Non-profit boards: try not to 'Zoom' past equitable governance

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had the unique ability to highlight social areas where inequality and inequity have been lurking for ages. Gender discrimination in the workplace is no exception.

There have been countless articles addressing the extra burden that the pandemic has placed on women, often centring the many complexities of domestic labour division and child care. Even without these larger issues, smaller forms of discrimination, or microaggressions, persist during the pandemic as well, even as our work lives have moved almost entirely online.  

It has never been easier to work remotely, and professionals across the country have been lauding the advancements in technology that have made working possible during the pandemic. Zoom meetings, "fax by email," Facetime calls, constant texting -- they all allow employers to replicate the workplace experience for employees from the comfort of their home offices (or living room couches, or kitchens, or bedrooms). For many women, these technologies have not only replicated the issues they already experienced at work, but have exacerbated them.  

A New York Times article published back in April stated what many women already suspected: the inequities already present between men and women in traditional meeting formats are amplified online. There's a rich corporate history of women's communication styles resulting in interruptions, misplaced credit, and undervaluing of ideas. This history has been replicated and exacerbated in the digital world as women struggle to communicate and participate from their homes. 

With online formats muffling the voices of women, one sector in particular will inevitably suffer more than any other. The non-profit sector has had a tough year, and little relief is on the horizon as public and private industry budgets are tightened.

The non-profit sector is also staffed predominantly by women. In 2018, the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) released a report titled "Women's Voices" that looked at the feminization of the non-profit sector and the effect of gender discrimination on the sector's workforce.

In Ontario, the non-profit sector consists of 80 per cent women workers. Among many important concerns, this report noted that women employed by non-profits described being bullied by the organization's board, board directors deferring to male colleagues rather than the women in leadership positions, and a general lack of support from their governance arm.  

A common solution to issues of inequality is to create cultural changes in an organization by diversifying the voices in leadership roles. The ONN report makes a similar suggestion: to address the issues that women in the non-profit sector highlighted, the participants in the report recommended diversity and gender balance across their organizations, including on the boards. Many non-profit boards have made efforts to diversify their voices, and in particular to highlight the voices of individuals with lived experiences similar to their client base.  

The pandemic may have stalled the positive effects of board diversity efforts for many organizations. The articles discussed above have focused on gender discrimination, but women are by no means the only minority whose volume has been turned down by working from home.

With lockdowns continuing and many companies accepting or embracing a shift to working from home for the foreseeable future, non-profit organizations need to start strategizing how to overcome the disparity in whose voices are being heard. When considering how to adjust their services while protecting their employees, boards should also take this opportunity to look at how their new methods of working could be disadvantaging the voices of women and other minority members in all levels of their organization. 

The good news is there are countless resources that can help boards recognize and address inequality, and hopefully shift their organization's culture. Investing in board training sessions, reviewing and implementing the suggestions in the "Women's Voices" report, circulating materials that identify unconscious biases  or offer tips for allyship in meetings, and updating policies and procedures with an intersectional feminist lens to reflect current workplace realities are all excellent places to start to protect your organization and promote effective and equitable governance.

In the meantime, boards chairs should start a conversation with their fellow board members, their executive directors, and begin to ask what they can do to address inequality among the voices of their organization.

Karly Wilson is a lawyer at Iler Campbell LLP, a law firm specializing in co-op, non-profit and charitable law. She works on a range of issues including housing, employment, governance, and human rights matters. Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.

Pro Bono provides legal information designed to educate and entertain readers. But legal information is not the same as legal advice -- the application of law to an individual's specific circumstances. While efforts are made to ensure the legal information provided through these columns is useful, we strongly recommend you consult a lawyer for assistance with your particular situation to obtain accurate advice. Submit requests for future Pro Bono topics to [email protected]. Read past Pro Bono columns here.

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