Easier said than done?

A reactive, emergency mentality. A reflection of society. Lack of political pressure. These are a few of the reasons why gender disparity persists in the humanitarian sector.

Humanitarian work has come a long way since Margareta Wahlström took her first overseas mission as a field officer with the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) relief efforts for millions of people returning to Cambodia in the early 1980s.



“When I started, humanitarian work was all about boots and ropes and mud,” she says. “And the pool of people that humanitarian organizations recruited from tended to be firemen, military police and those kinds of professions.”

It was no surprise, then, that the vast majority of her colleagues and bosses at that time were men. Now president of the Swedish Red Cross with a long resumé that includes several high-level positions at the United Nations and the IFRC, Wahlström has seen many fundamental shifts in the way humanitarians work over the decades.

In recent years, for example, the sector has emphasized the role that local communities play in their own recovery and far more attention is paid to issues of less visible vulnerabilities, such as gender-based violence and the psychological well-being of people impacted by crisis.

That said, relief organizations are as big as ever and humanitarian organizations still fill their ranks with military or civil protection professionals due to their expertise in logistics, emergency response and disaster preparedness.

“Still today, women are the minorities in those professions, which tend to have very particular cultures,” she says. “The good news is that more countries are ensuring that women are included in these groups.”

This is only one reason why senior positions in humanitarian organizations are still largely filled by men. But it provides some insight into a key challenge facing the humanitarian sector: how to bring gender parity between men and women into management, high-level posts and governance?

Like other sectors — business, civil service or elected bodies — humanitarian organizations generally reflect the state of gender biases of the societies around them. Consider the case of Red Cross or Red Crescent National Societies, says Aishath Noora Mohamed, secretary general of the Maldivian Red Crescent.

“In the Maldives, a lot of women participate in political activism and in political parties,” she says. “But when it comes to elected positions, leadership positions or places in parliament, very few women are able to reach that level.”

As an example, only 6 per cent of the seats in the Maldivian parliament are held by women. “Then again, in the civil service sector, where women are usually employed and get jobs on a merit-based system, we see that around 60 per cent are women,” Noora Mohamed says. “They are more in middle management or lower levels, rather than in decision-making or leadership positions.

“When I look at the Maldivian Red Crescent, I see a similar reflection,” she says. “More women than men work as management, staff or volunteers or serve as members. When we look at volunteer response teams, we see equal numbers of men and women.

“But when it comes to leadership in the branch boards or the national governing boards, we see a huge contrast. In the national governing board, there are no elected women. This is something we are all very conscious of and we are debating on how to shift it.”

This pattern is not limited to the Maldives. Gender parity studies within the IFRC have long shown that, while women make up more than half of its volunteer workforce, management and leadership are dominated by men. But as data compiled for the IFRC’s 2019 Everyone Counts report suggests, the degree to which that is the case corresponds with the state of gender attitudes and practices generally in most countries. The report reached that conclusion by comparing National Society gender parity data with data from the Global Gender Index collected by the World Economic Forum.

The Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is another example. “You see women doing the community work, they are the majority of our volunteers,” says Jill de Bourg, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Red Cross Society. “But when it comes to leadership, they have not been able to break the glass ceiling.”

Likewise for the country’s political institutions. The country elected its first female prime minister in 2010, but women make up less than one-third of positions in parliament and the senate.

The dynamic plays out differently in every country and for each organization. The ICRC, for example, has achieved gender parity among its directorate and close to parity in higher management positions at its Geneva, Switzerland headquarters. But it struggles at the country level, where the intersection of conflict and cultural norms creates an atmosphere in which it is very difficult for women to seek employment or work among men in remote, insecure areas.

“We have to make sure that in every possible context we create an environment in which both women and their communities feel comfortable with women taking on these roles,” says Patricia Danzi, the ICRC’s director of operations for Africa. “But it’s a real challenge. At this point, we can’t really talk about parity in national staff. We are not there yet. But the delegations are aware of it and are being asked to find solutions.”

Another critical area is in emergency field operations. In order to key top management or leadership roles, candidates must have solid experience leading emergency field operations.

“There are more women in these roles now, but it’s still a minority in emergency operations,” says Tiina Saarikoski, health advisor for the Finnish Red Cross who has served as operations manager or head of operations for several key IFRC major emergencies. “We still don’t get enough females either to be involved or to be given opportunities to be involved.”

“If you look back at the history, this was seen as something that strong males — the ‘cowboys’ — do. It means leaving home quickly and going to the field and that might not be so easy for a lot of women. Or we are not appealing to the women, or they not realize there is a role for them in this kind of work.”

‘Aid mamas’

At a time when humanitarian organizations seek to mainstream gender sensitivity and include it in emergency operations and interactions with communities, many women like Saarikoski, Noora Mohamed and de Bourg say National Societies, the IFRC and the ICRC must all do more to ensure the inclusion mindset is also incorporated in internal management, hiring and leadership development.

This means being much more proactive about all aspects of recruitment for positions of authority, from elections for governance positions to management policies that would nurture women’s careers.

“Maybe because a great part of what we do is to respond to emergencies, we are too reactive instead of being proactive,” says de Bourg. “We have to ask ourselves, are we proactively putting in place the necessary measures to identify true leadership potential or are we waiting to see what people do on their own?”

