Kate Gilmore: 3 tips for women on reaching the top in development

United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore speaks during a press conference on the human rights situation in Iraq at the United Nations office in Geneva. Photo by: Elma Okic / U.N. Geneva / CC BY-NC-ND

As one of the most influential women at the United Nations and a former director of Amnesty International Australia, Kate Gilmore knows first hand what it takes to make it to the top in a sector in which the vast majority of senior positions are still held by men. Speaking exclusively to Devex, Gilmore shared her advice for aspiring female humanitarian leaders.

While women make up 43 percent of the U.N. workforce, they hold just 27 percent of the top positions — performing only slightly better than the private sector, according to research by the Center for Humanitarian Leadership and data from UN Women.

Devex has also reported on how female aid workers can face systemic harassment, discrimination and abuse in the workplace. Gilmore is co-champion of a working group set up by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee last year to investigate alleged widespread sexual abuse and harassment of humanitarian workers brought to light by two advocacy groups — Report the Abuse and the Humanitarian Women’s Network.

As part of this role, Gilmore — who is deputy high commissioner for human rights at the U.N. and known for her outspoken views — recently delivered a scathing attack on what she described as a culture of “toxic tolerance” that has allowed this to go unchecked, as Devex reported.

But Gilmore’s passion for empowering women and defending their rights started long before she joined the U.N. For example, while working as a government policy officer and social worker in Australia, she helped to set up the country’s first center against sexual assault in Melbourne. She continued this work as assistant secretary-general to the U.N. Population Fund, promoting comprehensive sexual education and reproductive health services to women and girls in developing countries, before joining the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Drawing on her experience of climbing the ladder in humanitarian and development work through a range of organizations, Gilmore shared her top three tips for aspiring female aid professionals hoping to follow suit.

1. Have a dream

Gilmore’s first piece of advice is to “have a dream, don’t have a reality.” She explained that, too often, women’s “appreciation of what we can achieve is too small” because of the reality we see around us.

Gilmore encourages aspiring aid leaders to form their dream and then give it “as much flavor and feeling as you possibly can.” From here, you can formulate your path ahead by working backwards from your dream position, she said.

2. Think long term

Following on from this, Gilmore’s second tip is to think long term and avoid getting caught up in worries about the immediate future.

“We’re always obsessed by thinking forward to the next job but it’s actually the least important decision — the most important thing is where you want to be in 10 years time,” she said.

By embracing this, women can “free themselves” from worries about finding the perfect next job and instead be more open to other opportunities that may seem “tangential” but could get you closer to the desired goal, strengthen your CV and equip you with new skills, she said.

“Be open, and whatever the universe brings to you in terms of that next job, choose the one which gets you closer to the dream — because the next job doesn’t matter nearly as much as the journey,” she said.

3. No organization is worth sacrificing your goals

Finally, women need to be ruthless about putting themselves first to get to the top, said Gilmore.

“Do not waste time in any job out of loyalty, commitment, or affection for your organization if that organization is not able to elevate you to posts which are commensurate with your energy, your vision and your dream,” she said.

Gilmore boils it down to the understanding that an organization will “never be as loyal to you as you are to it.” This is not intended as a criticism of aid organizations, but a reflection of the simple truth that “no one will ever care about your career as much as you should,” she said.

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.