Gender and INGOs: pretty on paper….

Ben Ramalingam’s recent post ‘Gender bias as an emergent property in international agencies‘ discusses how the aid industry has fallen short in walking the talk on gender. Ben basically says that agencies love building other people’s capacity around gender. Yet as with so many things agencies and aid organizations like advising on, our own capacity is in a fairly sorry state.

Ben notes that micro-level and informal attitudes and dynamics add up to an overall institutional bias against women at international development agencies. I’d hazard to say that most women face a gender bias, whether working in their home countries or afar, whether at an agency headquarters or in a ‘developing country’ where gender awareness programs are implemented, whether ex-pat or local contract. Above and beyond the gender dynamic specifically in development agencies is an overall gender bias working against women in many (most?) societies. This goes beyond what an INGO can address, but one could argue that if development agencies were really committed to addressing gender bias, they would start ‘at home.’ How many agencies have actually looked closely at their own set-up and made serious improvements before embarking on a ‘gender’ program or campaign externally?

Next time you are out with female colleagues who trust you enough to say what they really think, just drop one of these topics on the table, and I guarantee that you’ll get an earful. If your agency has none of this going on, you deserve a medal.

Where there aren’t many women. 

The ratio of men to women changes by country and region, depending on how customary it is for women to work outside the home. In places where women don’t normally work outside the home, obviously you don’t find many women in management or otherwise. Those women that have been able to attain the education levels to qualify them for management positions are sometimes few and far between. When you do find women in management, you might notice a bit of “Margaret Thatcherism” going on, as they have to be tougher and harsher than any of their male counterparts or risk being seen as weak. When a woman is “imported” from the outside to manage mostly men, it can be difficult for her to earn their respect. She will often be undermined not only by men, but also by other women.

In some cases, as a female manager your sex is the first thing people see.  I’ve been introduced by one agency director as ‘the pretty face of the management team’ and by another one as ‘so and so with x number of children, married to xx,’ while my male colleagues were introduced using their titles and their university degrees. (Note: Both directors were European).

Getting into management.

It can be tough to get from non-management to middle management, and even tougher to get into upper management for women. When women do get management positions, you’ll often see them in ‘softer’ areas that have less perceived power in the organization and less decision-making power over budget or organizational priorities. So you’ll see women stuck in middle management or managing human resources or communications rather than women managing emergencies, programs or operations. These ‘lesser’ management positions do not look nearly as good on a CV and it’s very difficult to ever advance a career into the highest positions of power within organizations from one of these ‘softer’ management positions.

Men decide, women implement.

In those agencies where there are a lot of women (eg., in countries where it’s common for women to work outside the home), the agency dynamic often closely mimics the community dynamic that the agency is all up in arms about. The men are in charge, making the decisions, and women’s participation tends towards doing all the hands-on work to implement what the men have agreed on. Men manage and decide over use of resources. A small mostly male management team (hmm, kind of like the all-male community leaders) will make all the decisions while the army of female staff carries them out (hmmm, kind of like what goes on in communities we want to change).

I’ve heard men tell their female colleagues that they should not be given management positions because they are going to be pregnant and taking time off every couple of years, and how will the agency and the work move forward then?

Family friendly policies.

Some agency policies are family friendly or gender friendly in ‘the north’ but in ‘the south’ policies are often adapted to local law or there are different policies for ex-pats vs local staff. So while ex-pats might get special benefits based on their contracts, local employees do not get enough time off for breastfeeding (which of course, INGOs preach to community women, exclusively up to 6 months) or for paternity leave (and yes, INGOs also preach about how men should share the load of child care). Local staff don’t get financial support to cover their child care needs the way many ex-pats do.

Many women find ways to make this work, but not all women have sisters, aunts, mothers and grandmothers who can care for their children while they work. A high percentage of men (ex-pat and otherwise) have stay-at-home wives who enable them to work long hours and travel without worrying about the laundry when they get home or the well-being of the kids while away. Very few women, ex-pat or otherwise, have the luxury of stay-at-home husbands who take on the household and child care duties (or working husbands who share the load equally).