Beyond basic performance management, de Bourg feels that there needs to be more systemic coaching and mentoring of young humanitarians. “When we examine ourselves as a Red Cross, we have to ask: ‘Are we doing enough to prepare women as potential leaders?’”

That kind of longer-term career planning and mentoring is particularly important when a young, talented and dedicated humanitarian considers how she will weigh decisions about having and raising children at a critical time during her career development.

Nagore Moran-Llovet is regional protection, gender and inclusion coordinator for IFRC’s

Asia-Pacific Regional Office and a self-described ‘Aid Mama’, one of hundreds of women who participate in the AidMama Facebook page for women humanitarians with children. Support for families, she says, would go a long way in terms of opening doors to more women in operational roles.

“A lot of the discussion on gender puts the accent on building the capacities of women but in fact the capacities are there,” she says, adding that she’d like to see more emphasis on practical concerns. “In this region, for example, women generally take up all the domestic responsibilities.”

“It’s not easy for women to engage in humanitarian work. They cannot be deploying all the time and they cannot always commit to work from 8 am to 6 pm every day because they don’t have this part covered. So if we have more flexible policies, such as working from home, then I think there will be more opportunity and more women willing to join.”

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This one reason that Wahlström, de Bourg and Noora Mohamed are members of the Glow Red network, set up in 2017 specifically to push for greater gender parity in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, while also creating a support system for just that kind of career development.

Part of the job involves flipping mindsets, old habits and workplace cultures that still persist, decades after Wahlström’s first deployment in the 1980s. Back then, humanitarianism was often defined by rugged individuals (largely men from western or northern countries) who went to far-flung places full of high ideals and a love for people and adventure.

While international relief workers are still absolutely vital at a time when crises are ever more severe, humanitarianism today is defined as much by local staff and volunteers (of international or local organizations) and by the aim to allow people affected by crisis to have more control of their own recovery.

Still, even in this more ‘aware’ world, in which humanitarian work is considered a viable career and the sector has tried to learn from past mistakes, many basic structures that reinforce the status quo still cling. Throughout the sector, emergency workers of all ages
hop from emergency to emergency, often on relatively short-term contracts as humanitarian organizations seek efficiencies and low overheads for donors.

In this context, there is not the same culture of career guidance or long-term talent development that exists in many private sector professions. In this atmosphere, research from The Harvard Business Review suggests that men tend to rise in the ranks more quickly than women. There are many reasons, according to the research. Men have stronger networks that have been in place longer; they are more willing to ‘market’ themselves and risk taking higher-level jobs; and they have fewer family restraints. To seal the deal: studies indicate that men are more likely to get hired over women regardless of whether the hiring manager is a man or a woman.

Sexism and discrimination also play a role. According to the women interviewed for this story, the sexism that keeps women down is mainly systemic (a bias in favour of a male work culture and career model). One often-cited scenario: a hiring manager choosing between a middle-aged man with a seamless resumé or a woman who has taken time, or turned down assignments, to raise a family.

But systems are made up of people with individual attitudes who are trying to survive within the work culture. One of the lessons learned from #MeToo and #TimesUp is that organizations must have open and transparent conversations about workplace culture and dynamics. In that spirit, the ICRC conducted a survey on staff feelings about gender parity in their own work experiences and found that certain groups (resident staff, women, LGBT people, ‘outsiders’ to the ICRC and people with disabilities) “experience what they feel is systemic bias”.

In a November 2018 article for the Humanitarian Practices Network, Yves Daccord, the ICRC’s director general, said the survey is an example of how the ICRC is addressing issues of bias and gender equality head on. “Their voices and ideas — and sometimes hard truths — have formed the basis of a new global approach to ensuring diversity and inclusion, one with organization-wide ownership.”

Noora Mohammed, secretary general of Maldivian Red Crescent

Self-imposed ceiling?

At the same time, it’s not all about pointing fingers at others. Sometimes, there is a sort of self-imposed glass ceiling, according to nearly all the women interviewed for this story. Women often to not apply for top jobs because they don’t see themselves in leadership or higher management roles.

“One of the stumbling blocks is the modesty of many of the female talents that I’ve seen, who don’t dare to go one step higher, just above what think they could do. So a certain amount of lifting up is required,” says Danzi, a 22-year veteran of the ICRC and the first woman to serve as ICRC director of operations for Africa.

“Many times I approach women proactively and encourage them to apply for certain positions,” she says. “About 90 per cent of them say something like, ‘I didn’t think I could apply because I lack skill one or skill two.’ Men have less of this preoccupation. Women need more encouragement to apply.”

Mya Thu, president of the Myanmar Red Cross Society, sees a similar pattern in her country. “For women in Myanmar, there is a lack of confidence to take positions of higher responsibility and, at some levels, especially at township level, stereotypes — such as men are the rightful leaders — still persist, while women often struggle to balance work and life and sometimes withdraw from taking a leadership position.

“In most Asian counties, our culture is the main challenge,” says Thu, whose National Society has gender parity at the top but has set a target of 33 per cent representation of women at all levels. “The perception of seeing a woman as a leader in Asian culture is getting better but it still needs to improve much more.”

Red Cross Red Crescent will continue to explore questions of gender and diversity.

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