Blog

A focus on nonprofit leaders during Women’s History Month

Lena Alhusseini
President
IDzWorld

From your perspective, what challenges have you faced in your role, that are tied to being a woman? Are these specific to the nonprofit sector?
Certainly the fact that as a Muslim, Arab, and immigrant I have faced stereotyping, covert racism, and ignorance of what female leadership means in my community. Additionally, dealing with a somewhat patriarchal society, one must always reaffirm
that woman are equal to men, and must be treated with equal respect and consideration.

Do you think younger generations of women entering the workforce are facing the same barriers you faced when you first began? If not, what has changed?
Unfortunately, I feel that although we have made some strides, young leaders still  face the same sexist and patriarchal attitudes, perhaps a little bit more diluted now but still there. Being taken seriously and with respect is essential to leadership,  and instituting change in evolving community narratives.

What are some perceptions about leadership, and leadership qualities, that differ for men and women, and how have you encountered this?
For me especially as an Arab American leader, the older I get – the more respect and power I seem to get. I don’t think age factors as much for men, but for us women  leaders – it seems are power is limited in a certain time frame/age. There is  objectification of the young, and ageism for the older female leader. We need to  overcome that as a society – and I hope that by having strong and powerful older female role models, that will change.

What has been your most significant career failure, or risk you took? How did you come  back from it, and what have you learned from it that has made you a better leader today?
I have failed or miscalculated a number of times, more often than I care to remember! But I always got up having learned a valuable skill and went back on the saddle and sometimes succeeded beyond my dreams. Without failure, there is no learning. Success comes with experience. I can give many examples, but that would be a couple of pages long!

In light of the recent report published by Building Movement about the barriers faced by, and lack of opportunities for, women of color—particularly black women—in nonprofit  leadership, what can the sector do to help change this?
Racism and discrimination are  unfortunately alive and well – more now than in the past few decades. We as a society are  politicized and divided and Black women are certainly affected. That is why I am so  thankful for role models such as Michelle Obama, Alice Walker and Oprah as an example. I  also appreciate how many organizations and foundations are now led by women of color  such as the Kellogg foundation and others.

What do you see as the opportunities for future women in leadership roles, and what can  we, as a sector, and individuals, do to support emerging leaders better?
There are so many opportunities, but we need woman of courage to go for them, and  these women need a community to support them! I personally have always wished I could have had a mentor or a coach. I think we also need to build spaces for women of color to meet, organize, and support each other.

Please talk about one woman who has had a significant impact on your career trajectory – what did they do or say, how have you continued to be affected to this day? (You do not have to know this woman personally.)
I am inspired by Ilhan Omar and AOC. Their courage, determination, conviction and persistence inspire me.

What gives you inspiration each day as a leader?
The community I work with. Changing archaic and outmoded traditions and beliefs. Making the world a more humane and civilized society where we are all respected and appreciated. Anything that has to do with human rights and child  welfare inspires me! I am moved to action when I see societal inequities, oppression, and the humiliation of the other – it inspires me to act.

Finally, what has been the most rewarding aspect of being a woman leader?
Being able to affect the narrative and institute change. Setting up system and structures that promote equity and diversity. Giving back.

***

Sharon Myrie
Vice President of Programs & Services
Queens Public Library

From your perspective, what challenges have you faced in your role, that are tied to being a woman? Are these specific to the nonprofit sector?
As a woman and new manager, whether real or perceived, I feel that I am tested and sized up more than perhaps my male counterparts. “Is she tough enough?” “Does she really know her stuff?” I’ve only worked in the nonprofit and government arena so hard to say if this is only restricted to this sector. But it sure felt a lot harder when I was younger.

Do you think younger generations of women entering the workforce are facing the same barriers you faced when you first began? If not, what has changed?
I think that it is getting a little better as more women move into leadership roles and with the #MeToo movement my hope is that it will be better for them. Social media has made things different today. Much easier for us to share our stories and concerns in real time and get the support and guidance from others involved in our various social networks. Younger women tend to exude more confidence and fearlessness, perhaps because they are more exposed to seeing more women who have moved up in the ranks. Take as an example women in Congress and the strides we have made post-Anita Hill.

