Revealing Women’s Economic Value: A Chat with Berit Ashla

One thing COVID has shown us is new ways to appreciate women’s economic value and professional contributions to the world. A case in point that directly impacts me: many insurance companies during COVID have waived copays for psychotherapy (I’m a psychotherapist in my other day job), essentially granting many people an open door to emotional care, unrestricting access to an area of health care that had been previously blocked by confusing and expensive deductibles and co-pays. In doing so, this action also added economic value to mental health counseling, which is primarily done by women, in a new way.

Berit Ashla, Vice President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, recently spoke with Philanthropy Women about how COVID is revealing women’s economic value, particularly in the care economy. (Image Credit: Berit Ashla)

Another case in point: the need for nurses, a profession comprised mostly of women. Suddenly this profession, which has always been sort of taken for granted, is front and center and absolutely vital to our survival. The result: the need for nurses has driven up wages and bonuses for the work.

But these examples only tell part of the story. Recently I hopped on the phone with Berit Ashla, Vice President at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, to discuss the way that women’s economic worth is being both affirmed — and devalued — in COVID. We discussed this idea across a range of social sectors, including philanthropy. 

COVID Makes Visible the Economy of Care Workers

Ashla sees a striking and important outcome from Covid. “What’s being made visible is the labor economy of care workers,” said Ashla, in relation to the issue of women’s economic value becoming more central to our lives in Covid. 

Ashla is based in San Francisco and leads RPA’s West Coast work, managing clients from all giving spheres, including family and corporate. Ashla has devoted over two decades of her career to the philanthropic sector, with roles as a Senior Advisor at Tides and manager of Threshold Foundation. She has also led arts and sustainability organizations, and earlier in her career, did stints in community foundations, public television, and environmental work in Paris, France.

Ashla has a uniquely robust and multi-dimensional vantage point from which to speak about women’s issues. And she sees clearly how women’s work, and the work and professional lives of people of color, is devalued in the philanthropy sector. 

An essential role for philanthropy organizations right now, says Ashla, is doing a full audit of their own internal governance and employment, ensuring that they are doing their part to advance opportunity for women and people of color.

“Funders need to ask this question of the nonprofits they support as well as to themselves: What does diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging mean in your organization, both at the staff leadership and board levels?” said Ashla. 

She qualified this statement by adding that, “We’re not making this an arduous ask. We know [many nonprofits] are working on lean budgets. But we can’t know if we don’t ask the question.” Ashla is well aware of how, when a nonprofit can hardly find the money to keep functioning, issues like diversity in governance can “fall down on the list” of priorities, but it’s a critical factor in building a thriving, successful organization.

Paying Women Correctly in Philanthropy

“The challenge is that only 21% of large nonprofit CEOs are women,” said Ashla. “And within philanthropy, female executives make 80 cents on the dollar compared to men. People need to know about this, and I don’t think enough people do.”

And how to get people aware of this fact, and actively doing something about it? Beyond talking about it in the media, as we are doing right now, Ashla acknowledged that it’s a problem that is not easily solved. Ashla remarked about how difficult it is to actually move power and financial resources to women in the workplace. “Men have fewer networks, but they tend to be more powerful and financially resourced,” she said.

In other words, women know lots of people, they just don’t have influence over the people who turn the knobs of power. And there’s always risk, in any small sector, of raising an awkward question that involves your own professional status as a woman.

“Someone like Ai-Jen Poo, who is revolutionizing the way we think of the rights of the domestic worker economy, serving on the board of the Ford Foundation, that gives me hope,” said Ashla, in reference to the difficulty of women getting into positions of power in the giving sector. “Ai-Jen’s presence on that board forces that body to reimagine some fundamental power dynamics. “

She also paid homage to Melinda Gates and her role in articulating and promoting the idea that there is power in investing in women and girls because it fundamentally improves all economies around the world.

“There needs to be a massive culture shift away from women feeling inadequate,” said Ashla. She is a big believer in the “Gotta see it to be it” mentality and of philanthropy playing a vital role in culture change. She sees how women’s ways of leading create  “a different way of thinking about power, money, community, and voice.”

“There are some incredible women leaders in philanthropy that are actually redirecting what’s possible,” she said, and referenced Leah Hendrix-Hunt, founder of Solidaire, a network of donors who came together in 2017 to move more capital into distressed communities, taking an intersectional lens to do this work.

She also referenced the many women-led efforts happening right now that are mobilizing for voter protection and voter turnout. “The women donors I am working with are firing on all cylinders as philanthropists, as networkers, and often as professionals bringing their own expertise. They are bringing all of themselves forward. And they’re finding ways to bring friends on board as well.”

Women’s Economic Value: Going Above and Beyond

As our conversation wound down, Ashla offered deep appreciation for women leaders who go above and beyond, who do the kind of giving that far exceeds the usual 5-10% that private foundations donate, in exchange for tax deductions, to charity. She referenced Jennifer Doudna, who just won the Nobel Prize for Science, along with Emmanuelle Charpentier, for their breakthroughs in gene editing research. Ashla said she was near tears when she learned from Doudna, who is a long-time friend, that Doudna will be giving all of her Nobel Prize money, approximately $550,000, to a program that supports young women and people of color advancing in STEM fields. 

“I really hope other STEM philanthropists will match this incredible gift from Jennifer Doudna,” said Ashla. Doudna has been a mentor to many budding female scientists, perhaps she will now motivate a next generation of philanthropists. 


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Learn More about Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors here.

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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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