Challenges affecting women's advancement in global development

Gender equality is a pillar of global development. That’s why Devex hosted a webinar last week to discuss how gender has played a dominant role in development interventions since the 1970s and the many career paths available to work on this hot topic.

A recording of the webinar, ”Gender-focused careers in international development,” will be available on the Devex website shortly.

One thing that came though in the webinar was that mainstreaming gender into development programs has become common practice. The benefits for doing so are so accepted, they aren’t even up for debate. (See ”10 tips for integrating gender into project proposals and delivery.”)

But as an industry, do we practice what we preach?

I recently participated in an online discussion with the Guardian that asked the question: What does “leaning in” for women working in development look like? Most everyone is well aware of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean in,” which this year has sparked much debate over how women should — or should not — exert themselves in the workplace to have a “seat at the table.”

While I think international development is ahead of some other industries in female representation at the top, it still often seems like the domain of (typically white) men.

Some of the challenges that affect women who work outside of the home can become magnified when working in global development, particularly with kids. Business travel isn’t a quick night or two away but usually involves long jaunts across the globe that may last weeks or even months. Travel affects fathers too, of course, but with women still statistically the dominant caretaker of children — even when they work outside of the home — frequent and long periods of travel can be more challenging for women to juggle than their male counterparts.

I’m a mother of two little girls, and I recall one overseas trip where I was asked frequently, “Who is taking care of your kids?” My male colleagues standing beside me who were also fathers didn’t once receive this question. Conversely, whenever I travel overseas, people are incredulous that my husband can handle the kids on his own, insisting surely someone — typically a woman like one of our mothers — must be swooping in to help. When he travels and I’m left behind with the kids, no one bats an eye. While I don’t think the questioners mean any harm, it is demonstrative of the prevailing attitude across most cultures that women are the primary caregivers.

In order to advance into leadership positions in global development — either within an international NGO, consulting firm or major multilateral like the United Nations — professionals typically must spend at least part of their career in the field. Many organizations require — or expect — part of that time to be spent in conflict zones, typically unaccompanied posts where your family is not allowed to come along. Even when posted in locations where family can follow, men are less likely to follow their wives to the field if it means their careers will need to take a back seat.

Some of the international institutions Devex provides recruiting services to cite this as a major factor in attracting women to their organization. Most career-driven women tend to pick similarly career-minded spouses. Field locations do not typically have a booming global industry where a spouse can easily swoop in and find a job. While women in leadership positions can be stigmatized for spending too much time away from their family, men too get stigmatized should they choose to take a step back in their career or become a primary caregiver.

Many couples manage these challenges by “taking turns.” One spouse will take a job and the other will follow and then a couple of years later, they switch. (See “Working parents in international development: The tradeoffs.”) This can work well for many couples, though often it means both of their careers take a hit. Gaps on a resume are a read hurdle to employment and can be even more so for a man, again because of the stigma against men who take time off.

At Devex, we work with spouse support groups at several international organizations. They report a greater reluctance from male spouses in seeking out career advice and job support services. They are more likely to feel embarrassed to ask for help and often feel out of place among a more female-dominant network of spouses.

The international nature of our work doesn’t only affect wives and mothers. Recruiters from one international organization we work with told me they also struggle attracting single women. Many of these women are hoping to find a spouse and do not consider the job locations to be a prime locale for meeting eligible bachelors. Or they may be less likely to take on assignments in insecure places without a support network with them.

Another challenge: Professionals in global development are frequently working alongside other cultures which may have different norms, laws and prejudices against women and their standing in society. Often, expat women are considered differently than local women (placed somewhere between a man and a local woman on the social standing ladder). It can make managing multicultural staff a more challenging prospect. Yet being a strong manager is key to advancing in the field. (Not to mention we need local female leaders as much if not more than expat ones.)

So how do we solve the gender gap? I won’t pretend to have the answers. But I do think we should start by looking at how the realities of global development work can affect women — and men — and their ability to advance their careers. 

What other challenges do you see women face working in the global development industry? What have been your experiences? How do you think we can provide better support to women and men to encourage more equality across gender in leadership positions?

Please let us know by leaving a comments below. Tweet me your career questions at @DevexCareers — your question may just be the focus of an upcoming Career Matters blog post. You can also subscribe to my video blog on YouTube.

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.