Why Is Volunteering Women’s Work?

DSCF1453Have you been to a PTA meeting recently? Or have you volunteered at a food bank or animal shelter? If you have, chances are your environment was short on men. Studies show women volunteer at higher rates than their male counterparts, even adjusting for educational and socioeconomic status.

So what gives? Why do women give freely of their time, while men stick to less philanthropic endeavors? Flagstaff psychologist Val Hannemann posits that women’s need for community and connection drives them to find ways to invest in their worlds while working alongside like-minded peers.

I think that take is fairly optimistic. When I look at higher rates of volunteerism among women, I see a clear story about women’s work being undervalued.

Consider Parent-Teacher Associations. Only 10% of their membership is comprised of dads. 75% of moms of school-aged children work outside the home, yet these women find time to fundraise, organize carnivals, and attend meetings at their kids schools. Only 5% more — 80% — of dads work outside the home. The disparity is staggering.

Our schools– and indeed, our communities– could not exist without volunteers giving their time without expectation of glory or pay. But is it fair for women to shoulder the load? Is a society that relies overmuch on the free labor of women one that is truly functional.

Now consider this: even though most volunteers are women, the majority of non-profit executive board leadership is male. In nonprofits worth more than $25 million, only a third of directors are women. That number climbs slightly to 43% for smaller organizations. Board chairs are also almost always men.

Those numbers show men have no problem volunteering when it comes to being in leadership, but statistically they balk at being in the trenches. Meanwhile women balance career, home life, and community investment.

What’s the solution? It’s multifaceted. First, we need to fully fund nonprofit organizations and schools so that they aren’t relying on free labor. I’m not calling for an end to volunteering; instead I believe we can’t use unpaid work as the foundation for success. Next we need to invite more women into leadership. When women sit on boards and fill roles traditionally meant for men, the diversity benefits us all.

Finally we need to communicate our needs. We can’t give men a pass when it comes to volunteer for the classroom or at the domestic violence hotline. We need to ask men, specifically, to contribute. Often it’s the asking that makes the difference.

Do you think volunteering falls to women? How do you think we can achieve parity in unpaid work?

Jennifer FerrisJennifer Ferris is the Editorial Director of Women AdvaNCe and a writer from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. You can find her on twitter at @dillettantrum.




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