A conversation worth continuing: Does the nonprofit sector still have a glass ceiling?

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Jennifer Nozawa, a Master of Public Administration from the University of Utah, recalls how about a decade ago an undergraduate professor told her almost exclusively female public relations class, “Look, when you get out into the professional world, deals are going to be made on golf courses. Most of you probably don’t play golf, so you’ll be excluded from these deals. If I can make one recommendation to you, it’s this: Learn to play golf, so you can be included in the conversations with male employees and clients.”

Nozawa went on to publish a paper in 2010, entitled The Glass Ceiling of Nonprofits: A Review of Gender Inequality in U.S. Nonprofit Organization Executives. In it, she uses US data (not dissimilar from Canadian data) to argue that the glass ceiling in the nonprofit sector is intact and that female CEOs in the sector's larger organizations are disproportionately underrepresented and insufficiently compensated.

Though the question of whether or not there’s a glass ceiling in the Canadian nonprofit sector is by no means a new one, the issue, by virtue of being far more complicated than meets the eye, warrants an ongoing discussion.

Rather than a simple matter of insufficient data, the problem is that numbers around gender and employment/compensation in the sector are complex almost to the point of being misleading.

The numbers

The recently released, third annual Canadian Nonprofit Sector Salary and Benefits Study (2013), commissioned by CharityVillage, surveyed nearly 1,500 participants representing 11,000 individual employees from nonprofits across Canada.

Not surprisingly, the results show that, at all levels, sector staff are predominantly women. Where things get tricky is at the senior levels: Though more women than men hold executive positions, it’s at these top areas of employment that the proportion of male employees that do work in the sector shoots up dramatically.

Case in point: At the sector’s lower level of support staff, the ratio of female to male employees is 81% women to 19% men. At the level of Senior Executive, the ratio jumps to 64% women to 36% men, and for Chief Executive Officer, to 66% women to 34% men.

Then, there’s the troubling issue of compensation. The study shows that men, on average, earn more than woman at nearly all levels of the nonprofit sector. More specifically, the average man earns significantly more than the average woman at the top levels; at the senior executive level, men on average earn 11% more than women, and at the level of CEO, men earn an average of 21% more than women. At the lower levels, men’s and women’s average salaries are closer to on par or women earn more.

This seems highly unjust, but deeper analysis shows that the average gets skewed because the men that do choose the charitable sector tend to work at larger, higher-profile organizations with greater revenues and more employees — factors that lead to higher compensation.

So, though more women than men hold top positions in the nonprofit sector, the former are just as likely to work for smaller, lower-paying organizations as they are for big ones; men, on the other hand, are far likelier to hold the top jobs at larger, higher-paying organizations than at smaller charities.

Geoffrey Thacker, managing partner at the Association Resource Centre Inc. and author of CharityVillage’s Salary and Benefits Study, clarifies: “It’s not that Jon and Mary are working at the same organization with the same job status but Jon makes more than Mary because he’s a guy; it’s that Jon is more likely to work at an organization with a $25-million budget than he is to work at an organization with a $1-million budget. Mary is equally likely to work at either.”

Thacker stresses that there’s no evidence that men and women are making disparate wages for equal work at equivalent-sized organizations; barring this, he says, “there’s nothing [in the study] that reveals a true discriminatory practice.”

It’s possible, then, that explicit gender bias doesn’t exist in the sector, but that the few men who are drawn to charitable work tend to be more attracted to high-power jobs at high-profile organizations. It’s also possible that many of the men heading up large nonprofit organizations have been recruited to do so because of their years of executive experience in the corporate sector — a realm that has traditionally been dominated by men.

And yet, in the same breath, men’s overall reluctance to enter the sector unless it’s at the very top and women’s overall acceptance of lower-paying and lower-profile work suggests that certain imbalances are at play — even if they are simply products of a generally gender-biased society.

Whatever the explanation, it’s worth exploring why women in the sector are often more wiling to work for less pay and less prestige than men.

Charitable work as “women’s work”

Jennifer Nozawa says that because nonprofit sector work sprang out of a tradition of volunteerism, it is, to this day, often considered “women’s work.”

She reasons: “A lot of the nonprofit sector is comprised of child welfare or educational organizations —things that were considered an extension of women’s traditional role. I think that’s why there’s still such a large percentage of women in the sector.”

This could also explain why women are more willing to work for less compensation.

Dave Kranenburg is the former executive director at Toronto charity Meal Exchange and the current director of programming at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI).

Having worked in the sector his whole career, Kranenburg was thrust into the role of a director at a very young age, after only six months as a chapter coordinator at Meal Exchange — something he says was a bit of a fluke that came about because of specific circumstances at the then tiny start-up.

Kranenburg maintains that he was drawn to the field by social purpose and passion, and, though recognizing that his experience might be unique and his perspective limited, notes that he hasn’t perceived a glass ceiling at the sector’s top levels.