I’ve actually overheard people arguing that a male employee whose wife lost a child late-term should not be allowed to have bereavement time, because this was a health issue for the woman and the man would just be lazing around anyway. I’ve heard an HR manager argue that men should only get 1-2 days paternity leave, the time required to register a child. (I’m all for local cultural adaptation, but seriously?) I worked at an agency several years ago where the (female) HR manager instilled a policy requiring women to submit a pregnancy test as part of the hiring process. This is so obviously not legal.

Pulling your weight.

Even when an organization does offer paternity leave or maternity leave, there’s an unspoken pressure not to take the full-time allotted. For mothers it’s very difficult to stay long hours at work, and INGO’s with large workloads and limited staff who are always working to capacity tacitly encourage both men and women to work long hours and on weekends. Those who leave after an 8 hour day are often frowned upon as not really carrying their load or not being committed to the organization, thus they do not advance.

Equal pay for equal work. 

It’s common for an ‘assistant’ to be female and do most of the work for a male manager who takes most of the credit, or for a female colleague of the same management rank to take on a larger share of the work where the male takes on a larger share of the glory. Part of this is that men tend to talk more about what they are doing than women do. And pardon me for saying it, but men tend to be better at creating an illusion of productivity and success, while women tend to shy away from taking credit for success.

It would be fun to see an analysis in terms of equal pay for equal work, and a workload study with regard to what each person does, accomplishes, and their actual pay scale and the ranking of their position on that salary scale done in every single NGO that is promoting women’s campaigns. Gender equity should start at home.


In some countries, it is not safe for women to move around alone, especially at night, but instead of agencies finding a way to work around this, women are simply restricted or put themselves at risk because there is never enough transportation to go around for mid-level managers and below. In some places women are encouraged to learn to ride motorbikes, but the bikes are not always the right size for a woman to manage. In addition, male colleagues make fun of them and say they are acting like men, trying to be men, will fall off the bike, etc.

Bathrooms and kitchens!!

There is obviously a biological difference here, but bathrooms are not private nor clean in many INGO and agency offices unless women take charge of making them so. Most of the time women are left to keep communal kitchens tidy, wash coffee cups, etc. When complaints are made, rather than men offering to take on their share, suddenly budget for a maid will be found.

Drinking with the boys.

One of the best ways to get ahead in the INGO world is to get invited to a regional meeting and go out drinking late night with the ex-pat boys club who already hold the key management positions and the power. Women don’t tend to do this as often as men or may not be welcomed. And if you don’t get in with this group, you tend to get passed over, regardless of the quality of your work.

Double standards.  

Speaking of ‘drinking with the boys’, I’ve gone out to group dinners in some countries where only female colleagues showed up because our (married) male colleagues were all ‘staying back to work.’ We’d seen them sneaking out of the hotel, one by one. We knew that they were going out to visit ‘special friends.’ Sometimes the men just all leave a group dinner around 8 or 9 p.m. because they have other ‘commitments’ you might hear about marginally the next day, as people make sly comments to each other about the night before. Meanwhile these same men will preach a different story to communities about responsibility and faithfulness and gender equity and blah blah blah. If a woman were seen doing something similar, it would impact on her reputation enough to make her life miserable. (Obviously this double standard is not restricted to the workplace or INGOs).

High percentage of divorced or single women working in development agencies.

Women often comment on the high number of divorced or single women in INGO work. Now, this could be because we are all so totally modern and enlightened that we have chosen a career over a husband. But you know what? I can’t remember ever hearing a man saying he was choosing one or the other. I rather think that for many women, the workload, long hours and travel expected of them to keep a career in INGO work doesn’t fit in well with the traditional role of ‘keeping a husband feeling secure, happy and well-cared for’ and causes conflict in the relationship. Sometimes demands of a husband require women to cut short the time they can dedicate to their work, affecting their upward movement. Sure, wives also complain about their husbands working too much but if women don’t hold equal power in their relationships at home and their husbands don’t share the load, and they don’t make enough money to hire someone to take on their domestic chores, an explanation that dinner wasn’t ready because they were working is not going to cut it.  Eventually, they will probably have to choose either career advancement or keeping a happy home.

The ‘ghettoization’of gender.

