Tonya Covington, an African-American woman who has worked at a variety of nonprofits in New Mexico for decades, recalls five or six times in her career when she trained white men or women that were hired for positions above her or would later bypass her on the career ladder.
She said sometimes those individuals, often younger, seemed to jump ahead of her mainly because they had advanced degrees — something that was far less important in the nonprofit world when Covington was new to the field.
"I’ve certainly had experiences where people have asked me to use my experience to train other people as a volunteer," she says. "That’s always disheartening."
She added, "It’s one of those things that if you really want to do the work you’re passionate about, you end up having to take cuts in pay or work for very little."
Covington, who currently works part-time at Outcomes, a nonprofit, and is an executive director at Peacemakers Consulting, a for-profit she founded that works with nonprofits, is one of more than 100 people who participated in focus groups for a new study that details how women of color have been systematically passed over for leadership positions, even in cases when they have equal or significantly better qualifications.
The new report, by the Building Movement Project, expands on another comprehensive study from 2017 that said years of talks about increasing diversity at nonprofits had created few substantial changes.
The new study found:
Covington said all of the women in her focus group were significantly younger than she was, yet they described similar experiences, some worse than others. If the women stood up for themselves when their talents were misused, they could be called out "for not being a team player," putting them at risk for demotions.
But if they never said no, they risked being seen as a pushover and passed up for positions and advancement. It seemed sometimes, she said, like there was no way to win. Leaders would frame perilous choices as "we need you" or "we expect this of you" or "we need more than your 100 percent."
Of course, giving more than 100 percent, Covington said, never led to more pay
Researcher Ofronama Biu, the author of the study, said the results are striking at a time when a historic number of women, many of them women of color, were recently sworn into office in Congress. Biu noted that there are still too many "firsts" in society today — "the first woman to ..." "first Asian woman to ..."
Biu said fewer than 20 percent of nonprofit executive-director positions are held by people of color, based on the initial survey of 4,000 people in 2017. That analysis pointed to systematic biases that weeded out qualified people of color, but it missed some of the nuanced power of sexism to compound negative experiences.
The new report says 36 percent of women of color reported that their race had negatively impacted their advancement, while 28 percent of men of color reported the same.
Similarly, 30 percent of women of color reported that their gender had negatively impacted their advancement, compared with 25 percent of white women. Thousands of survey participants provided write-in responses about how their race or gender created barriers to their advancement. Women of color wrote that they were passed over for new jobs, promotions, and projects in favor of others — including men of color, white women, and white men — with comparable or even less impressive credentials.
Biu said the findings also show how higher education, largely seen as a pathway to more money and recognition, does not always help close gender and racial gaps. Of all the groups, women of color with a master’s degree or more education (57 percent) were least likely to be in a chief executive or senior management position, and they were more likely to be in administrative staff positions. Women of color — even executive directors — were also more likely to be in the lower salary ranges than other groups with similar education levels, the report said.
Those with a master's degree or above were more likely than people in other groups with advanced degrees to say they were frustrated about their pay and their career prospects.
Carla Nunn, a former director of finance and administration at a nonprofit in North Carolina, said she recently left the position after three and a half years because of a rocky relationship with her employer. During her tenure, she said her boss, a white woman, asked her to keep tabs on and "police" a white male colleague while he was a director, too, and had been at the job longer. She wasn’t compensated for monitoring him, and she also felt underpaid for someone with her title. The organization did not provide the Chronicle with an official comment on the matter.
Nunn said her boss, in a director’s meeting with other staff present, asked Nunn’s colleagues if she was deserving of a chief financial officer title, one that would pay her more. Nunn said all along she had been doing the work of a chief financial officer, formerly held by a white man at the nonprofit, so she wanted similar compensation associated with the title change.
Nunn said the public exchange was an unprofessional way to handle the request — made worse by the fact that she never got the promotion.
Nunn, who is African-American, received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland University College after attending Howard University. She wants to get her MBA now and is hoping to find new places of work that are less stressful.
"Not having an advanced degree has hindered me from getting bigger jobs that I know I can do," she said, "even though I may know more than people who have those credentials."
The focus groups, which Nunn also participated in, provided additional commentary for the latest survey:
Peacemakers Consulting, the organization Covington founded, is a human-relations firm that provides anti-racism training, mediation, capacity building, and other services. She also works part-time for Outcomes. She currently works with two other people of color who are contractors and also work part-time. The organization did not provide an official comment on the matter to the Chronicle.
In an interview, she described situations in which the lack of staff diversity at Outcomes had a real-world impact on the kids the nonprofit serves. For example, it was sometimes hard for her to institute new programs for predominantly African-American kids that steered away from punishment and focused more on conflict resolution. Her ideas were to get the kids who regularly misbehaved to work on their anger and address their deep-seated troubles that may have been invisible to counselors and teachers.
Critics called this approach "hug a thug."
"I deal with 90 percent kids of color," she said, adding that when she arrived, it was difficult to get the staff to hire individuals who had similar experiences to the kids they worked with. "I need people who understand where these kids are coming from. People didn’t understand. Their only thing was ‘Do you think we’re racist?’ I told them no. It’s about you not knowing who these kids are."
Over all, the biggest issue for Covington remains getting asked to do more work that isn’t rewarded professionally.
"I definitely felt resentful. It’s due in part to the people you work with, which in all of these cases was working for white people who I felt really didn’t get it," she said. "You’re asking me to do something you wouldn’t ask a white person to do, or a man to do. And you’re expecting me to do it out of the kindness of my heart, whereas if it were someone else, they would end up getting a raise or points or promotions."
"That permeates nonprofits," she said, adding that it saddens her to see younger women go through the same things she has gone through for years. "It happens to so many of us. It lets you know that it’s not getting better."