Association Leadership, Women Leaders & Leaning In

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has launched a national conversation about women and corporate leadership. The numbers show that associations need to be talking as well.

So let’s talk about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In.

I recognize the ¬†awkwardness of my suggesting this. The Facebook COO’s book is about how women are often denied—or are trained to deny themselves—C-suite success. My speaking on how women might best address this problem might be more than a little presumptuous, and perhaps reflective of the patriarchal culture that Sandberg is discussing in the first place. (Hey, how’d a guy wind up writing the leadership blog here anyway?)

In no category does a female CEO earn as much as a male CEO does.

But I don’t come to this subject bearing solutions, and I think it’s important to raise this because the stakes are so high for associations.

Look at the numbers. Nonprofit folklore dictates that opportunities for success tend to be greater for women at charities and associations than at for-profits. To a certain extent that’s true. Anecdotally speaking, I know I spend about as much time interviewing female leaders for Associations Now¬†as male ones; in my prior life as a corporate business journalist, female executives at Sandberg’s level or higher were exceedingly rare. Diversity initiatives at associations have clearly been effective in terms of gender: According to ASAE benchmarking data, 93 percent of associations have at least one woman on their boards. And ASAE research shows that a larger proportion of women occupy the corner office at associations: 42 percent of association CEOs last year were women, up from 38 percent in 2006.

After that, though, the data points get grim. The mean number of members on a board is 24, but the mean number of female voting members on a board is seven—a long way from parity. Compensation is similarly unequal. According to ASAE’s 2012-2013 Association Compensation and Benefits Study, female CEOs at the smallest associations earn as little as 66 percent of what their male counterparts do. Executive pay becomes more equal as association budget sizes increase, but in no category does a female CEO earn as much as a male CEO does. And there are fewer women at those top-flight organizations: Only 30 percent of the CEOs at organizations with budgets of $25 million or more are women.

Sandberg has earned plenty of TV segments and cover stories by reminding us of these disconnects in the wider working world, and adding her own insights about how they come to exist and what women can do to rise above their station, employment-wise. By “leaning in,” Sandberg means “being ambitious in every pursuit” and “focusing on what women can change themselves” as she writes in the book’s introduction. It’s a kind of synonym for “aggressiveness,” but that’s a tricky term when it comes to gender in the workplace—aggressiveness is often celebrated in men but treated as suspect in women. Likability is a more prized trait among women, but that’s not treated as a useful path for leadership. As Sandberg put it during an appearance in Washington, D.C., last week:

Transcending that is all easier said than done, of course—it involves balancing a take-charge attitude with how that attitude will be perceived, along with issues of parenting, education, upbringing, everyday workplace behavior, and more. I needn’t summarize all of those points here—the internet is awash in people who will tell you that Sandberg is either a leader of the next feminist revolution or just rehashing old complaints with no clear direction for solutions. What Sandberg deserves credit for, if nothing else, is forcing that discussion into the national conversation, at least for a news cycle or two.

Question is, is that conversation happening at associations as well? And given the gender disparity at associations in terms of board leadership and compensation, how has your organization—or you, personally—worked to address it?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. (photo by Financial Times/Flickr)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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