It’s time to talk about a phenomenon that may seem obvious to some and surprising to others: The global development whisper network. Many women who work in the fields of international development and humanitarian assistance primarily rely on the whisper network to vent about incidents of gender bias, discrimination, and sexism.
Ironically, just as we work to advance global social equity in other countries, women often can’t expect to be treated the same as male colleagues within their organizations.
Over lunches and at happy hours we swap stories with female co-workers:
My supervisor keeps telling me to be less aggressive and more of a team player. My co-worker points out every time I wear my hair differently, or put on a dress. My employer doesn’t offer maternity leave, the only benefit I get is for temporary disability. When is this organization going to hire more female leaders of color? A photo of me and other women in the office was circulated by a male chief of party in an email titled “Babes.”
Read more in our Women Working in Global Development series:
Across cultures, many women are discouraged from a very young age from voicing complaints and are instead rewarded for being “perfect.” As a result, we fear being the squeaky wheel, and rightly so. Women, and most of all women of color, are emotionally exhausted by not being heard or believed about the prevalence of bias.
Over the course of our careers in global development, we and other women express the desire to be heard. We want a way to share stories that is anonymous, safe, and empowering. We wanted to experience community, and most of all to have more opportunities to pursue our passion to deliver greater social impact.
The launch of Women Working in Development
Just over a year ago, Quantum Impact — a social impact organization that believes diverse and inclusive work environments contribute to better development outcomes — began collecting stories from women working in development. Around the same time, Devex began ramping up its reporting on sexual violence in aid, leading to the not-so-quiet launch of #AidToo, a campaign to expose the breadth and depth of sexual harassment and violence in aid — and carry the conversation forward through practical journalism, analysis, and digital events detailing the policies and practices that make our industry a safer and more equal place for women.
Over the coming weeks, Devex is publishing anonymous accounts from women who have shared their career stories with Quantum Impact over the course of 2017. The Women Working in Development series will share their stories of adversity — from salary disparity to sexual harassment — and advice on how we as a sector can do better. Devex will also be exploring issues ranging from the gender wage gap to unconscious bias in hiring practices.
Highlighting the stories we all experience
Studies show that more diverse, equitable, and inclusive teams increase morale, drive innovation, and expand the economy. A 2016 analysis of more than 20,000 firms in 91 countries found that companies with more female executives performed better. As Amy Jadesimi said in her Devex op-ed, “The world needs to have as many women leading men as there are men leading women” to unlock the $28 trillion that McKinsey estimates could be added to annual global gross domestic product by 2025 with equal numbers of men and women participating in the workforce.
And yet, behavior change is not motivated by facts and figures alone. The human brain is wired to retain stories, to connect on an emotional level. When we pair feelings with facts, movements are born. The “silence breakers” of 2017 successfully employed personal narratives in large numbers to demand accountability for power abuse and sexual assault.
By contrast, these stories will highlight microaggressions: Daily slights that over time chip away at a woman’s confidence, compensation, and resolve to rise in her career. Our stories point out that these are solvable issues, and concrete action steps that can be taken today.
A call to action for men and women
Global development, like most sectors of the economy, is slow to realize change in terms of gender, racial, and ethnic makeup of leadership. Previously, our understanding of the challenge was anecdotal, as almost no data existed on the diversity of leadership across U.S.-based international development organizations. That is why Quantum Impact is releasing the results of a survey of leadership that looks at gender, racial, and ethnic diversity across 200 organizations in the international development field, in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8.
Each of us have a role to play to correct bias in our industry. The sooner we do so, the sooner we will begin to see equitable representation of women, particularly of women of color, in decision-making roles within global development organizations. And when that happens, we will be “walking the talk” to better serve global communities with more innovative and more inclusive development approaches.
Join the conversation using #globaldevwomen or share your career story.