What are some perceptions about leadership, and leadership qualities, that differ for men and women, and how have you encountered this?
While I would hate to generalize by saying all women possess the following qualities, I do believe that a special quality that women leaders seem to possess is that we approach work using a holistic approach, often viewing the job as an integral part of our lives. Maintaining a balance between personal and work life is often a topic of discussion among our peers and is a constant struggle. Also, women tend to work on ways to get to understand and appreciate their staff from various angles/approaches – not simply one dimensional. This can be both good and not so good depending on the circumstances.

What has been your most significant career failure, or risk you took? How did you come back from it, and what have you learned from it that has made you a better leader today?
I don’t consider any of my career failures to be labeled “failures” but rather, opportunities to gain a better understanding of the work environment where I can thrive and grow. For example, deciding to lead a small nonprofit really helped to stretch me as a leader and pushed me to take on and master multiple roles: fundraising, board development, program development, human resources, and general administrative tasks – chief “bottle-washer” as described by one of my board members!

In light of the recent report published by Building Movement about the barriers faced by, and lack of opportunities for, women of color—particularly black women—in nonprofit leadership, what can the sector do to help change this?
What the sector can do is to push to diversify boards in the nonprofit sector that is reflective of the population being served and so that when executive leaders who “look like me” are interviewed for leadership positions they have an equitable chance of getting the job because they can be seen as individuals who can visit a foundation, talk to major donors, serve as a spokesperson for the organization, etc. As the leader of a nonprofit, it was disappointing to have limited opportunities to attend events with board members that exposed me to their social circles/network — a common tool used to build support for the organization. Perhaps by building board diversity and/or a better understanding of the implicit biases that we hold, it will open greater doors for women of color. A small ray of hope, as a young leader, I saw little opportunities for women of color move up in the ranks and step into top leadership role. Today, these opportunities seem to be more available.

What do you see as the opportunities for future women in leadership roles, and what can we, as a sector, and individuals, do to support emerging leaders better?
For women in general, I think building a career path that leads to greater responsibilities and opportunities is so important. I was once asked, “what do you do when you start a new job” and I honestly answered, “I think about what I need to do in this job to get me to the next job.” That may sound odd, but I think it is important for women to think about how they are going to position themselves in their current work to get the skills and experience needed to pursue the next goal that they have set for themselves.

Please talk about one woman who has had a significant impact on your career trajectory –what did they do or say, how have you continued to be affected to this day? (You do not have to know this woman personally.)
I have had the pleasure of working with a couple of great female leaders. For nearly 30 years I have remained close to one, Nancy Wackstein, who was the former head of United Neighborhood Houses and who I worked with in the Mayor’s Office and then at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. Nancy is that constant voice, always reminding me of my strengths and abilities to push forward in my career. She makes time to listen when I am struggling with an issue and offers counseling and support. She reminds me of how to maintain balance in my life and sends those encouraging notes when you need it most that helps put work in perspective with this thing called life.

What gives you inspiration each day as a leader?
Here at Queens Library, I am inspired by the women that I work with. There are some amazing women in leadership roles, such as the head of Facilities and Maintenance – a position that is dominated by men. She is also a woman of color which gives me hope that future female leaders can continue to break through that concrete ceiling by serving in non-traditional roles. I am inspired by the women who use our programs, learning ESOL so that they can create a better life for their families, enter a job training program to become a home health aide as they pursue entering the health field. I am inspired by the administrative assistants who are working hard to support their families, juggling work and families – many of whom are single, young mothers.

Finally, what has been the most rewarding aspect of being a woman leader?
It is humbling when I receive a call from a stranger who has been recommended by a mutual friend to talk to me about my career and how I got to where I am. Time flew by so quick to now be considered a “seasoned” leader in the nonprofit field. Just seems like only yesterday when I too was seeking advice from women leaders. I enjoy those moments to reflect and share my experiences with younger women who have so much hope in their eyes, and I know that we will be in good hands if they are only given the opportunity to spread their wings and fly.

***

Dianne Morales
Executive Director and CEO
Phipps Neighborhoods

From your perspective, what challenges have you faced in your role, that are tied to being a woman? Are these specific to the nonprofit sector?
One of the challenges I have faced in my role, despite my education, expertise, and experience in the field, is being questioned and feeling like I needed to go above and beyond to support my thesis with data and examples, and always having to go the extra mile to justify my perspective or my take on things. Having to be mindful of egos in the room and having to think through what I say and how I say it and really focus on being able to do that in a way that the listener can actually hear it and not be distracted by a variety of other things that might not have anything to do with the concept at hand.

