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Women’s Nonprofit Leadership Initiative study takes a look at gender diversity on eds-and-meds boards

March 11, 2020 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose
Women face more challenges with the boards of nonprofit eds and meds than with for-profit corporate boards.

That’s according to the report, “Increasing Gender Diversity on the Boards of Nonprofit Eds and Meds: Why and How to Do It,” released March 10 and co-produced by the Philadelphia-based Women’s Nonprofit Leadership Initiative and national publisher Nonprofit Issues. Fifty-nine nonprofit board members and institutional leaders (board chairs and chief executives) across 14 states were interviewed for the report.

The report points out some significant differences between nonprofit eds and meds boards and for-profit boards as regards board gender diversity:

  • Financial requirements. Unlike the for-profit boards, where members are paid a stipend, nonprofits generally expect board members to make financial contributions to the institutions, sometimes sizable. That can work to exclude or reduce the numbers of women who are considered.
  • Who-you-know recruitment style.Unlike for-profits, which regularly use search firms, nonprofits rely primarily on the board members to identify and recruit new members and are therefore limited by the largely white male social and business circles of the white male trustees.
  • Board size. Nonprofit boards are usually larger than corporate boards, which average 9 to 11 members. Excluding one board with over 85 members, the average board size of all the nonprofit boards studied in the report was 29, and some had over 60 members. Though interviewees named a critical mass of three or more women in order to have an impact on corporate boards, interviewees cited 30% as the relevant minimum on the nonprofits, because of their generally greater size.
  • Not being heard. Even a critical mass does not necessarily lead to inclusion in nonprofit board debate and decision-making. On large boards, where committees do the real work and executive committees often make most decisions, exclusion from such power positions or appointments in small numbers can mute women’s voices and limit their opportunity to be of influence and value.

The report states that the situation persists — in part — because nonprofit boards don’t face the same pressure to change as for-profit boards because they don’t answer to shareholders.

Vicki Kramer.

Accordingly, the authors of the report are calling on nonprofit stakeholders — students, patients, employees, faculty, alumni/ae and donors — to exercise their influence.

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“The need to bridge the gender diversity gap at eds and meds is particularly important at a time when the constituents of these institutions (patients, students, and staff) are increasingly female,” said co-author Vicki Kramer, who was lead author of the seminal study, “Critical Mass on Corporate Boards: Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance.”

The report doesn’t focus solely on the challenges, it also offers 10 strategies for advancing gender diversity:

  1. Make sure candidate lists are diverse
  2. Examine and improve recruitment processes/move out of your
    comfort zone
  3. Construct systems for identifying board needs and refreshing
    board membership
  4. Seek “appropriate challengers”
  5. Create pipelines
  6. Pay attention to on-boarding and ongoing board processes
  7. Consider reducing board size
  8. Establish a separate fundraising board
  9. Take socio-economic diversity into account
  10. Involve the whole board in an intentional process

A clear part of the intentionality process is understanding the benefits of gender diverse boards.

Carolyn Adams.

“Almost all interviewees agreed that board diversity adds value and that gender diversity matters, because women bring different life experiences to the boardroom,” said co-author, Carolyn Adams, who is emeritus professor and former dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Temple University.

“Besides bringing their individual expertise to boards, women are more likely to contemplate the impact of a board’s decisions on its constituents, including patients, students and staff, while also contributing to culture change, improved governance, and the decision-making process,” she added.

Read the full report

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