Toxic Work Environments in the Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice World

25 Apr

A co-worker once told me that in her 10+ years of working in the reproductive health field, her peers in other movements validated time and again that our movement is the most fucked up. Not fucked up because we don’t have our hearts in the right place (we do) or because we don’t have science on our side (we do), but because of the way we treat each other, and the way our intra-movement politics operate.

Every so often several friends and I debate the merits of “outing” certain organizations for their legendary bullshit. Everyone knows that organization A has an executive director who’s a megalomanic. Everyone knows that two particular organizations bully other smaller organizations. Everyone knows that organization B likes to fire (almost) everyone every couple of years. Everyone knows that certain national organizations have less than cordial relationships with their local affiliates. Is there merit in pinning a name to these claims? What would happen to the person who decided to to do so? Would she be ex-communicated from the movement? Lose the ability to work or volunteer in the movement ever again?

Maybe my friends and I are just bitter (former) employees. But we also believe that our movement can and should be better than this. Is this bait for antis? Everything is bait for antis. I’m willing to bet that they have similar problems in their own organizations. In a time of unprecedented legislative attacks on reproductive health, it feels impossible to find a second to catch our breath and evaluate how we’re doing. I have to believe that making sure our organizations are functioning productively and treating their employees humanely is as important as the work we’re doing.

In an effort to be less vague, let me make it painfully obvious. Here are a few clues that the reproductive health, rights, or justice organization you work at may be a toxic work environment:

  • You’re expected to treat your members/patients/donors better than the way your boss/upper management treats you.
  • You’re afraid to confront your co-worker/your boss about something racist/classist/transphobic/etc she said for fear of losing your job.
  • You don’t get insurance coverage. The insurance coverage you get doesn’t cover pre-natal care, contraception, or abortion. You don’t get decent maternity or paternity leave. Yet these are all values your organization supposedly champions.
  • There is frequent turn over and burn-out because of low pay and high stress.
  • Your volunteers, interns, or anyone with “assistant” in their title are treated as a commodity.
  • Young people, people of color, and/or queer folks are not valued, are not expected to be leaders, and are tokenized.
  • When you give thoughtful feedback about your job or about the organization in general, no one takes you seriously.
  • Your organization primarily works with or on behalf of low-income communities, communities of color, and/or young people, yet those folks are not represented on the staff or on the board. And there are no conversations about class, race, or privilege among staff. Ever.
  • You see young people being encouraged to take on responsibilities for which they are not being paid, for the good of the organization and therefore the movement.
  • You find yourself having to mask your work conditions, including poor communication, bad management, and unclear organizational goals, while selling your organization to donors and supporters.
  • You are underpaid and are made to feel uncomfortable for any mention of that, or for requesting to be paid fairly, because times are tough/the economy is bad/you should be putting the organization’s needs before your own.
  • Your organization only cares about marginalized people in a marginalized place (hello, low-income Texan women!) when your org stands to make a buck off of promoting their rough situation.

I want to be clear that these problems don’t exist in a vacuum (certainly stigma and a small professional world both play a part), and that they don’t exist only in the reproductive health, rights, and justice world.  I think the above grievances feel particularly shitty because we expect better. We expect organizations that are fighting for basic human rights to treat their employees and volunteers like, well, human beings. No organization or movement is perfect. I certainly hope that my former co-worker is wrong and that we’re not the most fucked up. But in listening to dozens of folks who’ve done this work at the highest and lowest levels, I suspect that it’s more than just the non-profit industrial complex.

I originally ended this post with some tips for upper management folks on how to begin to correct the above issues, but let’s be real. They’re not reading this blog. Should we “out” the organizations that perpetuate these problems? Frankly, I don’t have the answer to that. So to those suffering any or all of the above conditions: You’re not alone. You’re not making it up. You deserve better. And if you need a space to vent or process any of your experiences: write about it, anonymously or with your name attached (e-mail us and we’ll even publish it here!). Find your compatriots who are going through the same thing, whether in this movement or others. Let’s figure out how to make our movement sustainable for everyone in it.

Thanks to those who helped me come up with the bulleted list. I won’t name you, in case your organizations might penalize you. You know who you are. Thank you.


17 Responses to “Toxic Work Environments in the Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice World”

  1. Serena April 25, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    Steph, thanks for this list. I totally agree that it is extremely disappointing to be treated like crap within the movement because of the expectation that you should be treated better.