As I said earlier, an agency that has overcome the issues above deserves a gold star! If agencies would look internally, discuss and address these things openly rather than writing up internal policies and program strategies on gender that are simply words on paper, it would be a huge step forward. Sympathetic male colleagues can have a huge impact on supporting women in the workforce. Most agencies have failed to involve men in gender work (both at agency level and at community level). It’s seen as a ‘woman’s issue’ and men don’t see what it has to do with them, so they ignore it or undermine it.

So INGOs normally have a (95% of the time female) gender advisor or coordinator or focal point who is tasked with single-handedly promoting gender equality throughout an entire region or organization. The isolation of the issue means it has little influence in the larger picture. As long as INGO’s pitch, both externally and internally, that gender equality is only about women, and as long as gender equality and gender equity are seen to only favorably impact on women, INGOs will continue to undermine their own efforts in promoting an inclusive and equitable working environment.

Pretty on paper.

When organizations promote gender equality in their policies and programs, but don’t tie this to mechanisms of accountability like budget, and don’t bring the issues out for open discussion by both men and women, they end up with pretty words on paper while the organization continues to sideline equity issues and promote a hypocritical, holier-than-thou agenda.

Thanks to Ben Ramalingam for bringing up this issue, and thanks to those who provided anonymous input on this post!


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

19 responses to “Gender and INGOs: pretty on paper….

  • Helen

    Thank you for bringing this up. I am still furious after learning that an organisation I know of decided to stop sending female expats to one particular region because of attitudes of male staff towards them there. This was accepted as a logical response – no hint at addressing the underlying problem. All whilst these male staff were charged with implementing gender focused projects. Too often gender is seen as something external to an organisation, saved for ‘the other’, or addressed simply through a few policies and check lists.

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  • aidnography

    Interesting post which certainly needs more empirical evidence-as much of an anthropologist as I claim to be ;). Even given the HUGE amounts of female graduates in development-related subjects in the past 10 or so years, the argument is that male-dominated attitudes are very persistent. I don’t doubt the anecdotal evidence, but it would still be interesting to put a number to ‘high percentage of divorced or single women working in development agencies.’ Also, we could/should have debates as to whether this applies across organisations, and the question than is ‘Is a female economist at the IMF more “powerful” than a male Oxfam country director, for example’? I would be more than happy to give this more academic-research-related thoughts ;)…

    • Shotgun Shack

      Totally agree. I had actually written “anecdotal” in there somewhere in the post but I must have cut that sentence out as I was finalizing. And to be clear, I’m writing from my own experiences in certain countries with certain organizations, with input from just a couple other people. It would be good to know if this experienced elsewhere in the same way, if it is worse at one agency / organization / etc vs another, and good to know how country specific it is, and how it differs from headquarters to ‘field’ and ‘in between’, etc. etc. I’d also like to know how gender bias is experienced/felt by women from different backgrounds and economic classes and ‘north’ vs ‘south’, etc. so that some research could be built around these anecdotal observations.

  • Tom

    “The men are in charge, making the decisions, and women’s participation tends towards doing all the hands-on work to implement what the men have agreed on.”

    That is an observation that I have had and am experiencing as one of only a few men among a staff of largely women. Since I work for nuns the question of gender and leadership is not in doubt. However, with over 375 volunteers and a staff of about 30, the scales are significantly tipped towards women.

    I am interested as to why this dynamic exists and how it is that males ascend to higher positions. I would actually posit that there is a possibility that this will shift as the sheer numbers may force a change. This could be optimism, but I hope that the delineation between male leadership and female impalementors can be broken-down in the near future.

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  • kimberlybowman

    I’d echo the comments you’ve already heard/responded to about the anecdotal things – but have to say this is probably the most comprehensive list of different factors at play with “the gender question” that I’ve seen so far. I’ll be sharing it with a few friends/ colleagues, for sure.

  • Katie R

    Thanks for the great post. This is a hypocrisy I’ve been struggling with in my organization as well. It’s certainly heartening to hear it put into words so precisely, helps me reaffirm that I’m not in fact going crazy…

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  • MJ

    My sympathies!

