Carol Angir, senior program manager for women's rights in emergencies with ActionAid Australia, calls for improved gender equality in humanitarian leadership at the inaugural Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference. Photo by: Lisa Cornish / Devex

Despite a proliferation of aid programs focusing squarely on issues of gender, many humanitarian organizations have yet to examine the gender barriers — or a potential gender gap — within their own institutions.

The challenge is compounded by an overall lack of information on women in leadership and their potential, which was examined at the inaugural Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference in Melbourne, on April 26 to 28.

At all stages of a humanitarian response, there are hurdles for women to overcome that do not similarly impact the work of men. Many development professionals present in Melbourne made the call for more to be done to address this gap, although questions remain on how to make changes both successfully and sustainably.

Devex rounded up several ideas and perspectives from the conference.

The Central American perspective

Lara Seigneur and José Chacon of Oxfam America provided the audience with a clear picture of barriers women face when trying to provide leadership in the humanitarian sector.

“It is recalcitrant male colleagues that challenge women who cause issues.”

— José Chacon, resilience manager, Oxfam America

In Central America, Chacon called the culture “macho to the highest.” Long standing cultural perspectives that women are the weaker sex, are influenced by their heart over their head and should be responsible for work in the home mean that women are not provided with equal opportunities as men.

To better understand this impact on work and advancement of women in the humanitarian sector, Seigneur and Chacon conducted workshops, and from their discussions it was obvious that women had the right skills for the job.

“It is recalcitrant male colleagues that challenge women who cause issues,” Chacon said.

Still, the cultural norms are so ingrained that even women create barriers for other women climbing the corporate ladder. In Central America, feminism is a dirty word, Seigneur said.

Lessons from the workshops are being used to develop a humanitarian leadership program for women in Central America, but the initial results suggest that the way to create real change will be from the ground up. In collaboration with local community groups, Oxfam believes improving awareness and mainstreaming gender discussions is one way to start.

Where are the numbers?

One barrier to progress is the lack of information on women in humanitarian leadership — not just the numbers, but their roles and impact.

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Ayla Black, a policy advisor with the Humanitarian Advisory Group, demonstrated that while talk of equality is high, turning words into action is a difficult task. For the United Nations, an organization with a strong focus on gender empowerment, the percentage of women employed drops from 61.5 percent at the lowest levels to just 27.3 percent at the top.

To begin to effectively research the causes of the gender divide in humanitarian leadership and develop effective solutions to close the gap, base level data is also needed, she said.

The data and research gaps for the sector that Black presented did not come as a surprise to the audience, who were fully aware of their own information gaps.

The role of human resources teams to address gender issues

Clare Condilac, director of Bongo HR, has worked with Oxfam and Plan International to provide human resources support in humanitarian responses. But HR is a similarly critical resource to help develop awareness of gender issues, she noted.

The HR team, she said, usually has a wealth of analytics on staff recruitment, employment and retention at their fingertips.

“It’s easy for HR teams to pull out figures and do the analytics,” she added.

The analytics can provide insight into gaps and barriers, and combined with strong HR policies to be flexible in filling these gaps, humanitarian organizations can recruit, develop and retain women and build strong foundations for greater female representation at the top.

Within the countries to which humanitarian organizations are providing support, HR analytics and policies are particularly important to recruit local women for program support and delivery.

“Organizations don’t fully recognize and analyze cultural barriers,” Condilac said. “It is important to think about them and make interventions that can respond.”

This is something that humanitarian organizations should consider now, in order to plan effective response and service delivery in high risk countries with social and cultural barriers for women.

Good leaders within humanitarian organizations, Condilac said, should be speaking with their HR teams to make this happen.

Now is the time for change

The overwhelming call from speakers at the conference was that it was no longer time for talk — the sector, and its female workforce, want action.

“There needs to be more strategic support towards women’s leadership.”

— Carol Angir, ActionAid Australia

Carol Angir, the senior program manager for women’s rights in emergencies with ActionAid Australia, told Devex the World Humanitarian Summit last year formed the foundation for research on the opportunities and barriers facing women in leadership, with the aim to bring global attention to the fight for equality.

“We looked at the World Humanitarian Summit as a great opportunity to be able to bring to the fore this challenge and also use it as a point of influence to get global attention to the fact that there needs to be more strategic support towards women’s leadership,” she said.

The research overwhelmingly found that female leaders in the humanitarian sector felt unappreciated. They wanted to be more proactive. They were not well engaged in planning and early stages of humanitarian responses. And they faced additional burdens at home through increased unpaid care responsibilities, and increased violence during emergencies.

The research from Angir and her team allowed all those involved in the study to have a voice, while not being physically present at the World Humanitarian Summit. Their voices continue to call loudly for the humanitarian sector to evolve and ensure women play a strong role in leadership.

Devex is the media partner for the inaugural Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference. Follow discussion from the conference on Twitter using #bethechange.

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 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.

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