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Op Ed: Gender gap in charities

publication date: Jul 26, 2017
author/source: Iglika Ivanova

While much of the nonprofit sector is focused on championing gender equity and social justice in our communities, we rarely talk about the role of charities and nonprofit organizations as employers in promoting these goals.

There is surprisingly little research on the nonprofit sector workforce, its diversity and the quality of jobs available. The last major survey of the sector by Statistics Canada, the National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations, was done in 2003. Since then, organizations like CharityVillage and the Canadian Society of Association Executives have commissioned sector salary and benefit surveys, which provide valuable data but may not be nationally representative because they are not based on random samples.

We know that women make up the majority of nonprofit sector employees (estimates are around 75%). But this isn’t necessarily a sign of gender equity. In fact, occupation segregation, that is having some sectors primarily dominated by men while others are dominated by women, is a big driver of the gender wage gap in Canada, as the jobs primarily filled by women tend to be paid less. A recent Statistics Canada report on Women and Paid Work documents that “women’s employment remains concentrated in industries that parallel their traditional gender roles.” Women’s overrepresentation in non-profits is one example of this, as the work of many charities – feeding the hungry, educating, caregiving, and providing health and social support to the marginalized members of our communities – closely aligns with traditional female gender roles.

Indeed, the percentage of women in nonprofits decreases significantly at more senior levels of management that align with traditional male gender roles and tend to be higher paid. The recently released 2017 Canadian Nonprofit Sector Salary and Benefits Study finds that women filled 82% of support staff and program staff positions in nonprofits compared to 71% of chief executive jobs. Other surveys find much larger gaps at the top. For example, the Canadian Society of Association Executives 2017/18 salary report found that only 56% of chief executives and 50% of senior executives of nonprofits are women, compared to 73% or more at the lower levels of management. This is in line with the findings of a survey commissioned in 2014 by StepUp BC on the BC non-profit sector, where only 58% of non-profit managers were female compared to 78% of workers in support occupations and 71% of those working in functional and professional roles.

All of these sector surveys document that at nearly every level of responsibility, men in nonprofits earn more, on average, than women. Even more disturbingly, the gender pay gap widens at the top. According to the 2017 CharityVillage report, female nonprofit chief executives earn 19% less than their male peers with an average salary of $88,204 for women heading organizations and $109,302 for men. The gap is smaller (between 4% and 11%) at the lower levels. This is a small improvement from 2011, when the gender wage gap for chief executives was 24%. But it’s still a gap of $21,000 per year.

Findings from other compensation report finds similarly sized or slightly larger gaps.

The authors of the CharityVillage report argue that the gender wage gap in the nonprofit sector can be explained by the fact that out that women are more likely to work in small organizations with limited resources while men are more likely to be employed in large, higher-profile nonprofits with bigger budgets that generally pay better. However, the sorting of men and women in different types of nonprofits is hardly a simple matter of personal preference. More likely, it’s another form of occupational segregation that may itself be driven by gender biases.

The reality is that non-profit sector operates within the Canadian labour market and it’s not exempt from the broader cultural and economic issues impacting other workplaces.

We cannot achieve gender equality in the nonprofit sector in a society where caregiving for children, the elderly and family members with illness and disability is still assumed to be the job of women. We must shift our culture at home and in our workplaces, and build the institutions and social supports to enable men and women to share caregiving responsibilities. This includes publicly funded, affordable childcare, home support and senior care programs, generous parental leave provisions – shared by both parents – paid sick time and longer paid vacations.

Employers – including nonprofit employers – have a key role to play. To avoid implicit gender bias, they need to adopt fair and transparent policies to set wages and make promotion decisions. Paying all workers a living wage is another way to advance gender equity in the sector since women tend to be concentrated in lower paid jobs that put them at risk of poverty and financial dependence on their spouses.

This all starts by having more conversations about wages and career opportunities in our sector. More research is needed to better understand the gender gap in nonprofits and its drivers. Many organizations are already developing and implementing strategies to eliminate the gender pay gap and become more inclusive of Indigenous employees, immigrants, people of colour and other traditionally marginalized groups. As a sector, we need to do a better job of sharing the lessons from these initiatives more broadly and scaling up the successful ones.

It’s up to us to make change.


Iglika Ivanova is a Vancouver-based economist with a decade of experience in analyzing Canadian labour markets and public policy and a passion for making our communities and workplaces more inclusive, collaborative and diverse. Iglika volunteers on the Boards of Directors of a public interest law office and an immigrant-led agency that assists refugee and immigrant women experiencing domestic violence, and serves as Treasurer of the Progressive Economics Forum.

Editor's note - This article was updated July 27 to correct a problem with the links.

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