    Gender: a classic example of the clash between fundamental western values (which are seen as critical for economic development) and many traditional cultures. The practices you describe sound pretty neanderthal, but not terribly surprising in international organisations that strive for a representative mix of backgrounds.

    That said, even amongst more progressive organisations I suspect there is a still a gender bias in senior management. However, it can be difficult to determine to what extent this is either:
    (a) natural (men and women sometimes want different things, some women opt for long career breaks, inevitably affecting their likelihood of being appointed to senior mgmt),
    (b) something that will work out over time as society gradually changes, or
    (c) something that should be campaigned against.
    I grew up under Margaret Thatcher, so my world view tends toward (a) and (b) on the basis that women clearly can reach the top. But I accept that there is plenty of room for (c) and your experiences would seem to indicate more need for it in INGOs, who really ought to practice what they preach!

    The other problem, of course, with gender issues in employment (as with race in the workplace), is that once you get past the policy platitudes, every case has individual merits and demerits which can make it extremely difficult to handle. The pattern is emergent, but which individual decisions may have been wrong is much harder to define.

    • Shotgun Shack

      Thanks MJ for your comment and link too. The issues are much much broader than any INGO, but at the same time, it’s women who work in INGOs that I hear bringing these things up on their own outside of official channels, not so much an external coming in to say “this is what is wrong with your organization ref gender”. Women see the hypocrisy in our own organizations and in our own homes — what we advise/train on/preach to the outside, and what we experience at home and work are often very different things. Until there is equal work for equal enjoyment at home, it will be hard for women to participate fully in the workplace without great effort and potentially great conflict. Yet it’s ‘the home’ that many INGOs want to try to impact in their work, — the homes of ‘others’ though, not their own employees, and the organizations of others, not themselves! The whole thing, like with any social change/cultural shift, is really tricky.

    • AKW

      As a psychologist I would challenge you to define what ‘natural’ is MJ. Particularly since gender is these days generally known to be a cultural construction rather than anything biological or innate (as opposed to a persons sex for example). And despite years of study no such ‘natural’ desire or thoughts has been identified through psychological or medical study. Women and men, despite what we might like to think, are actually the same when it comes to ‘natural’ tendencies.
      Therefore I think it would be very hard to argue women naturally need/desire long career breaks. For example would they need them if workplaces were more conducive to having babies around, or if the ‘natural’ tradition was that women birthed a child and went back to work while men took time off to care for children?
      Also while I agree that these kinds of things do happen in other workplaces, what makes the issue particularly pertinent in the case of aid organisations is 1) the hypocrisy since they purport to be in the business of human rights/gendered equality etc and 2) that they are having to negotiate different cultural understandings of gender (and ethnicity and sexuality) in each of the places in which they operate and have almost without exception done a fantastically poor job of addressing the issue.

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  • Ntang

    I think there’s something considerably less insidious going on here. Before we start a torches-and-pitchforks “down with the patriarchy” march, think through a few things.

    Women have babies. We (men) don’t. At some point in a woman’s career, she will either have to decide to forego having a family or take off some time (often several weeks at a minimum, or considerably more) to start her family. Many women – and certainly *considerably* more women than men – then decide that they’d just prefer shifting their focus to family rather than career. What’s wrong with that? If a woman chooses not to do so, that’s also fine. But she better have a partner who’s willing to pick up the slack. And in our culture, as well as most others I’ve seen, very few men are eager to become a Mr. Mom. I certainly don’t plan to do so.

    Secondly, as the “out group,” I’d suggest that you are significantly overestimating the power of the ever-mysterious “boys night out” phenomenon. I’ve been a part of many of those outings. They’re fun. But it doesn’t make you blood brothers, for god’s sake. It makes for good networking. Women do plenty of it too.

    For that matter, I’ve worked pretty extensively with the global health community, and it has long seemed to me (and MANY other guys I’ve talked to) that it’s a damned old-girls-club out there. God forbid you’re a straight, white, American male working in international development, let alone health. From our perspective, being a gay, black woman sounds like a golden ticket to the exec team.

