Equality in aid

Will a new urgency, sparked by frustration, help close the humanitarian gender gap?

Women have always been on the front lines of humanitarian action. Women such as Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton not only faced the most brutal conflicts and epidemics of their day, they helped lay the foundation for modern humanitarianism.



Today, more than half of Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteers around the world are female and women are among the first to respond in disaster, epidemics and conflict, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Philippines and Syria.

They are also just as likely as their male counterparts to pay the ultimate sacrifice for their compassion and courage. Just last year, 25-year-old Saifura Hussaini Ahmed Khorsa and 24-year-old Hauwa Mohammed Liman were providing post-natal care at an ICRC-supported health centre in Rann, Nigeria, when they were kidnapped, and later killed, by an armed group.

Despite this legacy, women are still not equally represented in top decision-making roles in the humanitarian sector — a profession based on basic principles of impartiality and humanity and on the belief that all people have inherent dignity.

“If you had a visual representation, the [humanitarian sector] would be a pyramid with women forming the base,” says Margareta Wahlström, president of the Swedish Red Cross and former official at both the IFRC and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. “As the pyramid gets narrower at the top, there are fewer and fewer women. Women are the base, as the workers, and the men tend to take positions of higher responsibility.”

The humanitarian sector is not alone. A 2017 report by the Humanitarian Advisory Group cited research showing that in 2016, women made up 35 per cent of the workforce in an average private company at the professional level and above, while just 26 per cent of senior managers and 20 per cent of executives are women.

In the United Nations system, the report noted, there is a similar pyramid. “Women comprise 42.8 per cent of all employees, with a much greater concentration of women at the entry-level.” Two years later, as of February 2019, ten of the UN’s 27 humanitarian coordinators are women.

Ditto for the Red Cross Red Crescent network. According to data compiled by the IFRC, women make up only 31 per cent of the governing boards that oversee Red Cross or Red Crescent National Societies. And at present, 21 per cent of National Society presidents and 31 per cent of secretaries general are women.

A setback sparks new energy

For the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, a turning point came after elections for the IFRC General Assembly and the Movement’s Council of Delegates in Antalya, Turkey in 2017.

“Everything went well until we saw the line-up on stage of the newly elected personalities, which was a long line of men in grey suits and red ties,” says Wahlström, recalling the shock she felt at seeing that one of the most diverse global networks suddenly had so few elected women leaders. Of the 30 people standing on the stage, only four were women.

Many like Wahlström assumed the slow-but-steady progress spurred on by past resolutions, changing social norms and gender-inclusive institutional strategies would continue, especially in an era newly branded by hashtags like TimesUp and MeToo.

While the principal Movement figure heads (secretary general and president of the IFRC, director general and president of the ICRC) were men, more women had been appearing in National Society leaderships roles at the IFRC and ICRC secretariats. So why did the glass ceiling on elected positions suddenly seem to move down a notch?

“There had been progress but if you do not have a force behind the progress, it only goes so far,” says Jill de Bourg, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Red Cross Society. “I think we took our eyes off the goal for a bit and things kind of fell behind.”

A group of women National Society leaders decided they were not going to wait for answers to take action. “Normally, General Assembly resolutions are prepared six months in advance, not the same day something happens,” Wahlström notes. “But we got help from senior policy advisers and in less than 24 hours we had a simple resolution that passed the next day.”

Margareta Wahlström, President of the Swedish Red Cross, during her field visit in Unsan county, DPRK.

The Council of Delegates followed suit, adopting a similar resolution calling on the ICRC, the IFRC, National Societies and the Standing Commission “to take concrete measures to address the question of gender equality and equal opportunities at all levels of their own leadership, and to report back on progress at the next Council of Delegates in 2019”.

But the women behind the resolution didn’t stop there. They founded the Global Network for Women Senior Leaders in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (or Glow Red network) with the express goal of changing the electoral face of the Movement’s international governance by 2021.

The network’s mission: keep up the pressure for change while also strengthening “the pipeline of future women leaders, enabling and supporting high-potential women from staff and volunteers for leadership positions beyond 2021”. So far, 73 National Societies are represented in the network.

Inspired in part by the network’s activism, many National Societies and some IFRC regions are already taking action, setting new targets for gender parity. In November 2018, at a conference in Manila in the Philippines, Red Cross and Red Crescent leaders from across Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East committed to seeing that by 2022 “at least 50 per cent of the elected and appointed leadership of the National Societies and IFRC governance are women”.

The ICRC, which employs more than 18,000 people worldwide, is pushing for a similar transformation. So far, it has had the most success at the top level, where four of seven executive director positions are held by women. Now it has adopted a target of reaching gender parity among all managers by 2022. Today, women make up 40 per cent of middle management (40 per cent) and 30 percent of all staff positions.

These numbers reflect an increase since 2006, when the ICRC first adopted its Gender Equality Policy. Since then, the percentage of women in field management positions grew from 19 per cent to 37 per cent and from the same level to an overall of 48 percent of women among managers at headquarters (with a concentration of women in junior management positions).

This progress is partly based policy changes in recent years that allow greater flexibility (i.e. distance working and a maternity leave policy that allows women to transition back to full time by work 80 per cent with full pay until the child is 1 year old. One of the challenges now is building the base of women national staff (employees from the countries impacted by conflict) in operational positions in the field.

“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. “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.”

The next step, she says, would be to ensure that both women and men resident field staff have a path to higher management and leadership so that their voices, experiences, cultural knowledge and background can inform key strategic and operational decisions.

Beyond the numbers

In this sense, the gender question cannot be unlinked from other critical aspects of diversity, one reason it’s important to look beyond simple male–female ratios. For example, while women make up a majority of ICRC’s Geneva directorate, all come from western countries while a majority come from anglophone countries. IFRC’s global leadership team, meanwhile, has a lower percentage of women, but it’s very diverse culturally.

Ultimately, gender parity goes hand in hand with a wider move towards diversity and inclusion of people of varied economic, social, racial and religion backgrounds, sources interviewed for this story say. Other issues include equal pay for equal responsibility and whether adequate systems are in place for women or men who experience workplace sexual harassment, assault or bullying.

“Gender parity is not just about numbers,” says Annika Norlin, diversity and inclusion adviser for the ICRC. “It’s about power relations, behaviour, accountability, transparency. It’s also central to our effectiveness as humanitarians as greater staff diversity and inclusion change the way we engage with and understand people, how we interact internally, and the way we find new solutions to old problems.”

Nor is gender parity only about women. At certain administrative levels, or in certain disciplines, there often are far more women than men. Likewise, many National Societies are asking themselves why more men don’t volunteer while men in some positions might ask: “Will gender parity limit my opportunities?” or “Will my career be derailed if I take a few months or years from my career to look after children?”

In that sense, gender parity is an issue for everyone. “We all benefit from more gender inclusive policies, men included,” Norlin notes. “In that sense, it’s critical that men are part of the discussion and this is something that I see is really happening much more within ICRC today.”

In the end, all those interviewed said gender equality is about much more than perceptions.

“Diversity is not only about nationality and about appearance,” says Danzi. “It’s about how people think and solve problems. If you have people who think differently, you have exciting results. When we have a panel or something, we tend to tick the boxes: one from Africa, one from Asia, etc. But that does not always make things more diverse. Education around the world is more and more uniform these days and people travel a lot. So it’s not just the colour of skin and nationality that matter, but what a person did in life, how they grew up, how they solve problems.”

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

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