For decades, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has been at the forefront of the country’s reckoning with discrimination against women.

Their 2018 research on the gender wage gap—which they began researching in 1999—was cited when Colorado passed an equal-pay law that took effect last year. And over the past decade, the nonprofit’s work has also played an important role in the passage of recent equal-pay laws in Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New York; paid sick day laws for workers in Philadelphia and Maryland; and new family and medical leave laws in Oregon and Connecticut, former staffers said.

“IWPR took the lead in terms of translating academic research into policy-relevant output,” said Yana Rodgers, a professor of labor studies and employment relations and director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.

But advocates and former employees say that the organization appears to be in crisis under the leadership of C. Nicole Mason, who was named president and chief executive in 2019. Since then, high turnover at all levels of the organization has left a bare-bones research staff. Key research projects meant to focus on inequities facing women of color, which have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding, have stalled or appear to have been abandoned entirely. Some advocates who once relied on IWPR’s research say they no longer can. And records show that board members have repeatedly questioned Mason about the high turnover, and its impacts on IWPR’s ability to carry out its grant-funded research.

The allegations of turmoil within IWPR come at a time when advocates say that research on women’s economic and employment issues is critical, particularly in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and the pandemic’s negative impacts on women’s employment.

“Reproductive rights and child care and the pay gap, these issues aren’t going away quickly, but they do have more traction, and it would be nice to see IWPR help lead the way,” said Randy Albelda, a feminist economist and professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who helped develop the simulation model that IWPR researchers used to estimate the cost of paid leave programs.

The American Prospect interviewed 27 former employees of IWPR over a span of eight months to report this story. The majority of former IWPR staffers declined to allow their full names to be used, due to fear of retaliation. The Prospect also reviewed more than four dozen internal documents from IWPR, including emails, grant proposals and agreements, and records of board meetings.

In statements provided to the Prospect, both Mason and the board of directors, which controls her employment, initially rejected former staffers’ claims that the organization is in crisis, emphasizing the millions of dollars in funding Mason has raised during her tenure and the more than 80 research publications and briefs IWPR has published since Mason took the helm. (Seventy-five percent of those reports were authored or co-authored by research staffers who have since left IWPR, according to the Prospect’s analysis.)

“In three short years, IWPR has evolved from relative obscurity to relevance, active at the center of important conversations for gender equity and positioning it as the go-to think tank of the women’s rights movement,” Mason said. “There is an urgency to our work, and much is at stake. I am committed to winning big for working women, their families, and communities, and leading IWPR to its next level of impact.”

The board’s statement, which Mason provided to the Prospect, said, “We are confident in Dr. Mason’s leadership, and support the strategic direction she has charted.”

Yet within weeks after this reporter sent Mason and two executive board members separate lists of detailed questions based on the reporting in this story, a law firm retained by the board to assist with an independent review of IWPR’s workplace environment began contacting former staffers for interviews, according to three sources. Damali Taylor, a partner at O’Melveny, the law firm conducting the review, served on IWPR’s board under Mason.

In an updated statement, the board confirmed it retained the law firm to review the workplace culture upon learning about the findings of the Prospect’s investigation, and said that it established a special committee to oversee the review. The board said that Taylor is not involved in the review and that it is an independent investigation directed solely by the board, though IWPR management is aware of it. The firm has conducted over 30 interviews thus far, the statement added.

“The IWPR Board of Directors is committed to ensuring a supportive workplace,” the board said in the statement. “The Board will take all appropriate actions at the conclusion of the investigation, and will be transparent with IWPR employees and stakeholders about those actions.”

A New Leader With a New Vision

Mason’s ascent to the helm of IWPR marked a major transition in the history of the Institute, which has had only one other president: feminist economist Heidi Hartmann, who founded it in 1987 and received a MacArthur “genius” grant seven years later for her work applying a gender lens to economic and employment issues.

When former staffers learned that Mason, who is Black, would be coming aboard, several said they hoped she would usher in a new era.

“It was very much an organization that came out of the 1970s second-wave feminist movement, and in some ways it was a little stuck there,” Lea Woods, a former development associate at IWPR who resigned last year, said of the organization before Mason joined.

