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  • Mike Fry

The Gender Problem in Animal Welfare



Wayne Pacelle, the former, long-term CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has been in the news recently amid allegations of sexual misconduct. He recently resigned, as have multiple HSUS Board members. For many HSUS donors, the allegations and the resignations have been shocking news. But, for those of us who have worked decades in animal welfare, the news has been less than Earth-shaking. The rumors of Pacelle's various improprieties have been open secrets for years. One female shelter director recently posted the following on Facebook, as one example:

"Years ago, when I was contemplating moving my career forward, a friend who had my best interests in mind counseled me not to go work for HSUS. They told me about Wayne's bad behavior and the abusive culture at their headquarters. I'm prone to remembering things that happen, but not people, so today I remember the conversation, but not who it was with. Whoever it was, I'm so thankful that you steered me away from that path. And I'm so in awe of the women who stood up and brought the harassment at HSUS to the light."

The problem is that the current Pacelle drama shaking HSUS, though unique in its coming to public light, is not so unique in other ways. At another national animal welfare organization, whose director has moved on after many years of controversy, multiple staff reported the CEO had little interest in animal welfare. When he was actively gutting programs that helped animals, staff confronted him at a meeting and asked, "why would you want this job if you don't care about animals?" That CEO reportedly responded, that the title was a good way to get laid. As if to prove his critics right - that he was not really interested in animal welfare - that CEO eventually moved on to go work for the puppy mill industry.

The fact that I have - so far - mentioned two reportedly abusive male CEOs heading animal welfare organizations should not be a surprise to those who follow the industry. In fact, if you look at the leadership of the nationally respected animal welfare organizations, including HSUS, ASPCA, Best Friends Animal Society (BF) and others, all are headed by males, in spite of the fact that animal welfare is overwhelmingly a female majority field, by a ratio of abut 80 percent women to only 20 percent men who work in it. The primary exception to stand out is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), but, for a variety of reasons, they don't really count. Most importantly, PETA has evolved more from a cult-like environment than a reasoned, open one. PETA's catch and kill or steal and kill behavior toward animals, and other radical activities disqualifies them, in my opinion, from being included in a list of "nationally respected animal welfare organizations." The only other exception is Kitty Block, who recently stepped in to fill Pacelle's position at HSUS when he suddenly left during the current controversy.

If you look beyond the current CEOs and include past CEOs, the glass ceiling phenomenon is more pronounced. Best Friends has had three consecutive male CEOs, beginning with Michael Mountain. Then, it was Paul Berry. Now, it is Gregory Castle. At ASPCA, it is now Matt Bershadker. Before him it was Ed Sayres. In other words, this list of CEOs past and present at the major animal welfare organizations in the USA includes six men and one woman and the woman has only been in her position for a matter of days.

The higher up the animal welfare food chain you go, the more pronounced the glass ceiling becomes. I argue that such a glass ceiling is not the same or equal to sexual misconduct. It is, however, a form of bias that discounts and demeans women. At the animal shelter line-staff level, about 80% of employees are female. At CEO level in local animal shelters, the number drops to about 70%. As you move into the wealthier, national organizations, the top spots have been filled almost exclusively by men, which is particularly interesting because ASPCA and HSUS have both written repeatedly about how animal welfare work is largely "women's work," meaning about things that are stereotypically associated with women: compassion, nurturing, caring...

In my opinion, this clearly points to a gender bias on the part of boards of directors at the larger organizations. Additionally, I feel it is a topic that should be openly discussed in the animal welfare field. We are, after all, often called upon to aid women who have been the victims of abuse by men. Therefore, if leadership at our largest animal welfare organizations have a gender bias, the implications are more than troubling.

I'm not going to pretend to fully understand this dynamic, or have a solution for it. But, I am interested in having a conversation about it. Please visit the No Kill Learning Facebook Page to share your thoughts/experiences.

#gender #metoo #leadership #abuse