Q&A: Humanitarian Advisory Group explains how NGOs can push for gender equality at the top

A boardroom. Photo by: Unsplash.com

Beyond International Women’s Day, issues concerning women in leadership and the gender pay gap are important topics of discussion for government and business. Reports, including Deloitte’s Women in the Boardroom, provide insight into both barriers and progress.

For the humanitarian and development sector, new research from the Humanitarian Advisory Group identifies an important gap in achieving equal representation at the top of NGOs: data. The report, Women in Humanitarian Leadership, researched available data and information finding five key research gaps, including lack of representation from the sector in global research reports, inadequate evidence of the impact of women in humanitarian leadership on programs, and little evidence on the role of mentoring in creating female leaders in the sector.

At the Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference in Melbourne from April 26 to 28, Director of the Humanitarian Advisory Group Kate Sutton will be discussing this new research as part of a panel discussion on women in leadership.

Devex spoke to her about the research and who needs to be at the discussion table to develop change at the top of NGOs globally. The conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

Can you discuss how this research came about and the gaps you were looking to fill?

The ideas for the research came up last year when we identified enormous gaps in the data. Essentially all information on women in leadership comes from private sector.

There are massive pieces of research that take place by organizations such as Deloitte, which are massive global analyses that occur on an annual basis. It occurs across all sector with a notable gap: There is nothing on international development.

We conducted secondary research for this study, and looking at the information that existed, it was a very challenging piece of work. We were having to piece together bits of data from here and there that we could get our hands on.

That led to the first research gap we identified: The humanitarian sector is just not represented in gender studies taking place. To my mind, that is an easy quick fix. If the methodology is there, and organization such as Deloitte have approaches to analyze data, then we need to get the data and feed it into their systems.

What was the quality of information that was available for women in leadership in the development and humanitarian sector?

There is some strong anecdotal evidence, and when you put lots of these pieces of anecdotal evidence together and triangulate it, there is definitely a basis for some findings that come out in our report.

There is quite a bit of work that has been done by UN Women and that goes across the United Nation’s systems and bodies but does not embrace the broader humanitarian space.

And then there is some country-specific research that is broad enough for us to draw some conclusions.

There is an awful lot of evidence around women in leadership more broadly and other sectors that can extrapolated into the humanitarian sector. But that is where a lot of the gaps exist. For example, really comprehensive analyses of media reports for other sectors allows us to pull out really clearly the unconscious bias that exists in reporting, including experts used and who from organizations are quoted. But this has not happened for the humanitarian world.

Why do you think the humanitarian and development sectors have been excluded from research by organizations such as Deloitte, creating a data gap?

I don’t think that when people are pulling together the main sectors or industries for these studies that the humanitarian sector jumps to the top of lists. I don’t think this is intentional in any sense.

There was one organization featured in a worldwide study: Oxfam. It occurs to me that they may have put their hand up or been quite proactive in being engaged, but there is no evidence that other humanitarian agencies have been proactive in looking at this issue. They may have been approached and decided it was too difficult to prepare and supply data in a way that was required by the study.

But I wouldn’t then say that the sector is pushing back. It is not as if they have been reluctant to provide data, it’s more of a time and resources issue.

With the research and report, what stood out for you among the findings?

The area that really stood out for me was unconscious bias.

When I started digging into this understanding of what unconscious bias is, it became much more evident to me that it is so complex and so deep-rooted that the solutions need to take this into account.

A lot of workplaces are looking at ensuring there is good support for women on maternity leave or women are allowed to travel with their children. But really all we are doing is scratching at the surface. We need to be taking a lot of the learning that is happening in other sectors and applying this to the humanitarian world.

I found it interesting that research from the private sector found that when we train people on gender equality, people moved in the opposite direction of where they were expected to go in terms of behavior changes. The training became like a tick box exercise where people thought once it was done, they could go back to behaving as normal.

Studies of how we change behavior, for me, have interesting implication for what we then do in the humanitarian world.

At the Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference, you will be speaking as part of a panel on women in leadership. Who do you think needs to be involved in this discussion to create change in the sector?

It would be great to have people from HR and recruitment to be part of the discussion. A lot of the new and innovative ways to ensure women are included at leadership levels are around pipeline and recruitment issues — ensuring we are getting people on board and then providing promotional pathways.

Managers and people in leadership also need to be there to discuss mentoring and issues at the top. For women managers, they can discuss supporting other women into leadership roles — this doesn’t always happen. And for men to become aware of their unconscious biases, including when they are making decisions, how they are making them and the idea that male networks are more predominant at the leadership level. Men support other men to get promoted in leadership.

Managers and people in decision-making positions need to be part of discussions to become more aware of this research and its implications.

I also want general program people to be involved. The other question that comes out of this research for me is that there are a lot of assumptions around at the moment on the idea of more women in humanitarian leadership and its impact on programs. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that it leads to improved programs, but there is no hard evidence or facts. I would be really interested to have people in the room who have experienced different leadership styles and start thinking about the gender impact on programs and advantages or disadvantages of each.

But we also need both men and women in the room. Research has shown that in the household, perceptions of the role of men and women are not dramatically changing. Women are still seen as the primary caregiver, regardless of whether they are a CEO or not. Perceptions need to be changed. Women can’t keep on like this if they are hoping to take on leadership responsibilities, and the time they have available to dedicate to these roles are always going to be limited if they are expected to be doing two or three different things.

Are there business sectors you would like involved in this discussion for the humanitarian and development sectors to learn from?

I wouldn’t say there is a “sector” that has popped out for me. But there are companies that have been very impressive.

In the Australian space, ANZ Bank identified that women have less superannuation than men at retirement age. So they pay additional to all women, regardless of their life situation. All women get extra superannuation every single month. I think things like that are impressive because they have looked at data and they have made very concrete decisions about what they are going to do to address it.

Westpac Bank have also done a lot of work in this area and have teams that focus on gender issues and supporting female-led businesses.

If we could get representatives from organizations such as these that pioneer interesting practice to support women, we can learn a lot.

The conference will be part of your next steps of discussing and engaging with the humanitarian sector on women in leadership. What are your longer term plans for monitoring and research?

We’re in the process of sharing the research as broadly as possible, particularly trying to talk to organizations who do these studies on an annual basis to see the steps to include humanitarian organizations.

Our report also identifies a range of research gaps and we will be approaching a range of organizations to see if we can get funding to fill these gaps.

And we will be looking for partnerships with the private sector to facilitate sharing of knowledge to better support women into leadership roles in the humanitarian sector.

Editor’s note: Devex is a media partner for the Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference. Registrations are now open to join the discussions.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.