New Research Looks at Unique Challenges of Women of Color in the Sector

New research always makes headlines, but as an organization that is committed to results-driven decision making, racial equity, and nonprofit leadership and capacity, we pay particular attention to new work from the Building Movement Project (BMP). BMP released their first Race to Lead report in 2017 based on their research on the racial leadership gap in the nonprofit sector. Since 2017, they have released reports about nonprofit staff that self-identified as part of the LGBTQ community, and those who worked in California and Massachusetts.

The latest in their Race to Lead series focuses on women of color (WOC). We spoke with Ofronama Biu, senior research associate at Building Movement Project, who provided some context around why this research is unique and particularly impactful for a sector that is majority women.

KGC: Since the initial release of the Race to Lead report in 2017, Building Movement Project has released subsequent research on the racial leadership gap among various communities and explored some of those intersectionalities. Tell me why it was important for BMP to focus on women of color for its most recent report?

Ofronama Biu, Building Movement Project

OB: The first report focused on people of color and all white respondents and we saw some big disparities between these two groups. But we know that the combination of different identities—for example race and gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation—has a compounding effect. So the experiences of oppression for all people of color will not be the same, nor will the experiences for all LGBTQ individuals.  Before I started with the BMP, the team released a report on intersections of race and sexual orientation. We knew that women of color would also have to deal with racism, sexism, and what is called gendered racism.  We also know there are large disparities for women of color generally (e.g. salaries in all sectors generally, health outcomes) so it was important to hone in on their work experiences in the nonprofit sector for this report.  Women of color are also a large part of the sector and the second largest group of participants in our survey of over 4,000 respondents.

KGC: What were the key takeaways of how women of color fare in the nonprofit sector?

OB: One key finding is that women of color were the most likely to say that race had a negative impact on their careers (more so than men of color) and also the most likely to say gender had a negative impact (more so than white women). When we looked closely at how this played out, women of color described being passed over for promotions and new projects in favor of other folks—white women, white men, and men of color—even those with less experience. Many said they were not seen as leaders nor mentored to move up.

Women of color research participants did so much to overcome the challenges. Many of them said they had to work twice as hard. They got more training, more education. But education and training isn’t going to fix this problem. The second key finding supports the first—among those with a master’s degree and above, women of color were most likely to be in line/administrative staff roles and least likely to be in senior management. We also saw salary disparities across gender lines. Women of color were also the most likely to express frustrations with inadequate salary. In fact, the most common theme in write-in responses from women of color was around not being paid fairly. We did focus groups around the country and a CEO described being paid $20,000 less than her male predecessor while still doing her previous job, too. The board wouldn’t budge. There was this theme we heard over and over—women of color are expected to carry so much more but are not compensated for it.

Finally, we saw that the nonprofit environment isn’t always supportive of women of color. Women of color shared experiences with being ignored and overlooked—that came in the form of less mentoring on the job and less feedback and performance evaluations compared to other research participants. Women of color said they went out to find their own mentors to fill in the gap. On the other hand, the survey and focus group participants also said they were “hypervisible,” meaning they were questioned about their decisions—even at the CEO level—and dealt with biased evaluations. Women of color were also confronted with stereotypes that they were unskilled, which we know just isn’t true. One focus group participant who is a CEO said she always emphasizes that she has a law degree to ensure she is taken seriously.

It’s not fair to expect WOC to fix something that is a systemic problem. Our report goes into recommendations to address the systemic and organizational barriers.

KGC: What, if anything, surprised you about your findings?

OB: Unfortunately –when it came to how women of color were faring overall—I wasn’t really surprised by the findings. As I noted earlier, part of the reason we did this research is because we know that systemic barriers are there for women of color in other areas of society and other sectors. I have worked in the nonprofit sector in various capacities for over a decade and have witnessed and experienced similar challenges. I was more disappointed in how prevalent it was and how what we heard in the focus groups across the country was pretty similar.

KGC: Your research shows that even POC- and immigrant-based organizations are not immune to bias and inequity toward women in the workplace. Could you tell us more about why that is important?

OB: A little more than half of the women of color in the survey—and most of the women of color in the focus groups—worked for non-identity based organizations, so the overall results are influenced by those institutions. We took a look at the data to see how outcomes and experiences varied for women of color in different organization types. In some ways women of color working in the people of color and immigrant identity-based organizations reported a more positive experience—they were more likely to describe their race as positively contributing to their careers—for example, they could relate to the communities they served, and they said this made them better candidates and workers. Women of color in those organizations were also more likely to have had internal mentoring. However, we did note that women of color were more likely to say gender had a negative impact on their career advancement.

Several described these types of organizations as male dominated and as one survey respondent put it, don’t necessarily “take kindly” to a woman stepping up and taking on a leadership role. So organizations that are race-based need to look at other types of discrimination and not just stop at race equity—they should look at how women are faring in their organizations. Similarly, LGBTQ and women’s organizations need to ensure that they are addressing race and race and gender together—how are women of color being treated and compensated within the organization?

KGC: I read in the report that you were going to re-survey women for this report this summer. What do you expect might be different in the new data set?

OB: This summer we will be releasing a survey open to nonprofit staffers at all levels. There has been more emphasis on race and race equity in the nonprofit sector since the first survey in 2016 and we are curious to see how those efforts will be reflected in the responses.

KGC: You wrote an editorial in the Chronicle of Philanthropy calling on the sector to consider ways it can improve its environment and practices for women of color. In it you state, “It takes all of us working together to make sure that women of color no longer face the barriers to leadership that mark the nonprofit world today.” Can you give a couple of examples of what nonprofit leaders can do right now?

OB: Leaders in philanthropy should look at who they’re giving their funding to. Last year it was estimated that only 2 percent of foundation funding goes to organizations focused on women and girls of color. Foundation leaders also have an influence on their grantees. When they request diversity information they should take both race and gender into account. They should then look at how this information informs their strategy and funding decisions.

Within their own organizations, nonprofit leaders can look at pay equity. Are people being compensated fairly? Are projects going out to folks evenly or is it the same person getting every opportunity? What about supervision? Is everyone getting regular supervision and feedback? Look at preparing supervisors to provide feedback in a way that is respectful of people’s skills. How is the organizational climate overall?  Find ways for staff to safely express how they feel about their organization, with help from a consultant if need be, as some people may not feel safe and comfortable speaking up. We also found a lot of interest in peer support affinity groups so that is also something nonprofit leaders could set up in their own organizations and foundation leaders could support across organizations. At BMP, we’re working on developing an organizational assessment that will help nonprofits understand these various issues related to the interplay between organizational culture, policies and systems, and how equitable and inclusive organizations are when it comes to managing and supporting their diverse staff teams.

Nonprofit leaders should also advocate for policy change. Just a few states have enacted pay equity acts to address salary disparities based on gender. Leaders can advocate for these and other policies that also take race and gender into account. They can also advocate to ensure that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—the entity that is supposed to enforce anti-discrimination laws—is fully funded. I also think nonprofit leaders should look at advocating for expansion of a broader social safety net in this country, including increases to the minimum wage for nonprofit staff in lower paid positions—many of whom are women of color—policies that protect people in precarious work arrangements, and looking at jobs guarantees as well.

KGC: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this report for our audience?

OB: We found there were specific challenges different groups of women of color face and we thought it was important to honor that and provide a voice for Asian, Black, Latinx, Native American, and Transgender women of color. We invite everyone to visit the report and join the discussion.

Learn more about Race to Lead: Women of Color in the Nonprofit Sector.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Data, Leadership Development, Race, Equity, and Inclusion