A Few Good Men: Being Male in a Female-Majority Sector
We asked Blue Avocado's male readers to let us know their thoughts on being men in the majority-female nonprofit world. What we learned surprised us -- and raised new questions:
The facts are that women comprise 70-75% of nonprofit employees (Nonprofit Almanac 2007). The experience of Ed Seay of Help Network in Russellville, Arkansas, reflects this exactly: "You go to a United Way quarterly meeting," he remarked, "and there might be one other man in a room of 35 people." But this, as they say, is just the tip of the iceberg of what it's like for men who work in the female-majority nonprofit sector.
Male and female stereotypes
Readers' experiences show that gender stereotypes -- both pernicious and benign -- haven't gone away. There are stereotypes about men ("men who work in nonprofits are those who couldn't make it in the for-profit sector") and about women (women are good managers because they're nurturing rather than because they're strategic or rainmakers).
Several men spoke about being looked down upon for their nonprofit jobs by men in the for-profit sector. "I often get 'The Look' from men I know," commented one man. "My male friends work in the for-profit sector, they don't understand the nonprofit sector. The Look is the facial expression of 'Oh, how good of you to work in a nonprofit.'"
Another man said something similar: "In the for-profit sector I'm seen as a man who couldn't make it in the real world." Still another laughed: "The Look! At first it actually bothered me, my whole masculine identity being challenged." Then the nice guy in him couldn't help but add, "Then I saw it as an opportunity for education."
But Look or no Look, being the only man in a nonprofit organization tends to carry certain privileges, as one African American male reader (we'll call him "Ron") told us. "Being the only man in a female organization is like being the only white in a black school," Ron said. "Even though you're the minority, you have the confidence that comes from having spent most of your life in a dominant position."
Loneliness of the lone man
Blue Avocado readers expressed a range of reactions and responses -- amusement, embarrassment and proactive organizing -- to being the lone man in the office.
Sam Richardson of the Kentucky Historical Society is a bit rueful but not resentful about being the lone man: "Sometimes they stop talking when I walk into the room, but they joke about it. They are mindful when there's a guy here so they're more careful about personal things, jokes."
One over-60 man described a "cultural dissonance" with the 20-something women in his office: "They live in a different world than the one I know. And when they start to talk about boyfriends and their periods, I'm embarrassed. I try to just slip out of the room." States another older man: "Maybe I shouldn't be, but I can't help but being uncomfortable when a woman is breastfeeding in a meeting! In fact, I can't stand it!"
Carl Morrison volunteers as a leader in his local chapter of NALS...the Association for Legal Professionals, a group that works in a profession traditionally associated with women: legal secretaries, legal assistants, and paralegals. Carl has found the group very receptive to his idea of forming a "fraternity" so the "isolated men would realize they're not the only ones out there." This group will also be encouraging career counselors to suggest paralegal, legal assistant, and legal secretarial positions to men as well as to women.
Gender and fundraising
"In the theatre, the key audience demographic is women in their 40s to 60s," observed Kerry Watterson of the York Theatre Company. "As a result, it's helpful to have women staff who understand how to reach that demographic as both ticket buyers and donors." But David Fearn, who once worked in fundraising for an Akron battered women's shelter, offered a mirror observation: "If a man is talking about it, domestic violence seems more like something everybody should be concerned about; it takes it beyond being a women's issue."
Are women more nurturing?
In spite of occasional loneliness, many men find their female-dominated workplaces inviting. Should we be surprised -- or completely unsurprised -- that many men who work in women-majority organizations appreciate the qualities traditionally associated with women?
"Working in a female-majority sector means a workplace that is less competitive and more collaborative," said Shaun Daniel of Oregon Rural Action. "Women tend to place importance on employee well-being as well as getting the work done."
His comments were echoed by other men:
- "I find it easier to work with women. Men often think they have all of the answers, while women want to hear other peoples' opinions."
- "Women executives in the nonprofit world tend to be nurturing, supportive. They understand the need to groom a new generation."
- "[Women] are able to exhibit their passion for the cause better than men . . . I really have to work at demonstrating the passion."
Another stereotype, of course, is exactly the opposite: that women are competitive with each other, undercutting, shrewish. And we did hear this from one attorney in a legal office where all the other staff are women: "there's no collegiality," and "everyone is passive-aggressive."
Of course, these characteristics -- both positive and negative -- are true of many men, too. It's hard to know how to react when someone describes a trait and attributes it to gender.
Tip of the gender iceberg?
When it comes to this gender imbalance, questions abound:
- What's it like for men to be in the midst of the female-majority workplace culture often found in nonprofits?
- How do stereotypes about gender roles play themselves out?
- Chicken or the egg: Do women dominate in the sector because they can't compete in the for-profit sector? Or is the sector poorly paid because it is mostly women?
Why is the gender imbalance discussed only in passing, and not as a serious nonprofit matter? Should we be concerned or proud that the sector is led and dominated by women?
We seldom talk about the female-ness of the sector except in passing. Is it because it's more of a lightning rod topic than we would like to admit? Undeniably it can surface all kinds of issues, including some that link directly to deep-seated views about the gender divide in human nature.
Other concerns touch at the heart of societal power relationships. Choosing his words carefully, Ron wistfully noted, "When you're female or you're black, there's some part of you that feels 'lesser than' whether you recognize that consciously or not." Could it be that these unconscious views carry over into how both men and women think of ourselves as a sector?
What can we do to attract more men into the nonprofit sector -- to reflect the population and especially in positions where reaching male audiences is important? Should women leaders be proud or rueful about largely female staffs? How can we support women's leadership without reinforcing stereotypes about nurturing women? Or are all of these the wrong questions?
We hope this article sparks some serious conversations about the reasons for, the implications of, and what, if anything, we should think and do about the multiple dimensions of a female-majority nonprofit sector.
Our thanks to the many who contributed to this article, including Troy Arnold (Homeless Prenatal Program, San Francisco), Rick Cohen (Blue Avocado, Washington, DC), Shaun Daniel (Oregon Rural Action, La Grande), David Fearn (formerly Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, Cleveland), David Grabitsky (Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul), Dan Johnson, Carl Morrison (NALS...the Association for Legal Professionals, Tulsa), Sam Richardson (Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort), Ed Seay (Help Network, Russellville), Kerry Watterson (York Theatre Company, New York) and the many contributors who wished to remain anonymous.
See also in Blue Avocado:
- Why Do Men in the Nonprofit Sector Wear Such Bad Shoes? (humor)
- Nonprofits Portrayed in Popular Culture