At the CSI, he says, the CEO, director of finance and director of technology are all “very strong, capable and confident women...when I look at those types of positions in a corporate context [rather than in the nonprofit world], it seems they do have a glass ceiling around them.”

Janet Carding is CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum. Having worked in museums — and namely esteemed ones — for her whole career, Carding says she can only really speak to the museum segment of the nonprofit sector. She notes: “My own personal perception is that there used to be a glass ceiling but it’s been fractured in museums. We’re now seeing a situation where there are many more women leaders.”

While conceding that some of the largest organizations are still dominated by male leadership, Carding suggests this is “more of an indication of where we’ve come from rather than where we’re going.”

Stereotypes and imbalances across the labour market

Despite certain perceptions to the contrary, the gender income gap in Canada continues to be substantial — an issue to all sectors, including nonprofit. Data from January 2013 shows that across the workforce women in this country earn 19% less than men. We’re tied with the U.S. for 11th place on a spectrum of peer countries in which Norway, with an 8% gender income gap, ranks the lowest, and Japan’s, with a 29% gap, is highest.

A study released in 2012 by Carleton University’s Centre for Women in Politics and and Public Leadership entitled Progress in Inches, Miles to Go: A Benchmarking Study of Women’s Leadership in Canada, takes issue with what it refers to as the “widespread assumption...that Canadian women’s equality continues to improve steadily.

The study posits that cross-sectoral data shows Canadian women are generally underrepresented in top leadership positions, yet strategies to address the gender gap have, in many fields, stalled.

The study points to certain “societal expectations” and elements of “workplace culture” that continue to act as barriers to “women’s ascent into senior leadership positions.” It explains that persistent gender stereotypes put pressure on women to assume a greater share of family and care-giving responsibilities, a phenomenon that “leaves many women in middle management wary of undertaking leadership posts”.

Further, it finds that “gendered notions of leadership” continue to reflect a “traditional male model.” This means that, despite the professional world increasingly embracing “soft” or “feminine” leadership skills, such as an ability to engage employees, top female leaders are often still expected to work grueling hours and be available 24/7 — an extreme hardship for someone juggling familial responsibilities.

“Leadership models that fail to take the realities of many women’s lives into account can negatively impact women’s experience in senior leadership positions and may affect the ability to retain women leaders.”

Janet Carding, who says her gender hasn’t stopped her from securing executive positions, acknowledges that she doesn’t have children, and “[hasn’t] had to juggle childcare with a career. I know that’s often a point where things get very complicated.”

Further, while she hasn’t personally experienced gender discrimination in a serious way, Carding observes that women are often more likely to downplay their professional achievements.

“I see quite often that women don’t push themselves forward and men are happy to do so...I do think, though, that women are gradually learning that even if they’re uncomfortable pushing themselves forward in a certain way, they can demonstrate leadership in other ways. For example, they can gain respect by doing, rather than talking.”

From what her research has shown her, Nozawa says women are often not encouraged to ask for what they deserve, compensation or status-wise, in the same way that men are.

“There are probably relatively simple techniques that both women and men can be taught to get the salary they deserve...but right now it seems women are far more likely to accept a salary that’s offered rather than negotiating for the salary they deserve.”

Poaching from the private sector

Nozawa says part of the reason men in the sector are more heavily weighted at the top is that nonprofits — especially larger ones — in looking for highly qualified individuals to head up their organizations, often recruit senior-level people from the private sector.

“In the private sector, there’s going to be a higher percentage of men at those [executive] levels that are able to move over into the executive levels of those nonprofits,” she says. “It’s the product of outright sexism, honestly, across both sectors.”

Thacker says the phenomenon of nonprofits poaching corporate male executives, may, justly or not, simply reflect the market generally.

“The reality is, when you look at the employment market period, high-profile jobs tend to be staffed by men. Why is that? I’m not going to debate on that. Is there a glass ceiling in the general labour market? Probably. But at the same time, there are a lot of very high-profile women who break through that ceiling.”

Lack of diversity on boards

Nozawa partially attributes what she sees as a disproportionate number of female nonprofit executives to a shortage of women on governing boards.

“At the private sector-level, I know boards are mostly male-dominated, and I think, while it’s less the case in the nonprofit sector, leadership in the sector is still not at all proportionate to the number of women versus the number of men working at organizations.”

Nozawa says that men on boards may be more likely to hire other men, often from the private sector, thus perpetuating the problem.


While women continue to dominate the nonprofit sector, including at the executive levels, it’s clear that here, as in the labour market generally, imbalance and stereotype play an ongoing role.

Increased awareness and discussion means we’re likely moving in the right direction. Further, as Nozawa and Carding both maintain, if women cultivate — through proactive avenues like mentorship, training and mutual support — a greater ability to assess their own value and demand the salary they deserve, any remaining glass ceiling will fracture more and more, and may one day shatter entirely.

Jodie Shupac is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She contributes to a range of publications, covering culture, urban issues, health and the environment.

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