    While I don’t disagree with anything that you’ve said, in my experience, all of the nonprofits I have worked for treat their employees like shit. I have worked at a gay & lesbian center, and an HIV/AIDS service provider. Both organizations severely underpaid the staff, expected people to meet unrealistic performance standards, and generally treated staff people like they were subhuman.

    I’m not saying this to excuse any of the pro-choice organizations for mistreating their staff. I’m only mentioning it because I think nonprofits in general expect way too much from their employees for far too little pay.

  2. Anne April 25, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    Thank you so much for this post! I don’t want to get stuck in a feedback loop of complaining, but the way you framed these complaints is refreshing and actually looks at these common problems in a holisitic way.

    I work at a sexual assault agency and share all of the complaints you listed. One that constantly breaks my heart is that I frequently attend trainings on how to be an anti-oppression ally and then take the ideas back to my supervisors where I am then effectively silenced or ignored or told that we “can’t implement that right now”. I am silenced because I constantly fear for my job, and I feel like a failure as a supposed ally.

    What are some ways we can truly advocate for change within our organizations? What are other people’s strategies? And how long do I stay with these organizations before I find something that doesn’t break my heart everyday?

  3. Jen April 25, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    ….Actually, I just received this from my executive director, who received it from another ED at another affiliate. So apparently, upper management IS reading this blog (and is willing to pass this post along to fellow upper management folks, which is kinda astounding to me). Maybe edit to add those tips back in?

  4. whats new April 25, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

    Umm you have just described the entire development sector. So sick of whining if you think its so bad why don`t you start your own organization and treat your employees better instead of quitting and airing dirty laundry. Such a slave mentality. Quit malingering and erect an organization you can be proud to rep or shut the fuck up and continue to live in anonymity.

  5. Maggie April 25, 2012 at 4:09 pm #

    “What are some ways we can truly advocate for change within our organizations?”

    I’ve worked for national and regional “pro-choice,” “feminist,” “LGBT friendly” and “union/worker friendly” non-profit agencies for a number of years, and finally got into a different line of work once I realized they didn’t believe anything they espoused and kept losing in every way possible year in and out.

    I finally figured out that that best way to truly change things is to keep your money and support away from the groups you know are bad who set their agenda based on funding from foundations and the rich dictate is their preference or flavor of the election cycle this time around, etc.

    I no longer donate to the national pro-choice groups, I give to their local or state affiliates or the local abortion fund. $100 to the NARAL’s of the world so they can pay a vendor to send out action alerts that end up getting ignored by Congress anyways is a waste of time and money versus $100 to a volunteer abortion fund where almost all of that will actually go to a woman in need, and not to someone needing to justify their paycheck and existence through a corporate, “feminist” career.

  6. Robin April 25, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    I actually think that for many EDs and upper management folks, their only real work experience has been in movement organizations or political machines that have a long history of poor management. When the only management training somebody receives is their experience as an employee trying to advance it is no surprise that they perpetuate a toxic work environment once an individual is in a management position. Doesn’t make it okay, but the lack of professional development focused on management and operations is endemic to movement work.

  7. Steph April 25, 2012 at 5:05 pm #

    You’re all bringing up some great points. Thank you! I think naming the problem in really explicit terms is a first step. I’m really heartened to see that some organizations are reading this and passing it along. I hope it starts (or adds to) a much-needed conversation. For those who are interested, here are some starting points that I came up with for upper management folks to consider:

    1. Start with the people lower on the totem pole. They deserve to be satisfied with their jobs too. Are the people staffing your hotline getting paid an equitable wage? Are the folks (wo)manning your social media accounts getting health insurance? Are the hours and expectations fair compared to what they are getting paid? Are they challenged in their work? Does the organization respect and value them?

    2. Provide opportunities for everyone. Allow different people to attend conferences on behalf of the organization. Find time for professional development. People want to learn on the job, not just complete rote tasks.

    3. Is morale low? Take the time to find out why, and figure out a sustainable way to make it better. Don’t just have the higher up folks brainstorm ways to make everyone happier. Bring in the people who are unsatisfied, and let them open up about their experiences without fear of losing their jobs.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps it’s time we drafted a memo. Or UNIONIZED.

