What's Gender Got to Do with It?

By Susan J. Ellis

The sex-typing of volunteering as feminine--and the disproportionate number of women in director of volunteer positions--needs to be acknowledged and addressed. This is a complex issue and manifests itself in numerous ways. It's impossible for me to fully address it in this column, however I can certainly introduce questions to begin the dialogue.


Have you noticed that women in volunteer roles are often called "volunteers" and the women coordinating these volunteers are called "directors of volunteers," yet volunteer activities and professions that are mainly associated with men or with equal gender participation use other terms to describe their work? Here are a few examples:

Political campaign coordinating
Youth sports coaching
Firefighting and emergency rescue
Labor union organizing
Charity golf tournaments
Free law or tax clinics
Protest movements
Draft resistance
Neighborhood organizing
Alumni activities

Why didn't the label of "volunteer" stick to these activities? As many of you have heard me say: "Men have always volunteered, they just called themselves coaches, trustees, and firemen."

Whether or not a non-paid worker is called a "volunteer" may seem like an insignificant question, yet the labeling is serious because time and again it stops us from joining forces with all of our colleagues. Why don't fire chiefs or ministers attend conferences on volunteer management? Isn't recruiting poll watchers or demonstration security leaders the same challenge as recruiting friendly visitors or docents? Why is this so hard to interpret to those who
ought to see our common concerns?

Money vs. Time

Another gender-based issue is the split between development officers, traditionally men, and directors of volunteers, traditionally women. Who has the higher status and the higher salary? Why are fundraising volunteers
so often separated administratively from frontline service volunteers? Why do male volunteers run capital campaigns and female volunteers run gala dinners? Some of the answers are historically obvious, some are due to
sexism. We must learn to value both "fund raising" and "people raising" equally. And we in volunteer administration must welcome a better blending of the two challenges. Think of how obvious the importance of both money and time becomes when we re-label our goal as community support.


Despite the belief that women are the mainstay of volunteer management, men often are the spokespeople of the field. This is quite true in academic circles, where the male scholars examining volunteering far outnumber the
women. Executive directors of volunteer-related organizations and keynote speakers at conferences are more likely to be male than female. The speakers' roster at the Presidents' Summit also reflected the "male as expert" slant. Except for Oprah, Presidential wives, and Cabinet Secretaries, almost no women were on panels based purely on their own credentials.
Perhaps this is why some of the "commitments" rankle. Since child care and volunteering are perceived to be women's subjects, what is the message of speaking about "failure" to help our young people? And what is the message of turning to the military and to businessmen for the answers?


There are surely shades of gray in this issue, such as the many fine men who are "a director of volunteers and proud of it!" and the growing number of women breaking down glass ceilings and other career barriers. But I believe that we must acknowledge the sexism that openly and insidiously permeates our field. Unless we can broaden the scope of volunteerism to ALL the activities we truly encompass, we will always be marginalized to "nice," "helper" roles, underpaid and undervalued.

So...women AND men of the field, what do YOU think?

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