5 Questions for...Debra Mesch, Director, Women’s Philanthropy Institute, IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy
June 28, 2016
The road to equality for women in the United States has been long and winding. Women only gained the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment and were not legally protected from discrimination in employment based on their sex until passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Progress on the equal rights front accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s with, among other things, passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments in 1972; the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981; and the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro as the first woman vice presidential candidate of a major party in 1984. Other "firsts" soon followed.
Today, women occupy positions of leadership in every field of endeavor and have more opportunity than at any point in history. And they are gaining a higher share of the world's wealth: new data released earlier this month reveals that women now control 30 percent of global wealth (a number that is expected to rise) and that their wealth is growing at a faster rate than overall global wealth rates. Moreover, while the gender pay gap persists, women are using their increased financial and political clout to support causes and influence societal change as never before.
Recently, PND spoke with Debra Mesch, Eileen Lamb O'Gara Chair in Women’s Philanthropy and director of the Women's Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, about WPI's research and what it tells us about the differences in the way men and women give and how those differences translate into philanthropic practice. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the institute released its latest report, Giving to Women and Girls: Who Gives, and Why (52 pages, PDF), in May.
Debra Mesch: Well, for starters, because we have seen women’s roles change dramatically over the last fifty years or so. And those changes suggest there’s huge potential for women to play a bigger role in philanthropy. Look at the key variables that affect philanthropy — income, wealth, and education. Those are the strongest predictors of philanthropic giving. And today we see that women have more of all three: they're more educated, they are out-earning their husbands in some cases and their wealth is increasing, and they are making more of the financial decisions in their households. So we're seeing these new household configurations where women are increasing their potential to engage in philanthropy. And these changes, with women earning more and inheriting wealth of their own, either from their parents or because they outlive their husbands, mean that women, as a group, are going to be in control of a huge amount of money, some of which will be available for philanthropic causes.
We also see that women engage in philanthropy in a different way than men do, and it's important to understand those differences. In the past, the traditional nonprofit model for engaging donors was very male-centered. I'm not saying there's something wrong with that, I'm just making the point that men and women are different and engage in philanthropy differently. That's why we're at a tipping point. We're seeing women like Melinda Gates, Priscilla Chan, and others, very prominent women, finding their own philanthropic voice. In fact, Melinda Gates, who is very focused on women's and girls' issues, is an important funder of our research, and while the Women's Philanthropy Institute isn't focused on women and girls per se, we are trying to understand gender differences in giving across all types of philanthropic organizations and how the voices of individual women are having an impact on the field.
PND: If gender is a social construct, and sex is about biology, what does your research tell you about how gender and sex influence the way women give?
DM: In general, we find that women are more empathetic and engage in more pro-social and altruistic behavior than men do. It goes back to social-role theory, which holds that men and women in a country like ours are born into very traditional roles that come with well-established expectations. Women in the U.S. — women in most countries — are socialized at an early age to take care of their families and children. Despite all the changes in other areas of women's lives, that really hasn't changed much. The latest data show that even when both the man and woman in a household are working full time, it's the woman who has more responsibility for taking care of her family and the needs of the household, and she spends significantly more time than her male partner doing so. As a result, we find that women engage in philanthropy differently and have different philanthropic motivations based on the role they've been socialized to play. At the institute, we like to say that women give from the heart while men give from the head. We find that women are not that interested in the tax implications of charitable giving; instead, they want to know that when they give, their gift will make a difference. Men, on the other hand, are much more willing to write the check and hand it over to an organization without worrying so much about what happens after it is cashed — unless, of course, it involves having their name attached to a building. That's another difference. Women don't care so much about having their name splashed on a building. Empathy for others is a very strong motivation for women when they give, whereas for men giving is often more about self-interest.