Women and nonprofit work: Ontario Nonprofit Network's Decent Work for Women initiative

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At the 2018 Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Congress in Toronto, the closing keynote speaker, fundraising strategist Samantha Laprade, asked, “What can we do to change the way women are treated in the nonprofit sector?”

In order to answer and address this question, the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) received funding in 2017 from Status of Women Canada for a three-year project to look at how positive systemic change can come about for women in the nonprofit sector.

“Women have always talked informally about their employment experiences in the nonprofit sector, whether it’s about being stuck at a certain employment level or some other issue,” says Pamela Uppal, Project Lead - Decent Work for Women, ONN. “But it hasn’t been documented and until now no one has brought a gender-based intersectional (GBA+) lens to labour issues in the nonprofit sector in Canada.”

Last summer, under Uppal’s leadership, the ONN conducted a series of learning circles, key informant interviews and surveys, talking with more than 730 self-identifying women who work in Ontario’s nonprofit sector across subsectors. It looked at barriers women working in nonprofits face, examining whether barriers facing women in the broader labour market were also present in the nonprofit sector, as well as considering compensation, leadership development and other systemic supports that allow women to thrive in the sector. The ONN also conducted a literature review.

And while this might look like another Ontario-centric study, Uppal notes that in terms of numbers of organizations, two-thirds of Canada’s nonprofit sector is located in Ontario, with more than a million workers. She also notes that many of the findings from ONN’s work can be applied to the state of the sector across the country, and these findings reflect similar concerns coming out of US studies of women working in the American nonprofit sector. In October 2018, the ONN released the report that marked the end of the first phase of their project: Women’s Voices: stories about working in Ontario’s nonprofit sector.

We talked with Uppal to understand what the report showed and what the next steps are for the ONN, the Canadian nonprofit sector and the women working within it.

What did the report show?

In simplest terms, the report identifies the nonprofit sector as a femininized sector, with women within the sector experiencing discrimination in a variety of ways.

With 80% of workers in the nonprofit sector being self-identifying women, the nonprofit sector is often considered women’s work. One of the biggest takeaways from the study for Uppal is that this understanding of the sector has historically led the entire sector to be undervalued, something that seeps into its labour structures. She also observed that the ways in which we think about femininity have become embedded within the sector’s narrative and structures, even in seemingly positive or innocuous ways, such as passion for a cause.

Similarly, patriarchal thinking can be seen in everything from the relationship of an executive director to the board, to lower pay both generally and for women in relation to men in the sector.

Discrimination has a variety of faces within the nonprofit sector. One of the biggest myths when the study began, says Uppal, was the idea that when you have more women in a sector, things will be better. Similarly, an unspoken belief was that in a sector that addresses social justice, there would be no issues of sexism, racism, ageism or ableism. By contrast, the Women’s Voices report says that 46.4% of survey respondents said they have experienced sexism in the nonprofit workplace while 11.6% were unsure and 48.4% of respondents said they had experienced some form of discrimination other than sexism.

The report also reveals that this discrimination is often compounded by other parts of a woman’s identity, such as age or race. There is both a gender and racialized hierarchy in the sector where it's "women-majority but not women-led" in larger, big budget organizations, while across the sector a glass ceiling particularly exists for Francophone, immigrant and racialized women.

This can also be seen in one of the few other studies where any gender lens has been put on the nonprofit sector, CharityVillage’s own Canadian Nonprofit Sector Compensation and Benefits Survey. The most recent survey backs up the ONN study, contrasting the facts that women make up 85% of nonprofit support and program staff but only 71% of chief executive positions. The CharityVillage report observes that “the higher the seniority level, the higher the portion of male employees.”

The CharityVillage report also concurs with the gender wage gap that is evident in the ONN study. The CharityVillage report says, “Results continue to show that men who work in management positions in the sector earn more on average than women. The largest gap continues to be at the Chief Executive level, where average compensation is 17% higher among men than women.” The report goes on to observe, however, that the pay gap is shrinking and pay disparity may also be related to organizational size. Workers in women-majority subsectors reported fewer disparities between salaries in the ONN study, but these entire subsectors received less funding than other subsectors, reflecting a subsector-wide devaluation.

Uppal also notes that the nonprofit sector may be the only sector in which “some of our work force used to be recipients of our services.” This leads to a tension between professionalization versus lived experience.

Finally, in addition to discrimination, the ONN study also revealed widespread bullying and some sexual harassment. According to the survey, 32.4% of respondents have experienced harassment and 15.7% sexual harassment in the nonprofit workplace.

What happens next?

First, while no sector-wide study with a gender and labour lens has been conducted before in Canada, it’s not true to think that this study is only the beginning of action on the issues articulated by the study. Following allegations of sexual harassment by the artistic director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre, for instance, the Canadian Actors Equity Association in conjunction with the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres launched an anti-harassment campaigned called Not in Our Space. In another example, in early 2019, fundraiser Liz LeClair spoke out in a CBC op-ed about sexual harassment of fundraisers, writing, ““I want to stop pretending that sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual violence in the charitable sector is acceptable.”

But beyond these and other individual actions, the second half of the ONN project is focused on using its findings to more systemically better the lives of women in the sector. At the end of the Women’s Voices report are listed a series of participants’ recommendations, addressing a need for change at various levels. The recommendations are also useful for individuals who want to be part of the movement of change within the sector. Uppal says, “While ONN will lead and take on some of the recommendations made over the next year and a half, we encourage women working in the sector, employers in the sector, and stakeholders within and beyond the sector to take on parts of the agenda as well. Change will occur not only with multi-pronged approaches at various levels, but also with a whole network of people leading and supporting decent work for women.”

Uppal also observes that the report avoids terms like best practices in the belief that starting where you’re at, thinking through a gender lens and moving toward standards is the goal. “Our own goal in this report is to empower women to think differently about how they work within the sector and to ask different questions.” This could be as simple as a job seeker asking about whether a potential employer offers women-centred benefits such as maternity leave salary top-ups, as well as current questions about other benefits.

Over the next eighteen months, the ONN itself will be addressing what they have identified as ten key solutions at an organizational level, network level across the sector, and a systemic level, with recommended federal and provincial government policies. While these solutions are iterative or works-in-progress, the goals behind them reflect key issues identified in the first stage of the study, as detailed in the Women’s Voices report.

Among the key solutions at an organizational level, the ONN is in the process of creating a compensation guide for the nonprofit sector with a gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) lens that outlines different components of compensation, their importance, how they impact diverse women, and how to implement them. The goal of this guide is to establish a fair standard of compensation practices in the nonprofit sector.

On a systemic level, among other actions, the ONN is meeting with others interested in collectively advocating to make women’s equitable access to Employment Insurance (EI) benefits part of the 2019 federal election agenda, including lobbying and creating policy briefs on matters such as EI benefit waiting periods for new parents and adequate replacement levels during parental leaves.

A variety of key solutions address challenges at a network level, with proposed actions including a funder strategy whereby both governmental and nongovernmental funders of Ontario nonprofits facilitate decent work with a GBA+ lens in their funding practices. The ONN also plans to convene and connect women working in nonprofits with resources, professional development opportunities, and systems of support.

“Of course it will take more than eighteen months to achieve our broader goal of mitigating or eradicating barriers for women in the nonprofit sector,” says Uppal, “but as part of our research we have looked at and will continue to look at what we can do that will either make a difference to the issues raised or to lay the groundwork for these issues to be addressed in the future.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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