Chandra Childers, a former senior researcher and study director at IWPR who is Black, said she “loved that idea of seeing a Black woman take over.”

Mason fired Childers last fall after seven years at the organization. Childers alleges that Mason claimed she wasn’t doing the work she was hired for. Childers disputes that characterization, pointing to various publications she produced last year.

Mason did not respond to a specific inquiry about why Childers was fired.

Prior to joining IWPR, Mason served as executive director of the Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest at the New York Women’s Foundation, and executive director of the Women of Color Policy Network at New York University.

Her 2016 memoir, Born Bright: A Young Girl’s Journey From Nothing to Something in America, charts her trajectory from being raised by a single teenage mother in Los Angeles to studying at Howard University. She also earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Maryland. In 2013, Mason published Me First: A Deliciously Selfish Take on Life, a self-help book.

In a statement released after her new position at IWPR was announced, she said: “IWPR has an important role to play in helping generate policies, solutions, and strategies grounded in the experiences of real women across the country.”

But several former staffers said Mason deprioritized the wonky academic research IWPR was once known for in favor of taking on more of an advocacy role, seeking publicity and hosting events.

Mason’s penchant for being in the press has paid off. She claims to have coined the term “shecession” to describe the mass exodus of women from the workforce due to the pandemic, which she has discussed in several interviews. Fortune magazine listed her among its “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” last year.

Several former staffers pointed to IWPR’s first-ever PowerPlus Summit, a two-day event that took place in San Francisco in April, which they believe exemplifies Mason’s vision for the future of IWPR. While celebrity guests including author Roxane Gay, New York Attorney General Letitia James, and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) discussed issues of gender inequity, research was absent from the event, other than a few statistics compiled from old reports that flashed on the screen behind the stage, former staffers said.

IWPR did host other research-focused events this year, including a conference on “U.S. Care Infrastructure” at American University. But several former staffers said planning PowerPlus was Mason’s priority, which they contend reflects her undervaluing of research.

In her statement provided to the Prospect, Mason rejected the claim that she has deprioritized research at IWPR.

“First and foremost, I am a researcher,” she said. “I believe in the power of rigorous, evidence-based research to shape public discourse, spark new narratives, and to fuel policy change. I also believe that for research to have impact, it must be supported by robust and creative strategies for ensuring it is understood and part of the conversation that drives system change.”

A Dwindling Staff

In Me First, her first book, Mason tells readers to “get on a winning team” and “follow through on projects and complete tasks” to maintain their reputations and succeed in their careers. But records and interviews with former staffers suggest that Mason has struggled to do either during her nearly three years leading IWPR, instead contributing to a toxic work environment that led them to leave the organization.

The organization’s turnover rate was 80 percent last year and is 72 percent [UPDATE: 78 percent] so far this year, according to the Prospect’s analysis of staff departures. IWPR currently has only three full-time researchers on staff, compared to 14 who were on staff in the fall of 2020, according to a written record of a board meeting from that time.

Three academics who study nonprofit management told the Prospect that IWPR’s turnover rates go far beyond the levels of turnover that can be expected from a leadership change or even the Great Resignation.

“My opinion is with these kinds of turnover rates, it’s not possible to fulfill an organizational mission of any kind,” said Joshua Knapp, a professor of management at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

A source close to the organization added that leaders aim to fill more than a dozen open research positions over the next several months.

Mason did not respond to a question from the Prospect about what she believes has caused the turnover. She added that she and the chief strategy officer, Robyn Watson Ellerbe, also contribute to research. The statement from the board, provided by Mason, said “changes” at IWPR “occurred during an unprecedented transformation of the non-profit employment market.”

But several former staffers say Mason herself is a key cause of the turnover.

For Michelle Hawks Cuellar, joining IWPR after finishing her doctorate was a dream. She was hired as the associate director of the Center for the Economics of Reproductive Health in 2021 and began focusing on the impacts of abortion restrictions on young women of color in particular. As a Latina, she said, the work felt important.

