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It's Time for the Nonprofit Sector to Lead the Way in Workplace Gender Equity

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

Workplace Gender Equity

When I first became a parent, I received no shortage of predictions about things that would happen. I heard a lot about how little I would sleep, how stressful things would be, and every other subject imaginable. I politely listened but mostly ignored those pearls of wisdom. There’s one, though, that I should have paid more attention to:

“When your kids start school, they’ll be sick all the time!”

Nothing could prepare me for that. My oldest started preschool last fall, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that someone in our house is always sick. He’ll pick up a bug, get sick, bring it home to his brother, and maybe spread it to my wife and me. Once that cycle is over, it’s time to move on to the subsequent sickness.

People assure me this process is good for my kids’ immune systems, but it’s a stressful state of affairs for two working parents. It also raises some interesting observations about equity in the workplace - and an opportunity for the nonprofit sector to be a leader.

I’m never shy about discussing the fact that I’m typically the first person in line to provide childcare when the kids are sick. My wife is a mental health professional, and while she can always take a day off, it’s never ideal for telling someone who needs an appointment with their therapist that their meeting has to be postponed. With a crushing need for mental health services, we made the deliberate choice that, given the flexibility of my work, I’m the go-to parent when we need emergency childcare.

This sparked an interesting conversation a few weeks ago when we were presenting a training event with a client, and, you guessed it, my 3-year-old was home fighting a fever. He waved politely and said hi to the camera (his charm doesn’t take a break when he’s sick), and it started a conversation among a group of us about how the dynamics of juggling work and life are changing.

Unfortunately, the culture of our workplaces is not keeping up with changing dynamics. I know this because a dad juggling work and childcare are still remarkable in a lot of settings. This shouldn’t be abnormal, but at times, it still surprises people. Sadly, this manifests itself in some of our society’s most harmful employment practices, like women earning less because of a need to provide childcare.

The persistence of this type of inequity in the workplace is disheartening. For nonprofits, though, it’s an opportunity to lead the way.

We have not been shy about using this space to discuss the Great Resignation and its impact on the nonprofit sector. Issues like this fly under the radar, but they’re a chance for nonprofits to buck the trend, create a new model, and make themselves more attractive places to work.

Nonprofits may never compete with the private sector in terms of pay and benefits, but what if we could make them the best places to integrate work and family life? For young parents trying to navigate a tremendously stressful time of their lives, it could be the best employee recruitment and retention tool imaginable.

Incorporating a few concepts into our workplaces could completely change the landscape around equity:

  • Work from home flexibility: There’s no shortage of studies about millennials preferring the flexibility to work from home. When it comes to childcare, it can be a game-changer. It isn’t even about having kids at home during the workday; sometimes, factors like a shorter commute to daycare can make all the difference. Allowing people the freedom to work wherever they are most productive is a benefit that does not have a price tag.

  • Thinking beyond 9-5: There are touchpoints on everyone’s calendar that are hard to be moved, but there’s also a great deal of work that can be done at other times. Maybe it’s easier to finish that report at 8:00 at night so you can run an errand at 2:00 in the afternoon. Maybe you’d instead start the workday at 6:00 in the morning so you don’t have to use PTO for doctor’s appointments. A rigid view of the workday locks in dynamics that place undue pressure on people navigating challenges in their personal lives.

  • Parental leave: There’s sometimes an assumption that when a child is born, the mother takes off work, and the dad is back at the office after a week or two. That dynamic is toxic, harming families and women in the workplace. When hiring managers assume a young woman is more likely to take extended leave than a man, it creates an implicit bias in hiring that deepens the gender pay gap. Organizations need to put policies in place that ensure equity for new parents.

  • Getting rid of assumed gender roles: In previous roles, I was asked on more than one occasion if I really needed to step away from work to handle a childcare issue. The question that was implied - and sometimes stated directly - was, “isn’t that mom’s job?” It goes without saying that a dynamic like that harms all involved. Outdated gender roles reinforce the gender pay gap and make life more challenging for parents and their kids.

These are only a handful of changes that could benefit workers in every industry. For, though, they’re a chance to defy the sector’s reputation as a late adopter. If nonprofits establish themselves as people-first employers that genuinely appreciate their employees’ needs to think beyond work-life balance and establish work-life integration, they’ll recruit the best talent and retain them over the long term.

This would be a tremendous leap of faith as we think about managing talent. It takes managers with the right temperament and staff with inherent motivation. It will involve trial and error and, without a doubt, moments of learning along the way.

Challenges aside, these changes are inevitable, and our sector has a chance to innovate and define itself as a leader.

This has become something of a personal crusade of mine. Outdated ideas of what a modern workplace should look like made juggling my responsibilities next to impossible. So, about a year ago, I did the craziest thing I’ve ever done - walked away from a stable job, plunged into the world of self-employment, and began this journey alongside Amy and Sharon, who share the same vision and philosophy.

Along the way, I’ve had kids with me for more meetings than I can count, made phone calls in odd places, and worked at strange hours to get things done. I know my experience isn’t universal, but I’m more convinced than ever that we need to rethink our workplaces.

I’ve noticed the same principles coming to life as I’ve observed others as well. Just last week, we presented a training event to a national client who is a leader in flexible, dynamic workplaces. The thing we heard consistently from staff is that it was a great place to work, and the collaborative attitude they presented was off the charts.

Change is inevitable, and our sector can benefit by leading the way. Are we ready to take the plunge and revolutionize the workplace?

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