In Their Words: A Discussion with Women in Nonprofit Leadership

March is Women’s History Month, and to commemorate it we talked with women in leadership roles working at some of NYXT’s nonprofit organization partners. Please send your virtual applause to Angela Geiger, President and CEO of Autism Speaks, Amanda Simon, National Director of Public Affairs at Amnesty International USA, Lynn Parkerson, Founding Artistic Director at Brooklyn Ballet, and Aurelie Harp, Founder and CEO of the Womanity Project.

“As of 2018, women made up 73 percent of all nonprofit employees, with 45 percent of CEOs being female, but as we all know, there’s still a great deal of work to do in this area.” - Angela Geiger, President, and CEO of Autism Speaks

Discussing Challenges and Change with Women in Nonprofit Leadership

What are some challenges and successes that you experienced as a woman in your role? How did you overcome the obstacles?

Amanda Simon: I feel that I was underestimated at a few points in my career. The times I felt most empowered to overcome those obstacles was when I accepted that my work spoke for itself and that others’ view of me was irrelevant to what I had to accomplish.

Angela Geiger: There’s no question that it can be challenging to be a woman in business, and there are deep-rooted obstacles in our culture that many of us have to overcome. My approach throughout my career has always been to play to the many, many strengths we have as women – in fact, I think being a woman has at times been my superpower. Research proves that women have more emotional intelligence, we’re more flexible and collaborative, we have an openness to new ideas that fuels innovation, and so much more.

Aurelie Harp: As an entrepreneur and community builder, I find that the biggest challenge is to stay stuck and be afraid to try things out. When I started The Womanity Project, I had a big idea and I thought it was my responsibility to “think” it all through. I quickly realized that it was a mistake. First, it was isolating - you can’t find people to collaborate with if you can’t express what is in your head. Second, it was counterproductive and exhausting to always think that everything had to come out of my head. Finally, it was also a lack of confidence and I think I’m not the only one feeling that way.

As a woman, my biggest challenge has been to trust my voice. It took me some time to understand and embrace my power and the added value I could bring to the world. It also took me time to understand what leadership means and how “my” leadership looks like. To me, leadership does not mean “power” or authority as defined in our patriarchal society. Leadership is the activity of making offers to build with others. Power is the choice we make every day to offer and participate. It’s very challenging because we tend to forget that every day, we have a choice. As human beings, we all have the power to build and the responsibility to build with others.

Related Reading: Women's Rights Issues to Focus on in 2020

Is gender a topic discussed and analyzed by the groups you work with?

Lynn Parkerson: I discuss this with several of my female colleagues who also have fought and found ways to do their work. There has been progress for younger women coming up so that is positive. For mid and late-career female choreographers there is very little recognition, support, and opportunity. We are still fighting for every dance we do.

Photo via Brooklyn Ballet

Angela Geiger: Gender is certainly a topic that is relevant to the autism community. According to the CDC, boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, which could be true for several reasons. Autism in girls manifests differently than in boys, and since diagnostic tools were developed to fit a pattern of autism that was predominantly based on boys, in some cases autism in girls may be missed.

This is an area we, as the autism community, need to explore further. At Autism Speaks we are committed to creating a more inclusive world for those on the spectrum, which means representing experiences with autism across all genders. Everyone has their own story and perspective and we try to display the diversity of experiences by incorporating a variety of personal stories on our blog. For example, Valerie Paradiz’s story, who wasn’t diagnosed with Autism until the age of 40.

In the context of youth and education, what are some positive changes that you have seen regarding these issues?

Lynn Parkerson: Historically, ballet training has been primarily made available to girls. There has been some progress and more boys are trying it. Brooklyn Ballet’s Elevate outreach program (ballet residencies in public schools) actively recruits boys to study at our school. Many of these boys have gone on to high school and college dance programs and three of Brooklyn’s boys are dancing professionally - in Houston, Norway, and Bulgaria. It is a conundrum that although the vast majority of Ballet dancers are women so few make it to top leadership positions. There is an old patriarchal system in place in the ballet realm, for hundreds of years now that is slow to admit women into positions of creative leadership.

