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.
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!