But she soon realized the reality of working at IWPR was far different than what she had imagined. She worked alone and struggled to get Mason’s attention, even though Mason was her direct supervisor, she said.

When she and Mason did interact, it was often fraught, she said. Hawks Cuellar described interactions that were similar to those described by several other former staffers, who said Mason sometimes had what they considered unfair expectations that she sometimes expressed by screaming at staffers, or in other demeaning ways.

Mason said she categorically denies any allegations of yelling at staff.

In one instance, Hawks Cuellar recounted that Mason screamed at her when she took 12 minutes to return Mason’s phone call to discuss an overspent grant. Email records following the call show that Hawks Cuellar apologized for the delay and that Mason said she only reaches out by phone and text with urgent inquiries but generally expects timely responses from her employees.

Several former staffers, who have since successfully become employed elsewhere, also said Mason told them they were bad writers.

Several anonymous reviews on the company’s Glassdoor page over a period of months also characterize Mason and IWPR’s workplace environment as toxic.

“There was no support to accomplish high-impact deliverables and then bullying when we could not make the impossible happen,” Hawks Cuellar said of working with Mason.

After three months at IWPR, Hawks Cuellar resigned.

In her resignation email to the staff, she wrote that she was leaving to “prioritize and value my integrity, self-worth, and mental health.” A former senior staffer forwarded that email to a board member, who never responded.

Nine other early-career researchers—four of whom are also women of color—said they had similar experiences: They arrived at IWPR eager to start their careers researching gender- and race-based inequities, and left after finding a lack of research supervision and what they described as an impossible environment in which to thrive.

“I think if there was a board that was fulfilling their fiduciary duty, this wouldn’t be happening, or wouldn’t still be continuing,” Hawks Cuellar said of IWPR’s turnover and incomplete research.

Mason did not respond to a question about Hawks Cuellar’s and the other early-career researchers’ claims.

In a statement provided by Mason, the board said its members are “not responsible for the day-to-day operations of IWPR” and have engaged in “an ongoing, transparent dialogue with Dr. Mason about IWPR’s evolution and the challenges associated with that growth.”

“IWPR cannot comment on individual personnel matters; however, employee development and fostering an inclusive, energized and motivated workplace is a top priority for the Board and management team,” the statement said.

“IWPR’s Board and management team take allegations of misconduct seriously and will take all appropriate action in response to any such complaints,” the statement added.

“We Could Be Doing More”

Former staffers say the high turnover has undermined the organization’s capacity to conduct the research it once pioneered—and records of board meetings show Mason has admitted as much.

IWPR appears to have failed to complete or release at least $435,000 worth of funded research projects since 2020, most of which were meant to highlight barriers facing women of color, due to turnover and understaffing, according to former staffers and a review of internal documents.

Those include a $400,000 project meant to focus on the wealth gap and women of color, funded by the Kresge Foundation and originally due in August 2021; a report on the status of Black women in three Southern states, funded by the Children’s Defense Fund for $35,000 and originally due last December; a report on the status of reproductive rights in Florida—where a 15-week abortion ban is currently in effect—funded by the Women’s Foundation of Florida and due last November; and research on Black mothers in for-profit schools and older Black women and unemployment, which was funded by a grant from the NoVo Foundation and completed by Childers—the former study director whom Mason fired—by June 2020, according to Childers and another former staffer familiar with the project.

Rodgers, the Rutgers professor, said those areas of incomplete research are critical given the particular economic and reproductive health barriers women of color face. “In order for policies to change and practices to change, we really need to have data on what the problem is,” Rodgers said.

Neither Mason nor representatives for the board responded to specific inquiries about the state of each of the seemingly incomplete research projects.

A statement from the board said IWPR’s board, management, and funders “are aligned on the goals and progress” of specific research projects. “Each of IWPR’s current research projects is well-managed, with personal oversight by Dr. Mason,” said the board’s statement, which Mason provided.

Representatives for the Kresge Foundation, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the Women’s Foundation of Florida declined requests for comment on the IWPR projects they funded.

