What's Next? Women's Ongoing Ascent to Leadership Positions

What's Next? Women's Ongoing Ascent to Leadership Positions

Over the past several months, we have seen tremendous gains by women in leadership roles in nonprofits and government. Earlier this year, Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives, Drew Gilpin Faust shattered the Crimson ceiling by becoming the first woman in Harvard's 371-year history to serve as president, and Hillary Clinton dominated news cycles as a leading Democratic candidate in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Even as we admire those milestones, however, it is time to shift our perspective. Rather than simply congratulate institutions that are now bringing women to power, we should also ask why they are so late coming to the table.

The 1990s was a decade in which women ascended to leadership roles in a range of key government and nonprofit positions Susan Berresford as president of the Ford Foundation in 1996, for example, or Elizabeth Dole as the president and CEO of the American Red Cross in 1991. Indeed, a 2001 study (46 pages, PDF) by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services found that 62 percent of the nation's nonprofit executives were women. Shattered nonprofit and government glass has been raining down around us for at least two decades.

But this is not time to rest on our laurels. While such changes have become a fixture of public life, the ascent of women to power is still a special brand of news. And a whole set of new issues, including succession, probability of success, and compensation, is emerging.

When we consider what new precedents could emerge as the result of institutionalized female leadership, some interesting questions rise to the surface. For example, who serves after the first woman? Will these firsts be isolated incidents, or will women continue to hold the top position? Bernadine Healy succeeded Elizabeth Dole at the Red Cross, and Marsha Evans succeeded Healy. The University of Pennsylvania, where Judith Rodin became the first permanent female president of an Ivy League institution in 1994 before moving on to become the first female president at the Rockefeller Foundation, once again has a female president. So do Princeton and Brown. Madeleine Albright was succeeded as the first female U.S. Secretary of State by the first African American to serve in that role and then by the first African-American woman.

Succession planning is a tricky business at best, and few nonprofits consider it a strength of theirs. While 62 percent of nonprofit executives are women, a 2004 report (summary, 2 pages, PDF) from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that more than 50 percent plan to leave by 2010, leaving open the question of who the next generation of leaders will be. Should we care whether they are female? Should we be emphasizing other forms of diversity? (Consider that the Casey study found that 84 percent of nonprofit executives are white.)

Moreover, if women continue to occupy seats of power, what kind of jobs will be awaiting them when they get there? When women ascend to power, it's often in troubled organizations and/or situations. Two researchers from the Glass Cliff project at the University of Exeter examined companies in the British FTSE stock index and found that "during a period of overall stock market decline, those companies that appointed women to their boards were more likely to have experienced consistently bad performance in the preceding five months than those who appointed men." While their research begins to offer some hard data, the basic assumption of a glass cliff has persisted for several years.

But is it true? Will the for-profit sector be a harbinger for nonprofits and government? Are women more likely to be offered jobs at failing institutions? Or are they more likely to take the top job at an ailing organization because of the opportunity it provides? Answers to those questions remain to be discovered.

As nonprofits and government become increasingly comfortable with women as leaders, perhaps the biggest question remaining to be answered, however, is whether pay levels will reflect that level of comfort. Unfortunately, the trend does not look good. According to the Casey Foundation, women tend to run smaller organizations and earn $60,000 to $69,000 on average, while males in similar positions make $70,000 to $79,000. The data also suggest that, despite the examples provided above, women may not ascend to power in larger organizations as quickly as their male counterparts, and that they still face significant barriers to equal pay. Progress always raises questions about what comes next. Women's progress in the nonprofit boardroom and corner office is no exception.

During a recent address at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Drew Faust introduced former President Bill Clinton. Within several minutes of being introduced, he made reference to the next president of the United States as, "he...or she." For many of us, the sight of the first female president of Harvard introducing the man whose wife may be the first female president of the United States was overdue acknowledgement of the fact that women have "come a long way, baby." It truly will be exciting to see where we go from here

Tiziana Dearing is the executive director of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her research areas of interest include humanitarian relief and operations, the nature of public obligation, and the functioning and governance of the Catholic Church as a nonprofit organization.