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A Cross Sector Approach to Closing the Gender Gap

By Danielle Holly | March 9, 2018

Welcome to Season 2 of Pro Bono Perspectives
Common Impact CEO Danielle Holly

We’re inspired by the momentum of International Women’s Day yesterday and eager to keep the conversation going. Today we’re bringing back a few key ways that all sectors can work together to close the gender gap – specifically through skills-based volunteering initiatives. 

Anyone who works in the nonprofit sector knows that women make up a significant part of its workforce and leadership – until you get to the top.  Women currently account for 43 percent of the board seats among all nonprofits but only 33% of those seats at large nonprofits, defined as $25 million or greater in annual income.[1]  At the staff level, this gap increases further — women make up 45% of nonprofit CEOs but only 21% at large nonprofits, and they are compensated at 66% of their male CEO counterparts

In the corporate sector, this gap becomes even more grim with a mere 3.9% of women on corporate Boards.  Companies are starting to take action towards changing this dynamic, but the investment needs to be much greater.  This gap not only undermines the equality and fairness of our society – it’s bad for business.  Businesses with more women at the top perform more strongly.  In a recent report from Credit Suisse, it was found that companies with greater gender diversity among leadership had a 27% higher return on equity and a 42% higher dividend payout.[2]

As both companies and nonprofits struggle with this issue, and direct time, talent and dollars to its solution, there are a few key ways the sectors can work together to lift all ships. 

Board service:  As mentioned above, the boardroom is at the core of the challenge.  Companies know they need to develop and ready their female leaders for corporate Board service, and should use those same resources to inject needed diversity and talent into the nonprofit sector.  As high performing employees are placed in rotational and training programs, nonprofit board service should be lifted up as a potential outlet for these emerging leaders.  Nonprofit boards need talented, creative and passionate leadership and corporate employees are increasingly searching for a way to inject purpose into their day jobs.  While this holds true for all employees, nonprofit board service and other skills-based volunteering is a particularly well-designed environment to enhance and build the feminine qualities of leadership, such as influencing, resiliency and creativity.    

Coaching & Training:  The nonprofit sector has very limited talent and leadership development capacity, and the need for mentorship, sponsorship, and coaching at the executive level is significant.  Over the past few years, I’ve seen more and more companies use direct coaching and training of nonprofit executives as a way to sustain the organizations they support while developing the management acumen of their employees.  There are two ways we’re seeing this manifest:

  • The first:  Extending the training and through leadership opportunities available to internal employees to the nonprofit CEOs or leaders of the organizations that the company supports.  While not all corporate training programs will be relevant across sectors, most will – particularly those that focus on strategy design, managing people and other core leadership skills. 
  • The second:  Direct executive coaching programs, which match a company’s leading talent to mentor nonprofit executives.  Executive coaches are the norm in the corporate sector, supporting leaders in navigating decisions and their own career trajectories.  The nonprofit sector’s constrained resources rarely allow for leadership to receive those same benefits, which can mean the difference between an organization chugging along or truly cutting through the fray towards successful program scale.  Pro Bono coaching can help those nonprofit leaders cut through the distractions of every day capacity-constrained decision making and make a sustained impact on the organizations they lead.  At the same time, it pulls corporate senior leaders into a new environment and gives them a fresh and meaningful way to stretch their skills. 

A cross-sector investment in girls:  Finally, we need to apply a cross-sector approach to investing in the female leaders of tomorrow.  The private, public and nonprofit sector are all leading initiatives to support girls’ education, particularly in STEM, to ready and diversify the future workforce.  Education and workforce development is one of the largest focus areas of domestic corporate and foundation giving, and one of the largest mission focus of nonprofit direct service.  Still, this multi-sector investment requires more than dollars and hours – but real coordination — to make it work. 

  • Earlier this month, I observed a panel with leaders from a leading foundation and Fortune 100 company focused on bettering education in New England.  The corporate panelist – a talent development executive from a large tech firm – took the foundation and education sector to task, demanding that real progress couldn’t be made until they joined forces with the corporate community to support the development of the future STEM workforce.  The panelist representing the foundation community fired back, saying the corporate sector needs to be clear about what it’s future workforce needs are – the students they’re working hard to graduate are still struggling to find jobs at large employers.  While leaders in the education space are often sitting in the same room, it is often left to the nonprofits and schools to coordinate the complex investments that are made in education – without the resources to do so.  The funding community needs to support this coordination with attention and funding for cradle to career efforts that are happening across sector – because while they impact every child, we know that they more significantly impact girls and children of color.

We’ve made significant progress over the past decade in highlighting the challenges that the gender gap poses to all sectors.  As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we encourage you to think how you can take action at your workplace and reach across industries and sectors to shrink the divide.