  8. Carol April 25, 2012 at 5:55 pm #


    I have not worked specifically in abortion, but I worked in assisted reproduction, in the first such facility to work with lesbians and single women who wanted to have children. And I agree totally. Very low pay, very minimal benefits. Too much backbiting,favoritism and cliquism, I felt at times I was back in 7th grade. We were expected to accept all this because it was a “non profit”. But the exec director sure lived a lot better than I did. And I was laid off without notice or benefits after she screwed up (did not keep up with a change in law, which was explicitly her job).

  9. Tom April 25, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    “Doesn’t make it okay, but the lack of professional development focused on management and operations is endemic to movement work.”

    So true, have you ever tried working at a church? Quite often it is a similar story for similar reasons.

  10. Essgeebee April 25, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    Thanks or writing this and posting it!

    I see these problems across the board at “feminist” nonprofit

  11. meadowgirl April 25, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

    this makes me happy to know that there is a reason why i don’t work (as in have a paid job) in the movement. i think i’m going to continue to be me, volunteer and just kick ass.

    i’m a BIG FAN of confrontation. ask anyone who knows me in real life- i loves me a fight . i like to call people out on their bullshit and when i know i have “right” (aka love, hope and compassion) on my side- i will fight to the death. i don’t want to support orgs/missions that don’t at least TRY to be inclusive. like i wrote in my blog post- i shoved open the doors of activism bc i didn’t feel i was accepted for what i was- a poor, undereducated woman living in a state that hates ladies.

    i say: call them out and see what’s what. i don’t want to hurt women but i don’t want to hurt us more by keeping quiet- that’s the patriarchy telling us to “be good girls and keep our mouths shut.” doing it with class, tact and empathy is the sticky trick but we all love each other so we all know who’s got the heart and who’s in it to be impressive.

  12. Tapati April 25, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    I ran into the same thing working for an AIDS-related non-profit and I think it is rampant in all such workplaces where staff members are treated like glorified volunteers. No, wait, volunteers were treated better! The only exception is that we had decent health care.

  13. Melodious April 26, 2012 at 10:12 am #

    I have worked for reproductive health not-profits and other not-profits. While the reproductive health not-profit that I used to work for was not perfect, I feel it wasn’t nearly as miserable as other not-profits I have worked for (and work for now). I don’t think that this is something that purely reproductive health organizations deal with. And I definitely agree with the above poster who mentioned cliques. I think not-profits in general have this problem.

    One thing that was better about the reproductive health not-profits that I have been employed by was the camraderie between the low level ‘grunts’. And I have less health care coverage now.

  14. Lisa May 7, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Thank you for writing this. When I worked for a reproductive rights organization, I experienced many of the things you have described. It helps me make sense of the situation, hearing others share similar experiences.

  15. Chantal May 7, 2012 at 3:53 pm #


    Just wanted to say thanks for this amazing post! Such an important and neglected topic. And one that really resonates with me, as a former abortion care provider. You inspired me to share some similar thoughts on a new blog, The Provider Project. Check it out! I’d love to hear your feedback.


  16. Cynthia May 9, 2012 at 4:19 am #


    That’s why I love working/networking with grassroots folks like you & Shelby & “regular” women who talk the talk AND walk the walk. How can you work for feminist principles when you don’t embody them?

    I’m so glad to read this & I’m seriously considering naming names. It boggled my mind when a major feminist org literally stole my research, the only qualified research, for a major project earlier this year.

    And when another org refused to give credit to a colleague for her public work that put their organization on the map.

    There are some shitty broads, no doubt, that should be called out. Privately. And to their faces. And to their supporters.

    Because they’re keeping a crappy system alive as we’re wondering why the “leaders,” the recognizable faces of our movement aren’t doing anything about a lack of inclusion. Well, they’re the problem!

    There are PLENTY of educated, inspired and well connected folks who can take on these leadership roles. I say we speak up & just change it. We can start by giving ourselves the self respect to honor who we are, no matter where we work or what our bosses say. Do the right thang.

    Sorry to get preachy, I just think we shouldn’t be intimidated or silent just cuz they’re alleged feminists or LGBTQ leaders or civil rights heroes, whoever!


  1. Quick Hit: Toxic workplaces in the reproductive health, rights, and justice fields - April 25, 2012

    […] health, rights, and justice fields By Jos | Published: April 25, 2012 Steph Herold has a brave and necessary piece at The Abortion Gang today about the reproductive health, rights, and justice movement’s […]

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