Opinion: 3 considerations for women rising in global development leadership

Photo by: Christina Morillo on Pexels

Many employees working in the nonprofit sector are women — yet the higher you climb the organizational ladder, the fewer women you see; there is a “glass ceiling” in the international development sector. It’s not as pronounced as in the Fortune 500 or the tech worlds — where higher compensation and prestige translate to men dominating at each step of the corporate ladder — but it’s real. It’s even harder to see because so many women enter the global development field, which ensures that at least some women make it to a leadership level.

So what is within our ability to control? Our behavior.

“There is a ‘glass ceiling’ in the international development sector. It’s not as pronounced as in the Fortune 500 or the tech worlds … but it’s real.

— Fiona Macaulay, founder and CEO, WILD Network

Over my 20-year career in global development — which included founding my own company early in my career — I have recognized patterns of behavior that can undermine women’s success in the global development workplace. These patterns show up in the lives of most working women, but they can take on special significance for women in global development.

We got into the field because we cared; we wanted to make a difference. That passion translates to quality work, at least at first. But given the uncertain, complex situations we’re so often thrown into, the regular and demanding overseas travel, it can also lead to burn out, or stalling out, if women don’t learn how to skillfully navigate the behavioral traps I’ve laid out below.

Here are three considerations for women working in global development:


For content on bridging the gap between commitment and action to advance women’s leadership in development.

1. Advocate for yourself and your work

Sometimes, we expect that others will spontaneously notice and value what we contribute. But more often than not, that won’t be the case. Often colleagues are simply too busy to properly evaluate the work done. And for many of us, our greatest achievements happen an ocean away — while working on an overseas assignment without our bosses there to observe them.

While women can have an aversion to self-advertisement — “I don’t want to act like that jerk down the hall” — the trick is to “reframe” how you communicate with your superiors. Keeping a boss apprised of what you do, maybe in a weekly email, is not the same as blowing your own horn. The more you can treat what you do as information that is helpful to the person receiving it, the more comfortable you will be sharing it. Another goal should be to get a sponsor, someone who advocates for you when you’re not in the room and decisions are being made that can affect your career.

2. Be OK with imperfection

Women can fall prey to “either/or” thinking here, i.e. “if I’m not perfect, I must be failing.” Perfectionism is a classic case of a trait perceived as a plus for women early in their careers — where women are rewarded for precision and correctness — that can become a trap at senior levels where strategic thinking and boldness are more highly valued, says author and researcher Sally Helgesen in her recent book “How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back From Your Next Raise, Promotion or Job.”

The requirement to wear 10 different hats at some NGOs and firms with fewer resources can contribute to the feeling of failing. Celebrate your ability to multitask — and make sure your boss knows! When women leaders learn to relax into the job, they realize that the relentless pursuit of perfection isn’t any fun — not for them and not for the people they manage.

3. Communicate your strength

Use words and body language to hold your space and convey your strength. Younger women, as a group, tend to better than their elders at claiming their achievements, but can be guilty of minimizing.

I am frequently struck by how often in meetings younger women colleagues slump their shoulders or fiddle with their hair when they were making a point, as if afraid to take physical ownership of their ideas. On several occasions, I brought in a communications coach to work with my entire staff, but it was the younger women who benefited most. Take for example the unconsciously apologetic tone that sometimes creeps into what women say at meetings: “You might not like this idea but …”

The good news is that it’s fairly easy to embrace these behaviors once you are aware of them. Pick one, make that your focus for the next 3-6 months. Once you — and others around you — notice the behavior change, move on to the next one.

How can we bridge the gap between commitment and action to advance women’s leadership in development? #GlobalDevWomen Leadership Weeks explores tips for professionals and organizations on how to reach gender parity through advice articles, op-eds from industry leaders, online events, and a virtual career fair for mid-senior level women professionals.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Fiona Macaulay

    Fiona M. Macaulay has 20 years of international experience developing and documenting best practices in economic and social inclusion initiatives. She co-creates strategies that knit together the ecosystem of youth development stakeholders, including fostering closer working relationships with the private sector to benefit from their intellectual capital. She is a sought after speaker on critical trends in the youth economic development sector as well as women's entrepreneurship and what it takes to grow a social enterprise.