Podcast: Helen Clark on the need for more women in global dev leadership

Listen to the first episode of our DevProWomen2030 audio series here.

The global development landscape of today requires a workforce with different and diverse skill sets than it did a decade ago. And, as the sector ramps up its efforts to meet the ambitious targets set by the Sustainable Development Goals, it will continue, over the next 10 years, to demand new skills and expertise.

Gender parity across the workforce is also a priority as women, while making critical contributions to global development, continue to be underrepresented in the sector. In global health, for example, women make up more than 70 percent of the workforce, yet only 25 percent are in leadership positions. Achieving gender equality — SDG 5 — will not only support women working in a range of roles across development but ensure the sector is equipped with the skills to tackle the most pressing global challenges by 2030.

Through a new six-part audio series, DevProWomen2030, Devex will be speaking to women professionals, leaders, and recruiters in the sector to find out how changes across the development landscape are impacting women and what advice they have for those entering this space or looking to climb the ladder.

To kick off this series, Devex caught up with Helen Clark, former head of United Nations Development Programme and former prime minister of New Zealand. Clark believes a proactive approach is needed if we want to achieve gender parity and see more women in top positions across the development sector.

There are a number of factors contributing to how the development space will look in the next 10 years and how this will impact women working in this space, Clark said. We are set to see an increase in the number of middle-income countries, she said, but these societies will likely still experience high rates of gender inequality. To address this, governments will be seeking specialist policy advice and skills.

To meet these needs, development organizations, particularly multilaterals, will need to “lift their game” and constantly upgrade staff skills, Clark said. As a result, Clark expects there will be a demand for professionals working in policy advisory and technical roles and she believes this is where women can find opportunities to break into the sector. She also thinks that there will be room for women to work in designing and implementing programs as more countries look to leverage artificial intelligence.

Fragile contexts and the growing populations living in them, estimated to reach 2.3 billion by 2030, will also generate a need for “sheer humanitarian relief” and expertise in early activity recovery in disaster and postconflict situations, Clark said. Women will continue to be critical to humanitarian efforts, according to Clark, so she urged organizations working in these contexts to act on their promises of zero tolerance and “actually stamp out sexual and gender-based violence.” Clark also hopes to see more women in leadership roles in development.

“In the multilaterals, I would prefer not to be the first and only woman administrator at UNDP,” she said, and “I think we really need to look for women to be holding the top positions in a wide range of organizations.”

Achieving gender parity takes work though, Clark said, and requires rigor in recruitment and promotion, particularly since women tend to question their ability to compete for and succeed in more senior positions.

“It is important to be proactive in mentoring and nurturing women’s talent,” Clark said, “and really encouraging belief in themselves that they can aim for higher positions.”

Devex, with financial support from our partner 2U, is exploring the skills and education development sector professionals will need for the future. Visit the Focus on: DevPros 2030 page for more.

About the authors

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.
  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.