Angela Geiger: Since I started my career, I have seen the workplace gender gap close. As of 2018, women made up 73 percent of all nonprofit employees, with 45 percent of CEOs being female, but as we all know, there’s still a great deal of work to do in this area. From my perspective leading an organization dedicated to supporting people with autism and their families, I’m really encouraged to see better representation, more awareness and a more open conversation about autism and gender.

What changes would you like to see in regard to gender equality in your field America?

Lynn Parkerson: I would like to see more choreography from women on stages big and small. More female leadership in powerful positions of American ballet companies. Positions like Executive Directors, Artistic Directors, Programming Directors.

Aurelie Harp: I think the two main challenges regarding gender equality in the USA and in NYC, in particular, are for Corporations to build healthy inclusive work environments where people are responsible and collaborative and can strive with equal opportunities and respect regardless of their gender, age and race. And for the so-called “vulnerable” communities to be seen, heard and recognized in their full human potential. The Womanity Project’s goal is to help organizations transform their environment into a responsible, inclusive and collaborative space, and produce a space where individuals will be able to share their stories and history and create social change.

What are some of the main issues about feminism that Amnesty International USA is fighting throughout your campaigns?

Amanda Simon: There are too many to mention. I’d begin with equal pay and universal paid parental leave. Additionally, I, like Amnesty International USA, believe women have the right to legal and safe abortion. At AIUSA, we are committed to campaigning to end violence against women globally. We have also conducted groundbreaking research on the high rates of rape and lack of care and justice for Native sexual assault survivors, and now we’re working to strengthen protections that our report helped spark.

Is there a female or gender-related topic that you wish would be more socially discussed or that wasn't so taboo?

Amanda Simon: It seems foundational that to understand and protect women’s health, we should be openly discussing what most women and girls face every month in a way that is free from shame, immaturity, and stigma. I was thrilled to see Scotland pass legislation that would provide free menstrual supplies to its citizens. I would love to see other countries follow suit.

In the context of manhood, what are some positive changes that you have seen regarding these issues?

Aurelie Harp: The main positive change regarding manhood that we’ve observed over the past few years and that has been accelerated with the #metoo movement is the realization of how essential it is to have a conversation about masculinity and manhood and to have men participate in the conversation. The good news is that an increasing number of men wants to be part of the conversation. The main challenge is to understand what is at stake when we talk about masculinity?

How do we engage men in the conversation? How do we challenge the way we talk about gender roles and attributes in our society here in the rest of the world. The Womanity Project started a conversation with Miguel Cortez Vasques, a social therapist and educator from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico and with Jared French, a psychologist in London, Ontario Canada, which will culminate into a group conversation and presentation at the Performing The World conference in NYC in October 2020.

Photo via The Womanity Project

What advice would you give to a young woman aspiring to be in a similar professional position?

Angela Geiger: For young women aspiring to a leadership position, my first piece of advice is to lead from wherever you are. Volunteer to solve problems and don’t turn down opportunities to show your strengths. But it is also important to step back and take the time to listen and observe. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and never underestimate the value of mentorship.

Lynn Parkerson: Become a choreographer only if you absolutely have to. If you are driven to create and can only stay sane by making dances. If this is you, then know that you will have to fight to see your vision realized but when you do it is deeply satisfying. If you are looking to become an executive director, there are lots of training programs, incredible mentors in the field and internship opportunities. Learn as much as you can and don’t expect to be paid well until you earn your keep. If mission-driven work is for you and you’re willing to work hard and continue learning you will succeed.

Related Reading: Press Play: With PPGNY at the Women's March

Do you have any final thoughts?

Angela Geiger: Be kind. In my opinion, kindness is at the center of success in life. At Autism Speaks, we just launched a campaign to make 2020 the “year of kindness.” One small act of kindness can go a long way. If everyone took one extra moment to be kind each day, imagine what an impact we could have.

previous / next

Subscribe to the NYXT newsletter

Learn about upcoming events, volunteer opportunities, and new organizations looking for your help.


New Call-to-action