What are the challenges for female country directors?

Keoamphone Souvannaphoum is the first female country director for ChildFund in Laos.

CANBERRA — In Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, opportunities for women to be leaders remain relatively scarce. Even within NGOs that focus on women and girls programming, women directors remain a rarity. Fighting against such cultural and societal norms are three women who have become country directors for ChildFund.

Keoamphone Souvannaphoum is the country director for ChildFund in Laos — ChildFund’s first female country director for this country. Win May is the country director for ChildFund in Myanmar and has followed successive women into this role. And Lien Nguyen Thi Bich is the second female country director for ChildFund in Vietnam.

The journeys of each woman to their respective management roles are diverse — from 16 years of progressing through the organization, to beginning as a clinic medical team leader for Médecins Sans Frontières in Holland. With them now all in positions to influence perceptions of women and create change, they intend to use them.

But each understand that it will be an uphill battle to change long-standing social perceptions.

Lien Nguyen Thi Bich, the second female country director for ChildFund in Vietnam.

Fighting social norms

For all three women, their societies promote inequality between men and women.

In Myanmar, a culture with a Buddhist majority, there is a belief that men are superior to women, and women cannot attain enlightenment, explained May. “It permeates into all levels of society,” she said.

In Vietnam, societal strictures require women to be feminine, domesticated, and obedient, said Nguyen. That ideal is carried into the working environment.

“If you are a woman in the workplace, you should only do easy, simple, and light work, helping male colleagues to check bills, and so on,” Nguyen told Devex. “Such perceptions make the females themselves unconfident and accept inequality as a natural part of their life — they can also lose the opportunities that males have easy access to. In modern life, as in many other places of the world, besides the responsibilities of looking after children and housework, many women have to earn a living. Where barriers limit women’s opportunities for career growth, they have to try double and triple harder than men to gain work-life balance.”

But barriers for career advancements do not necessarily change in the development sector — there remains gender inequality even in a sector that promotes programs focused solely on women and girls.

“Within Laos, women are not seen as being capable of progressing further in development work, particularly in the field,” Souvannaphoum explained to Devex. “There are fewer women working in the field compared to men, overall.”

Access to education and experience on the ground are among the barriers she sees for women in Laos, and at the community level she believes support is absent while barriers are still high.

“I think the political barriers are equally high as other barriers for women in Laos,” Souvannaphoum said. “There are many examples of strong female leaders but often they are bound by certain procedures and practices where female leaders are only at certain positions in Laos.”

The biggest challenge for female country directors

Expectations of women to be good wives, mothers, and keepers of the household create additional burdens on country directors who are responsible for managing the leadership, staff, program concepts, growth, partner relationships, and more within their organization. And this social expectation creates barriers for women to advance.

“Several years back, when I was in the field with a female Hmong colleague, female villagers in the community we visited were astonished by the fact she was in the field,” Souvannaphoum said. “This would not usually happen in Hmong culture. Husbands don’t allow wives to leave the villages to work elsewhere. The women we met said their husbands would never allow them to leave the village to work in a different village or district.”

In Vietnam, Nguyen explained that there are mechanisms and systems in society to increase the shared responsibilities between men and women and to support young girls more in education. But this is still at the very early stages and Nguyen is keen to break down the barriers for advancements.

“To address these issues, besides the women empowerment program we are delivering in our project areas, we are thinking of other methods,” she said. “Such as including education on gender at schools, building the confidence and leadership skills of girls through role models, and address gender issues in the workplace.

“We believe such interventions and actions can change perceptions — how girls, families, and society imagine what girls can be and can do. Also, so more women understand the opportunities for our daughters, not just to be good wives and mothers.”

Win May, a country director for ChildFund in Myanmar.

Bringing a different style of management to country offices

On the outside, the perceptions are that women would be softer as managers. “Warm and homey,” May suggests.

Not necessarily for these women.

“I am probably seen to be a tougher manager in the Lao context,” Souvannaphoum explained. “I personally think I am a tough manager because it’s my personality, rather than my role as a woman. At times, I have been in meetings where all the others are men who are older than me. Having a firm understanding of your position helps with these meetings.”

But they do bring to the table important experiences that help them better manage and support other women.

“A female manager will have insight and understanding about the particular problems that female face,” Nguyen said. “For overall organization effectiveness, the diversity of gender will create more transparency, more collaboration — especially in organizations like ChildFund where we promote and advocate for the gender equality for the best impact on children’s future. Female managers demonstrate that the organization pays attention to promoting women in leadership roles.”

And despite the obvious biases, Souvannaphoum says there are evident advantages in placing women in leadership roles.

“From my experiences working with women in development overall, women take the initiative and they work hard in striving for results,” she said. “We continue to see more and more results from the projects where we work with women.”

Building change — internally and externally

With the barriers that exist for women in Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, the three women all aim to break down barriers for women and create cultural change — both within the working environment and among communities. And being a role model is an important start.

“Having more role models and repeated practices will start to make changes over time,” Souvannaphoum said. “I think it is important for any manager to be a good role model in order to create a respectful environment for all development staff. And by being a role model, it is not only what you do at work but also at home including with your own family members and especially your children.”

Internally, May is building change by building a culture of openness and respect.

“Everyone needs to be treated and given respect, whether staff or not,” she explained. “And we make it clear with our staff in our organizational culture that we treat everyone with respect, even when we have differences. We always encourage open discussion and explain the procedures and policy for reporting sensitive issues.”

Nguyen similarly aims to build change in Vietnam by creating a space where staff feel safe and confident to speak up. And this means her leadership focuses on building an open and supportive environment and culture.

“The leadership also needs to spend time to ensure that inappropriate attitudes and behaviors will be challenged in the workplace,” she said. “A mechanism for concerns raised should be set and communicated to staff regularly to create a trust environment in which they can share.”

This is already impacting how male employees recognize the roles and responsibilities of their female colleagues.

“I am also keen to have a project on gender at the workplace to equip staff with knowledge about gender equality, and to promote attitudes which respect women as equals with shared rights and responsibilities, and to enable all staff members to challenge inappropriate behaviors and attitude that may be based on traditional perception of girls and women,” Nguyen said.  

In the field, too, these leaders have an important opportunity to shift perceptions where traditional perceptions about female roles and responsibilities remain very strong and awareness among both males and females about the rights of women remains low.

“As development workers, we can disseminate information, create awareness, and build capacities for women on the ground so that they can stand on their own ground and can push back for opportunities and collaboration, especially from men,” Souvannaphoum said.

The impact of #MeToo and #AidToo

Global movements to speak out against harassment and gender inequality are making inroads into Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam and helping to build the change needed to support these female country directors.

“I see the impressive impact on females,” Nguyen said. “They can see that they are not alone, and they are not the only victim in such ‘shaming incidents’ and they won’t blame themselves any more. It breaks the silence on hidden harassment and sexual abuse, and violence against women on a global scale.

“People understand that it happens not only in a developing country — it’s a risk facing every woman in the world. News coverage, the internet and social media mean we can take advantage of new technologies to share a message of change.”

For Souvannaphoum, it is a movement that is impactful and one she thinks country managers such as herself can better leverage and reduce barriers for women now and into the future.

“I think we should promote more and more of these initiatives on the ground, especially the practices where we support women to open up and share their stories,” she said. “In a sense, it is a way to move forward to a positive future and support others who are victims by discussing and sharing the problems before they become very serious. We need to start young so that we can look at these issues more widely.”

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex 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.