Charlotte Petri Gornitzka on female leadership in development

Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, chair of the Development Assistance Committee at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Photo by: Norbert Schiller / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

Editor’s Note, March 14: This article was amended to clarify that just over two-thirds of charity CEOs are men.

Charlotte Petri Gornitzka took up her role in January as the new chair of the Development Assistance Committee at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, having previously held the position of secretary-general of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and of Save the Children International.

With development leadership still dominated by men, Gornitzka offered Devex her reflections on the challenges faced by female leaders in the aid world ahead of International Women’s Day.

“I, for one, think that we have a very strong case for encouraging female leadership, because women are such a big part of the solution overall,” she told Devex at the OECD headquarters in Paris.

“My country [Sweden] is a great example. When we had equality, the IT sector benefited from having both talented men and women — can you imagine?” she said, feigning surprise. “It’s a business case, it’s not just a right. We have all the reasons to take on leadership challenges.”

In her new role, Gornitzka will lead the committee that sets the rules for and evaluates official development spending. She came to the Development Assistance Committee after six years at the Swedish government aid agency, which she said set a high bar for women’s advocacy in development. Women make up about 70 percent of the Swedish development community, she said - a similar figure to the make-up of the charity workforce more widely, according to Agenda Consulting.

“We need to use that to build diversity, because as of now we’re not exactly mirroring the world we work in,” said Gornitzka. Despite the dominance of women in the development workforce, more than two thirds of charity CEOs are men.

Asked why women don’t make up a larger number of leaders in development, she said: “Sometimes, I think that we should say yes more often to leadership roles. If we say no, then we need to articulate why because we probably need to change that,” adding that “we have to work on” the reasons that women might pass up leadership roles.

“I was asked many times, ‘Well you’re the first woman in this position, what do you think that will mean?’” It’s a difficult question to answer, she said, because she’s isn’t sure “if it’s me being a woman or me being me.”

“I think my leadership style is a bit, perhaps, not average here,” she said. “My style is quite open, transparent... I’m team-oriented.” As a result, she added, “sometimes I underestimate power games and the formalities and the hierarchy... If it’s deliberate or subconscious I don’t know, but I think that I have a bit of a different leadership style.”

Still, Gornitzka is hesitant to brand her approach gender-related: “It’s too simplified that way.”

The message she hopes to convey to other women in the industry is that, “I want women to support each other in leadership roles,” she said. “It is not always the case.”

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About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.