Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2009

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Management Matters

Supporting the Female Lead

Lessons from and for CWLA agencies on helping the women on staff

By Diana Warth

Though women lead just 2.6% of Fortune 500 companies, the number of CWLA member agencies led by women is 47.6%. "It's moving in the right direction, but its not there," says Donna Pressma, President and CEO of CWLA member The Children's Home Society of New Jersey. Though gender equality in the child welfare field appears to be better than the national statistics, there is still work to do.


Donna Pressma, President and CEO of The Children's Home Society of New Jersey, stresses mentoring as a way to cultivate female leaders.

According to a 2003 Washington Post article, "15 to 35 percent of nonprofit executives plan to leave their jobs within two years and 61 to 78 percent are planning to leave within five years." These projections reflect what the child welfare field is now feeling--as the field changes, especially with

the baby boomer generation entering retirement, it becomes increasingly important to think about how to attract "new blood," particularly women, into leadership roles. Yet, how can child welfare agencies continue to cultivate female leaders? The challenge faced by many child welfare organizations encompasses more than placement of women in these leadership roles. Once they're on staff, how do organizations keep women from leaving?

What Leaders Can Do

"The most important thing women should do is to mentor the younger staff," says Pressma. Because mentoring costs little financially and can be set up quickly, it is an easy way to affect positive change. "Having mentors was very important in getting to where I am," Pressma continues. "My commissioner gave me what was the equivalent of a master's in business." As the child welfare field continues to grow and diversify its operations, it is necessary that those who run the agencies are well-versed in a slew of professional skills. From learning advanced computer skills and how to create and implement programs, to learning how to deal with board members and the ins-and-outs of raising agency funds, CEOs are required to possess many talents. Few people come into the field instinctively knowing all these skills, and giving young women the opportunities to learn from mentors helps propel them into competent, productive leadership roles.

While mentoring is an important component to fostering women in leadership, it is only one step among many to creating a more egalitarian workforce. Shelley Duncan, President and CEO of Youthville, Inc., in Kansas, emphasizes networking opportunities as a way to make female leaders comfortable in leadership positions. "I also think that women need affinity opportunities with other CEOs," says Duncan. "I find it a very lonely place in my position. I have few other women to talk to and commiserate with. Sometimes we just need to be able to share things that men just wouldn't understand." Ellen Katz Johnson, President and CEO of The Children's Home of Cincinnati, shares these sentiments. At a retirement party for her predecessor, she noted that while her male colleagues got together for golf outings, there wasn't an equivalent activity for the female leaders in her community. "So we have a women's CEO group in the community where quarterly we take turns organizing a dinner," says Katz Johnson. "We do a little formal structure around it in that we will pause after dinner and just sit around in a circle and just kind of talk about challenges related to our work at any given time.... It's become a really nice network for a group of 15 to 20 women."

What Agencies Can Do


Ellen Katz Johnson, President and CEO of The Children's Home of Cinncinnati, with a participant in Camp-I-Can, a 10-week summer day program for vulnerable children.

Between the demands of the field, the demands within an agency, and the demands of their own families, it is no surprise that many female CEOs feel their biggest challenge is finding a balance between work and their personal lives. In order to help women leaders maintain these two aspects of their lives, many child welfare organizations are creating more family-friendly office policies, from flexible work hours to onsite day care facilities. Community Resources

Community outreach programs and initiatives can benefit emerging leaders. "Our local community foundation, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, did a study on the status of women and girls in the greater Cincinnati area, called PULSE," says Katz Johnson. "As a result of that study, there's been a lot put into the community to support and promote women, but it's not exclusive to this field--it's broad." Bringing community attention to the challenges that professional women face, even if it's not specific to the child welfare field, will nonetheless benefit agencies. When women professionals in one area are doing well, it inspires them to help other women. Creating a community atmosphere conducive to helping women succeed may create a chain reaction that will reach the child welfare field and others.

The city of Cincinnati sets a good example. According to Katz Johnson, in addition to the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, the city has a program through the chamber called We Lead, which is a leadership development program just for women. Through We Lead, women learn many of the skills necessary to become successful professionals. Similar programs could be implemented in other communities and used by child welfare organizations as training for potential female leaders. Such community initiatives are useless to agencies, however, unless the agency takes the first step to seek them out.

Academic Resources


Shelley Duncan, right, President and CEO of Youthville, Inc., presents the keys to a donated car to one of Youthville's families.

Some child welfare organizations are looking to academia for inspiration. From reimbursing women for educational classes to partnering with local universities and colleges, the field can take advantage of academic opportunities for women. "We really try to focus on our employee's professional development and leadership development for those we deem as potential leaders," says Katz Johnson. "I think that universities don't do a good job of offering information or classes about such things as balancing a family and being a leader. They don't even tackle balancing a family--or even life in general-- with work." While many universities have missed the mark on this, there are some that have begun to help women balance family and career responsibilities. Harvard University has created a Women's Initiative in Leadership. According to the initiative's website, the program "was created to address the interest and importance of female students at Harvard in developing leadership skills." Agencies can also cultivate young leaders through internship programs. As featured in the last issue of Children's Voice, some agencies are finding interns by using organizations like American Humanics to form partnerships with universities. Internships foster relationships with young people entering the workforce, and also help identify those who would be positive additions to the agency as full-time employees. Agency Policies Speaking from personal experience, Pressma knows that the demands of work life all too often negatively affect one's personal life. After coming home very late due to an emergency at the office, her daughter said she had almost called an abuse hotline that day, because she was feeling neglected with all the time Pressma was spending at the office. "What she was telling me was 'Get your life in balance, Mom, there is too much work and not enough about us,'" says Pressma. "And I did change a few things in my schedule to just be more with the kids. It was time to rebalance." Learning her lesson the hard way, Pressma has made it a point in her agency to give those who work for her the necessary tools to balance personal and professional responsibilities. "I make the rules in my agency very supportive towards the women who are going through their early parenting years," she says. "I've found…for whatever leeway I've given them to be good mothers, I get it back threefold in a loyal, dedicated employee who gives me their very best at work, so it creates a stronger agency."

Duncan suggests providing complimentary on-site yoga classes and massages for women. "We offer on-site chair massages and we pay for them. It is a great way to relieve stress," she says. In the same vein, Duncan believes another key to stress management is allowing oneself a break from work. "I preach to my staff [about] work-life balance and basically force them to take time off. I made a requirement to them that when they take vacation they are not to work, not to get on e-mail," she says. "If I find out they've been working they will get a lecture. Same thing if they continually work over 50 to 60 hours a week."


Delores Dunn, far left, CEO of the Center for Child and Family Enrichment, stands with a mother and her adoptive and biological children.

Delores Dunn, CEO of the Center for Child and Family Enrichment in Miami, Florida, has also made a push for more family-friendly office policies at her organization.

She allows her staff to flex their hours in order to meet the demands of their children's school schedules. Many of her employees come in later in the morning in exchange for working later into the evening. Similarly, she also allows her staff to telecommute periodically, such as on parent-teacher conference days. Dunn stresses that it's "in the hands of the present CEO to bring that atmosphere."

As the child welfare field continues to change, facing both economic difficulties and a workforce crisis, the atmosphere these women describe could be an extra benefit for women who are considering joining or continuing in the child welfare field. Agencies who help women will find that women help them. Whatever choices may be right for a particular agency, it is essential to develop new ways of thinking about women in leadership roles. Success stories like these should be studied, and mirrored, as much as possible.

Diana Warth is a legislative assistant in Washington, DC. She majored in women's studies at Allegheny College.

To comment on this story, e-mail voice@cwla.org.


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