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Women in Animal Welfare, Part II: Breaking The Glass Ceiling

April 10, 2023, Katherine M. Shenar

In Part I of this series, The Association’s Executive Vice President encouraged women leaders in animal welfare to explore ways to help those coming up to navigate their journey. Today she discusses insights and concerns shared by her colleagues in the profession.

I recently learned a new term: vertical segregation. More commonly known as the ‘glass ceiling,’ this term refers to the concept of women and men doing different levels of work, with men dominating at senior levels. I also recently learned that of the Fortune 500 companies, only 10% of CEOs are female—even though women comprise nearly 47% of the workforce in the United States.

We also haven’t made much progress over the past two decades with the gender pay gap, according to The Pew Research Center. In 2022, women made 82% of what men made. And, unfortunately, education has not emerged as the great equalizer: Women with master’s degrees earned, on average, 38% less than men with the same qualifications – $72,568 for women, compared with $117,617 for men, according to a February 2023 article in Business News Daily.

The animal welfare sector does not reflect these norms.

The Association of Animal Welfare Advancement, formed by five white men in 1970, has evolved to a professional association mostly comprised of women leaders. I’m especially proud that our profession has such strong female representation in executive roles. As I reflected on Women’s History Month this March, I started thinking about the female leaders that I’ve admired over the years and reached out to those who are also members of The Association, asking about their experiences in leadership.

Many of their responses resonated with my experiences. Yes, our field is an exception in that we have many female executives. Yet we still face challenges and have to work very hard to succeed in the traditionally male space of the workplace.

“I first moved into a leadership role when I became a director in a multi-billion-dollar organization, and fewer than 10% of my peers were women,” Lisa LaFontaine, President and CEO of Humane Rescue Alliance, told me. “All of the people senior to me in that hierarchy were men. While I’ll always be grateful for the lessons I learned in that organization, there were no women executives there for me to learn from and model. I wish I’d had the foresight to seek out women leaders – who had more experience, more complex roles, and more confidence.”

LaFontaine’s inclination to seek out guidance from other women leaders was spot-on—given that, according to research, women scored higher in the public’s eye than men on five of seven key leadership traits. Indeed, The Pew Research Center shared data in 2015 on the top leadership traits on which the public places greatest importance. The public says it is essential that leaders are:

  • Honest
  • Intelligent
  • Decisive
  • Organized
  • Compassionate
  • Innovative
  • Ambitious

Of these qualities, men were perceived as ranking higher on only two—decisiveness and ambition. The remaining five—honesty, intelligence, innovation, compassion, and being well-organized—sound more like the model that naturally came to Kim Janzen, CAWA.

Shared the President and CEO of Wake County SPCA, “When I began my career in animal welfare, as CEO of a small Midwest shelter, the only leadership model I had been exposed to was the more traditional, primarily male-led, top-down authoritative approach. It was many years before I truly understood that my collaborative, positive, learning-centered, click-and-treat style was not only just as valid, but in many ways a much more effective approach for what we are working together to accomplish.”

So, again, why aren’t there more female CEOs in the corporate sector? Well, some assert that since 80% of Boards are male, the bias of favoring someone who looks like you stands in the way of women attaining a CEO role. Essentially, boards hire people who look and act like them.

This speaks to the experience of Nancy McKenney, CAWA, President and CEO of Marin Humane. “I was lucky and had good women leaders and mentors to help me get where I am today,” she told me. “What would have improved my trajectory, though? Board members who appreciated my role and responsibilities more, and offered more equitable compensation compared to men in similar positions.”

I look forward to continuing this discussion in future blogs, and exploring and sharing more of the experiences of the women executives who responded to me. A central theme that stood out was how one’s self-doubt resulted in a reluctance to act. That makes sense to me because Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, explained in her 2016 TedTalk that societal expectations are very different for boys and girls. According to Saujani, “Boys were expected to speak up, get dirty, play rough, and climb to the top of the monkey bars. In short, boys are taught to be brave, while girls are taught to be perfect.”

As Saujani reiterated during her TedTalk, “Men will apply for a job if they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women will apply only if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. 100 percent. This study is usually invoked as evidence that, well, women need a little more confidence. But I think it’s evidence that women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and they’re overly cautious.”

This idea we must be perfect can result in a reluctance to speak up, stressed Alice Calabrese, CAWA, President and CEO, Lollypop Farm, the Humane Society for Greater Rochester. “It’s important for women to get comfortable with speaking using their own authentic voice,” she said. “I joined a Toastmasters club in mid-career.  In hindsight, I wish I had done it far earlier. Toastmasters gave me an opportunity to get honest feedback, try out different speaking techniques, and to meet some wonderful people.”

The difficulty in not just speaking up, but in being heard—and treated fairly—also resonated with The Anti-Cruelty Society’s Meshia Burrell, Chief Human Resources Officer. “I’ve always considered myself a leader, but struggled to find my voice. Not because I didn’t have a voice, but because of the many barriers placed before me. Being a leader in my world looks very different from being a leader in the ‘traditional’ world,” she said. “I was taught by society that Black women were not leaders, and that we didn’t bring value. In that, I had to work harder, longer and smarter to get ahead when I saw others being afforded opportunities without much effort.”

As I wrote in my first blog in this series, it takes courage to stand up to acts of workplace discrimination, inequitable treatment of fellow employees, and microaggressions that permeate throughout workplace cultures. It takes courage, too, to continue this important conversation, and a commitment to helping those women leaders coming up to navigate their journey. Stay tuned.

Look for future blogs for more discussion on the experience of women executives in animal welfare. In the meantime, consider exploring this reading list of leadership books authored by women leaders in 2023? Have your team pick a title to read and discuss together.

About Katherine M. Shenar
Katherine McGowan Shenar, CAWA, serves as the executive vice president for The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement, and brings experience in leadership development, organization culture, coalition building, marketing communications, fundraising, and emerging trends in animal welfare. Katherine began her career working in the media and transitioned to an advertising agency before realizing her animal welfare calling. Her advocacy work started in 1996, when she led the public relations and marketing department for the Humane Society of Missouri. She has served as the executive director for the Animal Protective Association of Missouri, the animal welfare issues consultant for The Humane Society of the United States, president and CEO of Asheville Humane Society, and executive vice president for San Diego Humane Society. She is the author of the book Coalition Building for Animal Care Organizations, a how-to guide for animal advocates to work collaboratively in communities, and has written numerous articles for Animal Sheltering magazine. Katherine holds a Masters of Arts in media communications and served as an adjunct professor for the School of Communications at Webster University.

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