4 min Read
April 27, 2016

Women in Fundraising: Insights from a CEO

Elizabeth Barajas-Román, CEO, Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts

In March 2016, Big Duck’s President Sarah Durham led an all-woman panel at AFP’s International Fundraising Conference in which panelists discussed their experiences as women leaders in fundraising. Elizabeth Barajas-Román spoke about her path to becoming CEO of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts.

“The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts is a public foundation that partners with donors to invest about $500,000 a year in projects that impact women and girls. We also run the only nonpartisan program in the state that trains women to run for public office. And in the past two years since I’ve become CEO, we’ve increased our individual donations by 54 percent, doubled the number of new donors, increased visibility with earned media, and had a 400 percent increase in social media presence. 

I’m thrilled to be leading the organization. But stepping into this role meant overcoming the kind of barriers that impact most women professionals.

I’m a first generation Mexican-American. Growing up, my siblings and I didn’t have much, but among our few treasures were books that my mother bought from the thrift store for a dollar a bagful. While my mother cleaned houses to make ends meet, she also checked out audio cassettes at the library on business and accounting, and she rented instructional videos on basic computer skills. Before long, she turned her hourly gigs into a thriving small business. This enterprise allowed her to raise five kids, and send them all to college.

When I told my mother that I had gotten into Harvard, she said, “Yea! Mija, I’m so happy.” Then after a pause, “Is that a good school?” Even though she didn’t immediately appreciate the accomplishment, I knew I could not have gotten to that point if it were not for those one dollar bag-of-books that I reread until the bindings broke – if it were not for my mother’s ability to access a free public library– if it were not for all that she taught me about what is possible when you are willing to learn quickly and fearlessly, because backing down or going back is just not an option. 

That’s why I’m passionate about access to education and social change. And why I’ve spent my career creating and maintaining partnerships that help make a measurable impact on the lives of our most vulnerable community members.

Among nonprofits with budgets in excess of $25 million, women constitute only 21 percent of leadership roles, even though they make up 75 percent of the workforce. While there is a lot of data about the reason why we’ve gained so little ground regarding women in leadership, I think they all can be boiled down to two issues we have to work on together, and one issue we can focus on individually.

The first issue is the structural – this one we’re in together. There are specific policies that exist that maintain the status quo. These include discrimination in hiring, promotion and pay. How do we overcome these? Support the groups in your region working to pass bills that address issues like gender discrimination in pay, affordable childcare and universal pre-kindergarten.

The second issue is cultural. It’s important to shift the culture of gender discrimination in the work place. We’re working together on this one, too.

Gender discrimination includes sexual harassment, occupational segregation, bias against mothers, and other ways in which women workers and women’s work are undervalued. 

There is a narrative around women’s work that we must combat. There is an underlying sexism that we can’t ignore. While the fundraising sector encompasses many different types of jobs, there are jobs that women end up doing. And those jobs are valued less not because of the skills it takes to do those jobs – but simply because women are doing them. This sexist measuring stick follows us – even as we take traditionally male jobs like capital and major gifts, CEO and president.

Together we can shift this dialogue. Together we can leverage the power of our constituencies to reject the sexist measuring stick. Every day, we can help create the opportunity to shift bias.

The last barrier is personal. Men apply for a job when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 percent of them. Some of this is about confidence. But some of this is also about perception. A 2014 Harvard Business School Review article found that when women chose not to apply for a job it was because they thought they wouldn’t be chosen due to lacking some qualifications. These women, however, felt confident they could do the job if given a chance.

This data seems to show that women suffer from a mistaken perception of the hiring process. When evaluating a candidate hiring managers will consider advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing expertise. Unfortunately, too many women think their resume needs to do all the talking. Demystifying the hiring process could go a long way in helping women step up into advanced positions.

Women are taught that they must work harder, be more prepared, and more is expected of them in order to succeed. This attitude sometimes makes it hard for women to imagine themselves in a position they are not over prepared to tackle. But it is perfectly acceptable, and expected, to learn on the job. 

Like my mother, I know we all have the power and passion to turn the possible into reality. I invite you to join me in changing the structural and cultural barriers that remain so that we can all have the careers we deserve.”

-Elizabeth Barajas-Román