A representative for the NoVo Foundation said the $600,000 grant it gave IWPR was not tied to the completion of specific reports. The representative added that the foundation is no longer funding IWPR, but did not elaborate as to why.

Records of board meetings show that at least four current and one former board member have raised concerns about staffing and turnover and offered to intervene.

Last fall, board member Joan Marsh, chief regulatory and state external affairs officer at AT&T, asked “if the staffing challenges undermines [sic] the commitments made to our funders,” according to a written summary of the meeting.

Mason responded that funders “are flexible and generous with us. Because IWPR can produce a lot, we are able to leverage those relationships,” according to the summary.

In a statement provided to the Prospect by Mason, Marsh said: “Since her appointment in late 2019, Dr. Mason has had an open, frequent and productive dialogue with the Board about her progress as well as the challenges in implementing the evolution of the organization’s strategy.”

Also at the board meeting last fall, “Dr. Mason added that we could be doing more if hired to our capacity,” according to a summary.

“If there’s a place like IWPR that does not have the employees or staff to do this work, then those funds should be going to other organizations that can absorb that,” said Hawks Cuellar.

“A Big Loss” for Advocates

None of IWPR’s six research priority areas, including the Center for the Economics of Reproductive Health, currently have leaders.

The center was established in 2018 with a $900,000, three-year grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, with the goal of conducting research and advocacy on women’s reproductive health and economic opportunity. But it has remained unstaffed since June 2021, when its associate director, Hawks Cuellar, resigned.

Albelda, the feminist economist, said that not having any researchers employed in the center is “an unfortunate missed opportunity” for IWPR in light of increasing abortion restrictions nationwide, which research shows disproportionately impact women of color.

IWPR was supposed to produce three original research reports using the initial Hewlett grant money, on the impacts of abortion access on educational attainment, labor market outcomes, and the welfare of the next generation, internal documents show. But none of those reports were released after the center’s founding director left IWPR in March 2020.

Mason did not respond to a question about why the reports weren’t released.

Carla Aguirre Piris, a communications officer for the Hewlett Foundation, said IWPR staffers spoke with Hewlett staffers about “adjustments to their initial research plan” and that Hewlett staffers were “satisfied that the terms of the grant were met.” (IWPR produced four out of five other briefing papers it also proposed for the grant.)

Hewlett granted IWPR another $900,000 to support the center in June 2021, and $4 million last November to fund a project focused on providing sexual and reproductive health services to community college students—the majority of whom are women and students of color—which nobody has been employed to lead.

Aguirre Piris said Hewlett staff and IWPR staff communicated about staffing issues at the times the foundation gave the grants. “That said, lack of staffing over an extended period is a concern, and would be discussed by the program staff at the next interim reporting period,” she added, characterizing IWPR’s turnover rates as “steep and concerning.”

Neither representatives for the board nor Mason responded to a specific question about the lack of staffing in the center.

IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative, or SPSI, is another research area that former staffers and advocates say isn’t living up to its potential.

SPSI launched in 2010 with $1 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the goal of studying inequities that student parents, most of whom are women and students of color, face in higher education. It has remained unstaffed since its last staffer, a research associate, left in February.

Former staffers and advocates say IWPR’s decade of research on student parents filled a major gap on the experiences of an understudied demographic. Past IWPR research shows more than 2 in 5 student mothers are single, and that Black women are more likely than women from other demographic groups to be raising children while in college.

In 2018, the federal Department of Education cited SPSI research on barriers facing single student mothers in the department’s request to increase funding for Child Care Access Means Parents in School, a program that provides campus-based child care for low-income student parents. That request led Congress to more than triple funding for the program to $50 million, the first-ever increase in its budget and the largest amount of funding it had ever received.

IWPR research also helped shape pilot programs in New York and Pennsylvania to provide child care and educational support to single parents at community colleges and other schools.

Since SPSI’s last staffer left earlier this year, not only has research not continued, but its Student Parent Policy Working Group has seemingly disbanded. The group formed in 2014 and brought together student parents, researchers, and advocates for bimonthly meetings to share their work and discuss state policies related to student parents.