    Look, the demands of business, the realities of working in less developed countries (often in cultures totally antagonistic to our view of gender equality) and, yes, the career interests of most women versus most men will, over time, result in more men reaching senior management at many types of organizations. So what? Why is it some holy duty to have a perfect 50/50 split in upper management? Most garbage collectors are men – no one cares about that. Most nurses and kindergarten teachers are women – again, eh.

    Please consider all the factors at play in this debate before simply assuming that we’re all just scheming to keep you ladies out of the board room.

    • TJ

      Your comment has a lot of anger in it.

      I work in the non-profit sector for a decently large organization where not a single woman on our staff has had any children yet, but these social dynamics are at play, so it isn’t because any women have gone on maternity leave.

      The first time I read this article, my heart jumped into my throat because it was so spot on. I started shaking. I can honestly say that whether it’s intentional or not, it’s very clear to women that they aren’t welcome at the top in my organization. The gals in my office have been silently passing this article around. We don’t know what to do with it. We all know that these words here are true in our office dynamic, but we are only making it that much harder to be taken seriously if we pass the article to any of the men we work with.

      I have been told my whole life that I can do anything if I work hard enough at it. Truth be told, once I got into the work world, I started to see gender inequality as a very real thing.

      • Shotgun Shack

        TJ, thanks for your comment. I hope somehow you can bring the issue up at your organization. It’s rough and really gets under your skin when you have to pretend it’s not happening.

    • AKW

      Ntang, I read your request that ShotGunShack consider all the factors at play in the debate before making assumptions, and I would like to extend my sentiments that you do the same.

      Your analysis takes what I would argue is a very shallow or surface look at the argument. You make a number of assumptions about the natural order of things making claims such as “at some point in a woman’s career she will have to either forgo having a family or take some time off”. These kinds of statements shut down debate rather than facilitate it, and they limit the possibilities available to women by treating as a fact something which is not. Because a woman births a child, does that mean she should necessarily stay home to raise it? This kind of ‘fact’ varies depending on what kind of woman you are. If you have a career, you are told you should stay home for the good of the child, if not you are being selfish or irresponsible. However in many (yes ‘western’) countries if you are a poor single woman you are generally encouraged or required to seek employment rather than staying at home and being supported by the rest of society through a government ‘benefit’ so that you can as you imply, properly look after your child.

      And while being a black gay woman may sound to you and your male colleagues as a “golden ticket”, the proportion of black gay women in senior management, in positions of power or living the life of a “golden ticket” holder would will surely persuade you otherwise?

      Lastly, may I venture to say that your comments are in large part based on outdated, sexist and ill-considered understandings of gender; therefore I question the degree to which they are useful or helpful.

  • nuance

    My experience is a bit different. I work for a large international NGO and my sense is that, at least among expat staff, there are definitely more women than men in all kinds of positions. When you get to very senior positions, I agree that a BIT more tend to be male. But in terms of just the overall ratio of women to men in development, I am astounded at the large gender divergence. I actually think this is because women (and gay men by the way) tend towards the industries that have a “care for others” ethic.

    We can get a bit more nuanced on the type of NGO and have different results, though. The conflict, emergency response, and law oriented NGOs take the men. The health, nutrition, education, HIV/AIDS NGOs take the women. At least from my anecdotal experience.

  • Murray

    A very good article. I especially like your section on “The ‘ghettoization’of gender”. I have written about this as a comment on Ben’s post. I am, as you put it, a sympathetic male within development. Yet, getting involved in gender remains a challenge for me as it’s not seen as a male domain. (I am still struggling to understand why this is the case).

    Just to to add flavour to the discussion, it is not only hard for single women working in development. I am single man and, more than once, I get the distinct impression that this is very abnormal. There is a view that a man is only a man until he is married – or has a family (then again, I suppose, similar views can come from the female perspective as well). There is an expectation, of sorts – and once spoken directly to me by a woman – that as a man I must have ‘needs’ (collequially speaking) so I must get this when I travel overseas. (And the answer to that is a very firm and polite – no I don’t). And then there are the times of going on field visit and having women being suggested to me who would make a ‘good wife’… Sometimes, it gets a bit much too to keep defending so I simply ‘lie’ and say I am married and wear a ring! (Yes, lying is wrong…but it helps with the sanity!)

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