Do you think younger generations of women entering the workforce are facing the same barriers you faced when you first began? If not, what has changed?
They face many of same barriers. One of most significant differences is the number of women role models they might have to look up to to be mentored and guided by. There were not a lot of women who looked like me, as woman of color, to turn to for support. There is a much more conscientious effort to create that pipeline. Those of us fortunate enough to make it are very deliberately trying to support the next generation of women leaders.

What are some perceptions about leadership, and leadership qualities, that differ for men and women, and how have you encountered this?
For me personally, one of the things that has been the most recurring themes throughout my career has been about my level of “aggressiveness”. Women who are clear and direct and confident are often, through gender bias, interpreted or labeled “aggressive” or “bossy” or “bitchy”. And, that for me has been definitely one of the things that has come up frequently throughout my career.

What has been your most significant career failure, or risk you took? How did you come back from it, and what have you learned from it that has made you a better leader today?
I made a mistake at one point in my career. I took a job that wasn’t the right fit, and in doing that went against my gut. During the decision-making process, there was a part of me that wasn’t sure. I went against my own instincts and proceeded to spend a year making a lot of money but was really unhappy in the day-to-day substance of my work. As nice as it might be to make a lucrative salary, it made it crystal clear for me that I needed to do work that mattered to me and that was having an impact on my community. I circled back into this work, and as a result of doing work that I love, everything else has fallen into place. And, it had just helped me maintain focus on what really matters to me.

In light of the recent report published by Building Movement about the barriers faced by, and lack of opportunities for, women of color—particularly black women—in nonprofit leadership, what can the sector do to help change this?
One of most obvious things the sector needs to do is address its own unconscious bias. Very often women of color who have the same or more experience as white male counterparts are passed over, and there’s lot of talk about “fit” and personality and likability. That was a thing long before it started coming up about Hilary Clinton. There’s also a need for us to challenge our own assumptions and stereotypes and look to diversifying a Board to make sure they are more reflective of the people we serve. That’s ultimately going to change the perceptions of people up for leadership positions.

What do you see as the opportunities for future women in leadership roles, and what can we, as a sector, and individuals, do to support emerging leaders better?
Creating and maintaining a deliberate pipeline for emerging leaders can make a significant difference. Creating opportunities for mentorship is something that can be done. Women of color carry multiple layers of responsibility on their shoulders not just in terms of performing better than most in our own jobs, but also in terms of supporting the upcoming generations. We do it gladly, but there is a lot of pressure because the stakes are so high. Sharing that responsibility more broadly and having our white allies take some of those responsibilities on can make a critical difference, not just for emerging leaders but for the few women of color in leadership roles now.

Please talk about one woman who has had a significant impact on your career trajectory –what did they do or say, how have you continued to be affected to this day? (You do not have to know this woman personally.)
I had a graduate school professor who was overseeing my internship, and she repeatedly put me in situations where I felt like I was in way over my head. Every time I was successful she reminded me that I could do more than I believed I was capable of, and that shaped my ability and willingness throughout the rest of my career to step into things that felt initially felt too big. It reminded me to give myself a little bit more of the benefit of the doubt in taking that leap of faith.

What gives you inspiration each day as a leader?
The community that I serve. Being able to see and experience what feel like small wins. When you touch the life of one person or see one person graduate or get to college or get that $40,000-a-year job, it is fuel for the soul; it’s what keeps you going; it reminds me that this work matters and that we are making a difference, and all of the challenges we have to overcome are more than worth it. That inspires me and keeps me moving forward, as do the staff that do this work and the folks that are making salaries that are one paycheck away from the people we serve and are dedicated to improving their communities. That’s what makes it all worth it.

Finally, what has been the most rewarding aspect of being a woman leader?
I’m raising my children as a single mom. I have a son and a daughter and am raising them to believe that women can do anything. This has been a powerful thing for me. I see them now as young adults, and I see the influence of having a mom who was running a nonprofit organization to strengthen and support communities has shaped how they see the world, who they are and what they believe is possible for women. That has been hugely rewarding for me. Externally, as I look around New York City, the greatest contribution I feel like I have made in my career is the pipeline of leaders who I have helped develop that are now in executive roles in other organizations, and increasing the impact we can have in creating change.