HomeLearning CenterMore Women Work in Nonprofits. So Why Do Men End Up Leading Them?

More Women Work in Nonprofits. So Why Do Men End Up Leading Them?

Originally published by Cathleen Clerkin for Harvard Business Review

You’ve probably heard of the “glass ceiling”: an invisible barrier of gender bias that prevents women from reaching the top of the career ladder, especially in male-dominated industries. But are you familiar with the glass escalator?

Coined by sociologist Christine Williams, the term glass escalator refers to the finding that men in female-dominated occupations often experience a faster and smoother rise to the upper levels of leadership than women. Numerous studies have provided evidence of a glass escalator among nurses, social workers, paralegals, librarians, and elementary school teachers. For example, a 2021 study found that while men represent just 10% of the U.S. nursing workforce, they hold close to half of top nursing leadership positions.

Why the glass escalator matters

A common argument in early discussions of the glass ceiling was that having more women in the workforce would result in more equitable treatment. This is a sentiment still invoked today (“It’s a pipeline problem; we just don’t have enough women in technology” — sound familiar?). The existence of the glass escalator disproves this notion, documenting that a male advantage persists even in majority-women industries.

Why does the male advantage persist? Systemic power dynamics and gender stereotypes are pervasive across industries. A wealth of research has found that men are often assumed to be more competent than women and that there is an implicit association between men and leadership, a phenomenon dubbed “think manager — think male” (despite evidence that women outperform men on most leadership skills). Because of these stereotypes and incorrect assumptions, even in fields where there is an abundance of qualified women for leadership roles, men continue to be singled out and fast-tracked.

Evidence of a glass escalator in the nonprofit sector

While previous glass escalator research has focused on discrete professions, new evidence suggests that there is a glass escalator in an entire U.S. sector: the nonprofit sector. Unlike the other two major sectors (government and business), the nonprofit sector has long been female-dominated, with an estimated 7075% of workers identifying as women. This makes sense considering that, much like professions such as nursing, teaching, and social work, the work of the nonprofit sector aligns with gendered expectations of women: caring for others (e.g., homeless shelters, foodbanks, animal rescues) and doing so selflessly (e.g., working for the greater social good, usually for less pay).

For the last five years, Candid, the nonprofit data organization where I work, has invited nonprofits to share demographic information about their organizations, including workers’ gender identity. To date, this data set includes information from roughly one million nonprofit workers, making it the largest data set of its kind.

When my team of researchers analyzed this data, along with additional organizational finance data we collected, we found clear evidence of the glass escalator. Sixty-nine percent of the nonprofit workers in the data set were women. However, female representation started to fade as we looked at higher levels of leadership and power.

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