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When your nonprofit's workplace culture fails you

Systemic gender bias and sexism are pervasive in the nonprofit sector. It is a myth that the “do-gooder” nature of nonprofits means an organization is more self-aware or better equipped to challenge power imbalances that exist in society. The racial, gender, and class power structures we see in the wider world are common in the nonprofit world.

Although women account for 73% of the nonprofit workforce only 45% of nonprofit CEOs are female and just 21% are CEOs of organizations with a budget of at least $25M. The data is even less equitable for women of color as only 7.5% of all nonprofit executive staff and 14% of nonprofit boards are women of color. Furthermore, women in nonprofits make 66% of the salaries of their male counterparts.

Until we understand how gender bias appears in nonprofit and fundraising spaces and the power dynamics at play, we cannot begin to change the impact of gender bias on employees and organizations. The question becomes, how should organizations address inequities within the philanthropic sector on which they rely? To examine inequity more deeply, organizations must embrace intentional DEIJ strategies in organizational partnerships, hiring and retention practices, board expectations, and donor relationship building.

Last year, Talem began providing resources and leading workshops around fostering a culture of gender inclusivity after we were approached by a national organization that was dealing with a crisis of trust. A national news article revealed the leadership at a state chapter was accused of sexual harassment in the workplace and behavior in his personal life that did not align with the organization's values. The national organization was accused of being complicit in allowing this behavior to continue over several years and employees at other chapters came forward with examples of gender bias in their workplaces.

While these examples of gender bias may not rise to the federal law's definition of workplace sexual harassment, it was evident the organization and its chapters' culture needed to change. To be clear, even if a case of gender bias or sexual harassment does not rise to the legal definition of sex discrimination it does not mean your organization protects or supports women and may perpetuate harm against its employees. A pattern of gender bias, harassment, and discrimination is harmful to employees, organizational culture, and mission if it is not addressed or if is excused because it does not fit a narrow legal definition.

The national organization in this example understood it had lost public trust and needed to focus on healing and culture change within the organization. Talem supported this work by providing:

  1. Confidential "healing circles" that invited employees to participate in hour-long group sessions to share and process frustrations or issues they faced in the workplace. Organizational leadership participated in a separate healing circle to process their emotions and thoughts around the issues. Leadership was not invited to participate in employee sessions in order to maintain confidentiality and trust within the space. This was an important aspect of rebuilding trust, however, this approach may vary by organization. The healing circles were facilitated by a licensed therapist who also maintained confidentiality standards as required by their profession. Using a licensed therapist alongside a person skilled at coaching helped employees process their feelings around the national news article and issues they may have faced in their own chapters.

  2. A two-part training series on Fostering a Culture of Gender Inclusivity was required of all current employees. The sessions prioritized understanding:

    1. Basic patterns of gender bias in nonprofit spaces

    2. Dimensions of power and power differentials in nonprofit spaces

    3. How gender bias differs by and intersects with race, class, and culture

    4. Implications of gender bias on employees and organizations

    5. Real-world lived experiences of acts of exclusion, harassment, and discrimination from women who are members of nondominant communities

    6. How to move individuals and organizations toward lasting change through individual, interpersonal, organizational, and structural solutions

  3. Policy and procedure recommendations and updates to ensure employees know what policies are in place to protect them. Creating a formal, transparent process is imperative to ensure an organization is working on behalf of its stakeholders rather than simply trying to protect itself from liability. This is two-fold:

    1. Organizational policies around performance support, structured performance reviews/evaluations, structured and transparent policies around salary negotiations and raises, and a clear path to mobility within the organization.

    2. Organizational definitions of exclusion/harassment/discrimination within policy manuals as well as clear guidelines around reporting: creating a complaint process, external and internal tools to report misconduct, and internal/external communications plan.

  4. A check-in plan and continued training for staff and board members. It is important for the public, as well as employees, to realize the solution is ongoing and long-term culture change is effectuated by a commitment to support an organization's employees.

While it may seem simpler to avoid this process until an issue arises, there are real consequences to ignoring gender biases within your organization.

  • It creates a negative work culture and leads to higher employee turnover rates. Employees who feel welcome in the workplace take 75% fewer sick days and exhibit 50% lower turnover risk whereas those who experience subtle acts of exclusion (also known as microaggressions) are three times more likely to think about leaving their jobs.

  • It inhibits employee development as stereotypical gendered perceptions can lead to men being favored for leadership positions and women ultimately leaving the organization in favor of their career growth.

  • It erodes the public's trust in your organization, particularly if the organization or its leadership has multiple, public allegations against it. An example of this is when an organization's leadership reframes or discredits allegations through statements such as: "This is an attempt to damage the reputation of the organization and its employees." "The board and staff are committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in all facets of its operation." "These unfounded allegations are not new. An independent investigator concluded that allegations of misconduct are not credible and the organization does not present an unsafe or hostile work environment." Statements such as these reflect an organization that minimizes gender bias, acts of exclusion, and harassment. Rather than prioritize culture change, uphold its mission, and support commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, the organization is acting instead to preserve the interests of its leadership. In situations like this, the organization may face decreased financial, volunteer, and partnership support.

If you are interested in learning more about the resources, policy recommendations, and training Talem provides to support equitable and safe workplace environments please contact us for more information.



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