Are Non-Profits the Next Pink-Collar Ghetto?
by Kris Gutknecht
Why are women flocking to non-profits? The numbers show that the non-profits sector is a women’s gig: a 2010 survey of over 500 nonprofits across the United States revealed that most non-profit positions are held by women.
Non-profits, more than for profit businesses, offer more flex time, family leave time, telecommuting, and job sharing. Partly due to the larger women staff, and partly due to women’s statistical greater interest in embracing new technology in the workplace, non-profits are friendlier to women workers.
But are the numbers showing the full experience of women’s working experience in the non-profit sector?
The Non-Profit Experience
Non-profit work culture may have the reputation of being less rigorous, less ego-driven, or less hierarchal. But the only difference between a non-profit and for-profit business is that a non-profit is working for social good, and it isn’t dedicated to making a profit. The workers themselves always draw a salary, and it’s usually competitive in order to draw strong talent.
Women may find that non-profit work is “gendered female,” as Teresa Odendahl said in an interview with the Post-Gazette in 2012. Odendahl is an author and non-profit executive and co-edited the book Women & Power in the Nonprofit Sector. She said that non-profit work “grew from an extension of work in the family and a lot of work done in the sector is still thought of as women’s work.”
Like teaching and childcare, where salaries are traditionally low, women in non-profits may find themselves working in the “pink-collar ghetto,” a term for job sectors that are dominated by women, where the work is under-valued, and the salaries are traditionally low. Such jobs also include maids, waitresses, and administrative assistants.
Why Work at a Non-Profit?
However, working in a women-dominated field has an up-side for women workers. Women may find that decisions are made by consensus, and ego may not be as much in force as at for-profit companies. (Of course, the workplace culture at larger, more established organizations is as aggressive as at any lawfirm or Fortune 500 company.
As the economy struggles to recover and companies continue to lay off established workers late in their career, many women are turning to non-profits to salvage their retirement plans and to “give back.” Late-career women may face age discrimination when applying to for-profit companies, while small non-profits and start-ups appreciate that they will come into the job with skills and contacts.
Christine Lott was one such woman who was laid off from a Fortune 500 company at age 40. She began volunteering through her church, where her involvement grew to traveling to Sri Lanka in 2006 to assist with the tsunami disaster relief efforts. The experience helped Lott gain confidence and experience, and she founded her non-profit Chris Cares in Tanzania, as well as the School of St. Nicholas.
The Modern Entry Level Job is Unpaid
While some women apply to non-profits late in life, many young women whose dream job is to effect change may become involved in non-profit organizations as teenagers or college students. They typically volunteer or intern as young as 16, doing fundraisers or campus activities. They know that it takes more than good grades to be accepted into a good college; furthermore, many young people do not wish to work for the for-profit sector after school. Both the Occupy movement and the Great Recession have resulted in a youth-oriented anti-corporate sentiment.
Due to high unemployment and underemployment among post-college women — 9.4% and 19.1% in 2012, respectively — as well as a significant drop in job opportunity, women in their 20s look to unpaid internships with non-profits as a way to explore their career opportunities, to develop skills, and to network. After all, all the career handbooks say that the best way to get a better job is through networking.
If a woman starts a family in her 30s — which is the median age for Generations X and Y — she may find that her non-profit position is women-centered and offers flex time, family leave, and does not unofficially bar her from advancing in her career. She may, therefore, stick with the non-profit sector into her 60s and 70s. A significant number of women in non-profits will continue to work past typical retirement age, sitting on board of directors and consulting.
But when to retire? The Beyer Center, a non-profit research center located in Western Pennsylvania, has found that due to the recession and lack of trust in the upcoming generation, older women working in the non-profit sector are resistant to retirement, resulting in a stagnation in mobility for younger women entering the non-profit sector.
A Beyer Center 2012 study found that “Women [working in non-profits] in the 20s and 30s are not being sufficiently groomed for leadership roles.” Further, “Many young women are finding the non-profit career path either blocked by seasoned professionals who have lengthened their tenures or simply find the realities of workload and salaries unappealing.” Young women are starting non-profit positions are receiving lower salaries, with higher job expectations, and not advancing their careers as desired. It’s not the old, sexism-fueled glass ceiling, but an age-barrier that cuts them off.
Or is it?
Women Workers — Male Executives
While the majority of workers in non-profits are women, this statistic does not continue into the executive positions, according to a 2010 National Non-Profit Employment Trends Survey by the research companies HR Solutions and the Caster Family Center for Non-Profit and Philanthropic Research. While there are grants specifically for women starting non-profits, and significant non-profits and philanthropy societies effectively run by women, these are the exception, not the rule.
Women sit on only 43% of non-profit boards, and they tend to be local and small organizations with small budgets. Large, prestigious organizations are dominated by men, especially in top positions. While the day-to-day experience of working at a non-profit may be women-centered, the policies may be made by a boys’ club mentality.
Earlier this year, non-profits affiliated with churches — including hospitals and universities as well as small organizations — filed several dozen lawsuits against the government when they learned that Obamacare would require them to pay for their female employees’ birth control. In response, last February, President Obama issued a new ruling to allow female employees who receive insurance through these non-profits to obtain birth control paid by their insurance.
Female non-profit workers and executives report feeling cut off from male-dominated fields. They have said that unless they seek out reporters, their work is ignored by the press, even though the individual reporters they speak with are enthusiastic about non-profit work.
Despite challenges, working in a non-profit can have more benefits than drawbacks. Non-profits operate with the same solvency as a for-profit business, so workers should expect approximately the same pay and benefits. Many women continue to work at their non-profit due to dedication to the cause, and report greater satisfaction with the work than selling widgets or filing TPS reports at their previous for-prof