizations with budgets of $250-$500K. At organizations with budgets of more than $50M, they made 24.6 percent less.

Ms. Magazine’s January, 2011, article on the Guidestar report from 2010 explained:

For organizations with a budget over $5 million, women executives earned an average yearly income of $401,000—a generous salary for the nonprofit sector, but one that pales in comparison to men executives’ $621,000. That means these women earn just over 64 cents to a man’s dollar. At small nonprofits, the gap was less pronounced but still alive and well: Women executives earned an average wage of $84,000 compared to men’s $100,000….[T]he greater the organization’s budget, the greater the wage inequality.…

That Rural Support Partners study found that nonprofits in the rural south paid “$48,738 on average for female executives, $60,468 for males.”  That’s a difference of $11,730 a year for the same work and the same level of responsibility.

A 2011 Philanthropy Journal study of fundraisers had similar findings: “Average salaries for male fundraisers totaled $92,540 in the U.S. compared to $70,614  for female fundraisers in the U.S.. With the exception of 2005, average salaries for men consistently have exceeded those for women by $20,000 for the 10 years in which the survey has been conducted.”

Women are also noticeably more likely to feel that they make financial and non-financial sacrifices to work in the nonprofit sector.

Myth #4: It’s our fault.

I’ve been told time and time again that women are bad negotiators. There’s a general acknowledgement that women are socialized to be agreeable and passive, so we fall short when it comes to the hard-nosed money-making self-interest skill set. The solution most often presented is for us to take responsibility for  learning better negotiation skills. I’m the first to admit, this made sense to me. I have never felt comfortable negotiating salaries. It may be the one area of my life, except for maybe family vacations, where I could ever be accused of not being very assertive.

A 2008 Washington Post article provides a good summary of the kinds of statistics used to illustrate this widely acknowledged problem:

  • Women, on average, ask for 30 percent less money than males.
  • Men are four times more likely to negotiate a first salary than women.
  • Men are eight times more likely than women to negotiate their starting salary and benefits.
  • Women ask for raises or promotions 85 percent less often than their male counterparts.
  • 20 percent of women (22 million people) say they never negotiate at all, even though they recognize negotiation as appropriate and even necessary.
  • 2.5 times more women than men said they feel “a great deal of apprehension” about negotiation.

But it turns out, surprise, surprise, that the people being discriminated against may not be responsible for the problem. Women, next time you are in a salary negotiation and you feel like you need to back off so that people still like you, it may not be because you have bad negotiating skills. It may be because you are right.

In 2007, Harvard researchers Bowles and Babcock studied how women fared in negotiations about pay. The Washington Post explained:

[T]his study found that women’s reluctance was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did. Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more — the perception was that women who asked for more were “less nice”….”What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not,” Bowles said. “They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not.”…While both men and women were penalized for negotiating, Bowles found that the negative effect for women was more than twice as large as that for men.

So next time you think that people aren’t going to like you because you advocated for fair compensation, you can get some small comfort out of realizing that you probably aren’t thinking that because you are too weak and you can’t get the patriarchy out of your head. You may be thinking that because you are smart and perceptive.

So now what?

So here’s what my research taught me: as a woman with a graduate degree in the nonprofit sector in 2012, I’m not somehow immune to pay discrimination. I am likely to face even more pressure to be self-sacrificing than my male colleagues, and I’ll probably get paid less, relative to them, than I would be in the for-profit sector (and certainly less than in the government sector.) It’s that old Victorian “Angel in the House” myth come back to haunt us, except now, it’s the Angel in the Nonprofit Office. Most of us do the work that we do because we love it, because we want to make the world better, because we want to be on the right side of history. But right now, for many of us, the price we have to pay is being trapped in the same injustices we’re trying to fight.

So to my nonprofit colleagues: Let’s do something about it. And no, I’m not talking about us ladies brushing up on our negotiating skills. One thing we can do is establish clear, transparent, accountable pay structures. According to the National Women’s Law Center, there’s good evidence to show that pay secrecy contributes to pay inequality. As nonprofits, we’re accountable to our funders and those we serve when it comes to our finances. Let’s be accountable to each other too. If nonprofits develop pay structures that don’t rely on one person’s judgement, no matter how nice or well-meaning that person may be, we can build fairness into the system and build discrimination out of it. There are some great examples out there of relatively transparent and objective pay structures. (For a start, check out Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the Center for Participatory Change.) Nothing’s going to be perfect, but, the way things are now, improving isn’t that hard to do.

Also, you could sign this petition from the National Organization for Women asking the President to make sure employees can discuss their salaries, and join your local feminist organization so that you can sign the next petition/go to the next march/talk to your Senator about the next bill/etc.

This is not something than can wait. We’re not getting back the 108 days worth of compensation we lost between January 1, 2011 and now. We’re not getting back the health insurance, retirement accounts, childcare, vacations, good books, take-out dinners after long days of work, graduate degrees, local food, plane tickets, new tires, craft beers, or any of the other things we could have bought with the more than $10,000 each of us, on average, didn’t get paid last year just because we are women. The Scott Walkers of the world are working hard to make sure it’s even worse next year. Enough is enough. Who’s with me?

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