Its apparent demise “has been a big loss” for the field, according to Ali Caccavella, a former member of the group and the former director of community impact for the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, a research and advocacy center based at Temple University. Advocating for policies benefiting student parents, Caccavella added, has become “difficult … when you don’t have the evidence” that IWPR once provided.

Miriam Swords Kalk, head of design practice at Education Design Lab, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization focused on equity in higher education, was also part of the IWPR working group. She said it was one of “few spaces for centralized thought partnership and convening” for people in the field.

Neither representatives for the board nor Mason responded to a specific question about the state of the working group.

For years, A Better Balance, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on workers’ rights, relied on IWPR’s pioneering research on the significance of paid leave policies to show lawmakers how many workers lack paid leave and the economic benefits of providing it, said Sherry Leiwant, the organization’s co-founder and co-president.

“They have, in the past, been invaluable,” Leiwant said of IWPR.

Staffers with Leiwant’s organization have cited IWPR’s research in testimonies before Congress, and before state and local governments, as those officials considered workplace fairness and paid leave legislation.

Sometimes, Leiwant said, her organization called former IWPR researchers who led the research on paid leave and asked them to perform a quick analysis that they could show lawmakers who were considering legislation on paid leave.

But since those researchers left the organization, “we don’t call [IWPR] anymore,” Leiwant said.

Millions of Dollars Raised

Mason, the board, and the former staffers who spoke with the Prospect agree on at least one point: Mason has been a successful fundraiser.

IWPR’s annual budget reached $12 million in projected revenue this year, compared to about $4.5 million in projected revenue around the time Mason started, according to written records from board meetings.

Billionaire philanthropist Melinda French Gates’s company, Pivotal Ventures, gave IWPR $5 million in 2020. Fondation Chanel, the luxury fashion brand’s gender equity–focused organization, donated $1.5 million in 2021.

Representatives for Pivotal Ventures and Fondation Chanel did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In their statement that Mason provided, the board said that the growth is “a testament to the new direction of the organization under Dr. Mason.”

Former staffers, on the other hand, see the fundraising as part of why the board has long neglected to intervene despite the high turnover—even when money comes from donors who appear antithetical to the organization’s purportedly feminist mission.

After Mason made an appearance on Good Morning America last fall to discuss the pandemic’s impacts on women in the workforce, IWPR received a $225,000 donation from Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Commanders football team, according to notes from a board meeting.

Childers and two former staffers said the donation upset many staffers, due to widespread allegations of sexual harassment against team employees, as first reported by The Washington Post in 2020. But Childers and the former staffers said they weren’t aware of anyone raising the complaints to Mason. By that point, they said, many believed that they would face retaliation if they questioned her.

Mason did not respond to a question about former staffers’ concerns over Snyder’s grant.

Earlier this month—after Mason and the board had already responded to questions for this story—the Washington, D.C., attorney general sued the Commanders for allegedly promoting “a toxic culture of sexual harassment.” Lawyers for the team said in a statement the lawsuit “repeats a lot of innuendo, half-truths and lies,” and an NFL spokesperson flatly denied the allegations.

In a statement provided to the Prospect, a representative for the Commanders said that the team supported IWPR “because of its specific focus on closing the economic and inequality gaps for women” and that it was one of multiple “programs and initiatives focused on improving the workforce for women and underrepresented groups” that the team funded.

In her statement, Mason said: “I stepped into the role of CEO at IWPR following a founding director of 30 years and have since embarked on a series of structural and organizational changes to ensure IWPR’s relevance and longevity. Along the way, I have had to make some tough, but important choices about the direction of the organization, our policies and practices, and staffing—all with the ultimate goal of making IWPR a formidable, financially stable, and high-functioning organization. Some of those choices have been difficult, but I am clear-eyed and committed to the work ahead. I am focused on creating a high-performing, supportive and motivated team, and to finding the right individuals to meet our mission and moment.”

When Childers thinks about what IWPR once was, she remembers a research institute whose work had the power to shape policy and improve women’s lives, she said.

Now, she said, “I don’t know what it is anymore.”


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