A Cultural Feminist Perspective on Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations: A Case of Women Leaders in India

Article excerpt

In the United States, women play an important role in the nonprofit sector and have a distinct influence in terms of philanthropic giving, volunteering, and nonprofit-sector employment (see, for example, McCarthy, 2001; Ostrander, 2004; Petrzelka & Mannon, 2006). The situation is similar in other parts of the world. In India, women lead various types of nonprofit organizations (NPOs) including advocacy and consciousness-raising groups; grassroots organizations such as tribal organizations, trade unions, and democratic rights groups; professional women's organizations such as those for doctors and lawyers; women's wings of political parties; and groups that research and document women's issues. These NPOs play an increasingly important role in various issues of governance (Desai and Patel, 1985). Because the Indian nonprofit sector employs 2.7 million paid employees and 3.4 million full-time volunteers (Srinivastava & Tandon, 2005), women's leadership in the nonprofit sector has a far-reaching impact. In comparison, the central government in India employs approximately 3.3 million individuals (Srinivastava & Tandon, 2005).

Even though no statistical data exists on the gender of nonprofit leaders, evidence from various literatures suggests that there is large number of nonprofit organizations lead by women in India (Desai & Patel, 1985). In the absence of data on the nonprofit sector, the gender landscape of the overall workforce provides useful information. Currently, women make up 36% of the Indian labor force, with 22.6% of women employed by organizations, 6% percent in senior management and 4.9% on boards of directors (Catalyst, 2010). Despite the far-reaching implications of women's participation, little research exists on the subject of women in NPOs (Themudo, 2009). In their book on grassroots nonprofit organizations, Handy, Kassam, Feeney, and Ranade (2006) noted that "non-profit entrepreneurship studies in academic journals are limited. In particular, there is little material on female non-profit entrepreneurs or entrepreneurship in non-Western cultures" (p. 30). Using interview data from 32 women NPO leaders, I study women's leadership in Indian NPOs through a cultural feminist perspective.

Notably, although this paper is a case study of one developing country, the framework provided here has implications for NPOs across the world. Globally, NPOs are engaged in several activities that focus on socio-cultural, psychological, and economic factors. Therefore, leaders have an opportunity to address these issues by utilizing the suggested framework at multiple levels. Further, the scope of NPOs is expanding. In the United States, for example, the number of NPOs in suburban areas has grown (Salamon & Sokolowski, 2005). This growth indicates the possibility of changing the perceptions of leadership across society in rural, urban, and suburban areas. Mastracci and Herring (2010) indicated that the proportions of women in full-time and mission-critical positions are higher in nonprofits than in for-profit organizations. In addition, Johnson (2009) predicted that because of the increase in college education among women and the retirement of the baby boomer generation, the nonprofit sector will employ a higher number of women as leaders in the United States. However, the sector has yet to recognize women's contribution as leaders (Themudo, 2009). Women face a glass ceiling in the nonprofit sector (Moore & Whitt, 2000), are under-represented in upper management positions, and earn lower wages than men for the same work (Guidestar, 2007). Using the framework I propose, nonprofits can begin to reduce barriers for women leaders by appreciating differences between feminine and masculine values. The glass ceiling could be shattered if organizations and society shifted from the traditionally masculine concept of leadership to a more gender-inclusive understanding. To benefit from the full potential of women as leaders and employees, nonprofits must recognize the importance of feminine values. …


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