Women working to serve

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According to a new study by Professor Susan Madsen there are more female executives heading nonprofits than males both nationally and in the state.  This is a standout fact in Utah, which was ranked last by the Center for American Progress for women in positions of decision-making and leadership.

“We’re here to applaud the women who work in these fields,” Candice Backus, Madsen’s research assistant, said. “And we are proud to say we’re on par with the rest of the nation in this area.”

Nonprofit organizations provide the US with its third largest employment sector, just after retail and manufacturing.  Madsen’s research sheds light on why women are more present in nonprofit leadership roles, finding that women are drawn to leadership for completely different reasons than men.

“Women are more often drawn to opportunities where they can envision themselves or their organizations helping people in need, giving a voice to those who are not being heard, serving the community more broadly and overall making a difference in people’s lives,” the study states.

Pauline Devareaux, co-founder of a program that removes women from abusive situations, looks at her past for her reasons to head a nonprofit.

“I wanted to help people who have struggled like I have,” Devareaux said. “When I got out of my abusive marriage and got the help I needed, I found myself in the unique position to understand and really help those who are looking to get out from under their dangerous circumstances.”

Madsen has conducted research on women in leadership for years, including researching why women hold considerably fewer roles in politics than men. The reasons for the near absence of women in the boardroom are akin to those for their absence in the Senate and House: focus.

“Women enter politics because they want to change specific policies,” Backus, said.

Women respond most frequently to a calling to leadership, a feeling that they can make a needed change.

“Often women see their leadership talents — they get to practice and really see that they have leadership skills. Once you get that in your system, you think, ‘I can do more and step forward, and I have a voice,’” Madsen said. “When women volunteer then they’re introduced to these issues. It’s in their head, heart and hands.”

The main qualifier of a nonprofit is that they are organizations that are neither part of government nor generate a profit and that may be the key to why women outnumber men.

“I just think that women don’t care as much about earning a lot of money or having a lot of prestige,” Ashley Downs, UVU business alumna and graduate student at USU studying the psychology of women in business, said. “It probably comes from the stratified roles men and women still hold in Utah. Men are the breadwinners and women are the nurturers. That seems to have bled over into the careers women choose in Utah.”

Madsen’s research shows that even in the world of nonprofits, men still hold most of the money. Women outnumber men in smaller-budget nonprofits, but once the budget exceeds $5 million, men take over.

“We don’t have a lot of reasons why,” Backus said, “we can’t say why women aren’t holding top positions in large-budget nonprofits and we can’t claim cause on anything, but there are likely many reasons.”

Though the research Backus and Madsen produced was observational and cannot be linked to causation, conversations lean to a similar reading between for-profit corporations and large-budget nonprofits when it comes to the presence of women in leadership roles.

In addition to finding that women more than double the number of men in nonprofit leadership, the research found that when women lead nonprofits their board is typically divided 50-50 among men and women, whereas it averages out that women make up only 37 percent of boards with a man at the helm.

“People think that when a woman is put in charge that her board will be all women,” Backus said, “but that just isn’t the case. Women have a tendency to be more inclusive in the workplace and that lends to why their boards are equal in number of men and women.”

The takeaway from this for Backus is that it is important to recognize that women want to make a difference and often do.

“One day it’ll trickle down into other fields,” Downs said. “It has to. Women will become successful in one arena and girls will grow up seeing it and then become more sure-footed about their ability to lead and one day it’ll even itself out, even in Utah.”