“Well what does your husband do?”: Class Expectations and Ignorance in Nonprofit Work Environments

Light blue dialogue bubble that says in dark grey, "Well what does your husband do?"Lately I feel like I’m in the business of saying things no one else will. It’s not that everyone doesn’t want to – some can’t. I know two particularly strong women leaders who lost their jobs for doing just that. So in an environment that punishes those who stand up for what’s right, no matter how taboo the topic, why would anyone take a chance?

Because some things simply must be addressed.

Today, I came across 7 Everyday Things Poor People Worry About That Rich People Never Do. As usual, my thoughts immediately turned to management, particularly in nonprofit sectors. For years I’ve been lamenting the fact that managers in these types of organizations just don’t seem to attend to the messages they send to their employees. That’s management 101 – know your employees, how they differ from each other and you, and have or develop the emotional intelligence to be able to work with them, to communicate effectively. While policies and procedures certainly send messages, so too does the work environment. And that’s where this article comes in.

There has been much writing, research and work around wealth and salary disparities between staff and leadership in nonprofit organizations, not to mention government and the business sector. This work can center on gender, race, class – the same power dynamics that fuel or define the oppression many nonprofit organizations are supposed to be working against. But when it comes to class, not many folks talk about, or have written about, how this plays out in the organization…and how that impacts employee well-being and productivity.

Recently, a new colleague commented about how I don’t eat much and when I do eat it’s always something like a salad I bring from home. I’ve endured these types of comments for years. I have a well-established response about how it’s the way I force myself to each fresh veggies and, oh, if they could only see how I eat at dinner time. I also allow the annoyingly built-in assumption that this is all due to my veganism. Like so many of us, I often feel the pressure to excuse, or allow assumptions about, behavior that is in any way budget-based. And if this is the case for me, privileged enough to have completed graduate school twice, how do you think it is for others?

I’ll never accept the fact that people, especially in management positions, do not have the wherewithal or the willingness to understand this and to ensure that the environments they create and sustain promote the well-being of their employees. These days, you can hear me saying, quite fiercely:

Even if you don’t care at all about the humans you have working for you, taking care of them is absolutely necessary for the success of your organization. Okay, so you don’t care at all about them. Well do you care about the bottom line? Because that’s what human resources is all about! Even if all you care about is the almighty dollar, the well-being of the people who work for you is imperative to obtain your desired outcomes.

I’ve watched employees awkwardly leave the room while their coworkers are discussing the process of buying a house. I’ve been the employee scared of being asked to drive because mine is a totaled car. I’ve listened to friends who’ve cried when coworkers announced pregnancies or talked about sending their kids to college. I’ve overheard new moms face judgment for not taking full (unpaid) maternity leave and explain that they couldn’t afford to go three months without a paycheck. I’ve bristled at the “well what does your husband do?” questions whenever low nonprofit salaries make their way into a discussion. Does it ever end?

People who are doing intense crisis management work are being paid $12-$14 dollars an hour in many places. Especially in some nonprofit sectors, we know we are vastly underpaying staff, and with all I could say about how we can change that but are simply unwilling to, my point today is that at the very least, we can do what is expected of good leaders – tap into what’s going on in our offices and with our employees.

As always, I want those of you who have told me your stories and those of you who silently hold them in, to know you are not alone. I also want you to know that there is hope. So if you find yourself stressed because of financial strain, multiple jobs, inadequate salary, and the like; If you’ve been admonished for not “taking care of yourself,” know that there is a whole body of literature about how what you are experiencing reflects inadequate management…and classism.

The standard approach in toxic organizational environments is to blame the person for what is a situational problem (psychological concept of person vs. situation bias). That’s a huge mistake. But more and more management programs are addressing this, and more and more work is being done to get people like you, people who live it, into management positions. I have to believe that we can turn things around. One of my greatest hopes is that someday we can finally end this infuriating assumption that us women who do nonprofit work all have husbands who support us (Did you notice how many of my examples above center on gender expectations?). We’re just doing this for fun or to feel good about ourselves, right? I’m convinced this assumption defines many nonprofit sectors and stems from the classism, racism and sexism in which these environments are rooted.

A few years ago, one of the women leaders I mentioned at the beginning of this post saw me struggling to say no to some colleagues about going out to dinner. She, not incredibly well-off herself, pulled me aside and very appropriately and kindly ask me if it was because of the cost. When I said yes, she gave me cash and encouraged me to go. She didn’t shame me. She understood and offered help. So some people get it, and I write this with the hope that more people will.

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3 thoughts on ““Well what does your husband do?”: Class Expectations and Ignorance in Nonprofit Work Environments

  1. I apologize in advance for my ignorance but I think I’m missing something in the essay. You wrote: “We’re just doing this for fun or to feel good about ourselves, right? I’m convinced this assumption defines many nonprofit sectors and stems from the classism, racism and sexism in which these environments are rooted.”

    Why do you work at a non-profit? I ask because I worked for decades at non-profits and I did so because I didn’t want to participate in the awfulness of “for-profit” work (not that non-profit work can’t be awful…but it sometimes isn’t). I always sort of assumed that the absence of a high salary was sort of the tax I paid to hang on to some of my soul/spirit.

    Why there is some penalty for retaining a semblance of integrity is a whole other question…but now that I’m retired I find that one of my most valued remembrances about my working life is that I did not participate in “for-profit” organizations. It may be because of my age (I’m considerably older than you, I think) but I never had any qualms about blowing off something because of financial considerations. I always sort of thought folks who went out and purchased lunches every day were being sort of goofy with their life. I say life instead of money because we usually get money by selling our time and that’s valuable stuff…so valuable that I didn’t want to blow it on going out to lunch.

    Your assistance in enhancing my understanding is appreciated. Thank you.

    • I think that women’s work should be valued and “at least you get to work for a good cause” is insufficient when used to dismiss real concerns about living wages, ability to retire, health care needs, child care needs, and the like. As one of my MSW professors said long ago, “I want us to stop saying, ‘at least it’s a worthy cause,’ and advocate for enhancing positions we already have in our organizations instead of adding more and more part-time, incredibly low-paying, no benefits positions.” In my experience (I am in a certain sector) these positions often target and exploit low income women of color. We keep women in these positions by shaming them for wanting the pay and benefits that they deserve by insisting they should be grateful for getting to work on XYZ issue. We CAN improve these positions but we choose not to. I may address this more fully in a future blog post.

  2. I work in outdoor recreation industry and we have many similar issues. In fact, I read this article because of the number of times (in the hundreds) that I have asked someone “what does your wife do?” or “how can you afford to own a house in Boulder, CO?” I always ask this because even though getting people out in the wilderness can and does change lives and the world for the better, I could not figure out how to stretch my budget to meet my goals of family and retirement. I too have always thought of that as “tax on having a job I’m passionate about.” I have recently changed fields to address these needs. I mention this because, while this certainly can be a gender issue, I really wanted to highlight the class/wage issue that you discussed. And I thought it worth mentioning that keeping in place the taboo of discussing budget constraints aloud might even be a larger culprit in the issue of livable wages. Everyone is ignoring their budgets, thinking they are alone in not being able to afford lunches out.

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