Women Deliver launches investigation following staffers' allegations of racism

Photo by: @cowomen on Unsplash

NEW YORK — Global advocacy organization Women Deliver is undergoing an independent review after former staffers made public allegations of a racist environment last week.

Amid accusations of a toxic workplace, Women Deliver CEO Katja Iversen announced Tuesday that she would take a leave of absence until an independent investigation of the organization is complete. Iversen apologized in a public statement for “the pain and the trauma experienced by current and former employees.”

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“I was and am shaken, heartbroken, and tremendously angry with myself. I am in charge of this organization, and I apologize and take full responsibility for these experiences and for my role in it,” Iversen wrote.

The organization’s chief operating officer, Kathleen Sherwin, is now serving as interim CEO.

“We take these complaints very seriously and are taking immediate, transparent action to address these problems,” said Hannah August, a spokesperson for Women Deliver.

Two former staff members, both black women, have spoken out on Twitter in the past week, describing specific incidents that stigmatized them and ways the organization prevented them from advancing in their careers.

“I was verbally abused by the CEO, I had the head of HR ask me if my hair was ‘my real hair’, I was the lowest-paid staff full-time staff member for nearly two years, I watched time and time again QUALIFIED Black candidates to be denied jobs,” Brittany Tatum, a communications strategist and designer, tweeted. “I’m not being quiet anymore.”

Other development and aid organizations, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, have also faced calls to address systemic racism. The demands for accountability and change follow widespread unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody and other acts of police brutality against black Americans.

It was long overdue for Women Deliver to acknowledge its racially discriminatory culture, development experts and a former member of the Women Deliver Young Leaders Program told Devex.

The allegations that Tatum and other former staffers made were familiar to Angela Bruce-Raeburn, regional advocacy director for Africa at the Global Health Advocacy Incubator, who said that she has had similar experiences as a black woman in development.

Women Deliver is among the organizations that participants in a Facebook group for black female development professionals — which has more than 4,300 members — have raised red flags about, Bruce-Raeburn said.

“These organizations have been getting a pass for so many years where this kind of toxic culture has become the norm. They are not the only organization,” Bruce-Raeburn said.

Women Deliver’s board of directors, chaired by development consultant Kristin Hetle, is appointing an outside organization within the next few days to conduct an independent investigation of former employees’ statements. The investigation’s results will be public, the board wrote in a statement.

“We will know more when the board brings on a group, but it will be done as expeditiously and as thoroughly as possible,” Women Deliver’s August wrote in an email to Devex.

Over the last week, Women Deliver has also set up an anonymous hotline for staff members to report any inappropriate work experiences. August said that she is not aware of any complaints to human resources through the third-party hotline.

“We have encouraged staff to report any wrongdoing and reminded them that there would be no retaliation for speaking out, including on social media,” August said.

Women Deliver has been working with ReadySet, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting company, since January. The work has included staff training and a review of structures, policies, and practices. Next week, Women Deliver staffers will jointly review its recommendations and discuss next steps, according to August.

“We are committed to running an anti-racist organization and have taken concrete steps to make sure that we’re living our values in all we do,” August said.

Earlier in June, Women Deliver announced plans to develop clear diversity, equity, and inclusion benchmarks for hiring; to hire more people of color; and to develop an intersectional lens as part of its next five-year strategic plan.

Bruce-Raeburn called for additional steps and for black and brown women to replace Iversen and other top people at the organization.

“We want to see a real understanding, a real commitment to defining and reimagining the mission of this organization, and ‘Who do you serve?’ and ‘Who are you going to bring in?’” Bruce-Raeburn said.

“These organizations have been getting a pass for so many years where this kind of toxic culture has become the norm.”

— Angela Bruce-Raeburn, regional advocacy director for Africa, Global Health Advocacy Incubator

Patience Stephens, former director and special adviser on education at UN Women, called for a close examination of Women Deliver’s donors — top country contributors include Canada and Denmark — and its board of directors.

“Once the work is done and this review is done, the board needs to bring on someone whose focus is on racial justice and equity issues,” Stephens said. “At the end of the process, this is the recommendation I would make, because the board has obviously failed. It has been going on for a while and it is deep. Why didn't they see it?”

Stephens left her position at UN Women in 2018, a few years before her intended retirement, in part because of “racist activities that made my life miserable.”

“It is something that happens everywhere, but it is a bit more troubling to see it happening among women at a women’s rights organization,” Stephens said.

Stephens said it was important that Iversen acknowledged wrongdoing and accepted responsibility, even without the results of an independent investigation.

Present and former members of the Women Deliver Young Leaders Program have called for other remedial measures, including a review of Women Deliver leadership.

Beatrice Maneshi, a former program member, took part in a recent call that Women Deliver held with other program participants and employees, after Iversen began her leave of absence, to address their response to the allegations. Iversen did not take part in the call, Maneshi said.

“A lot of the talk was apologies and decisions for looking at an interim system and that there is going to be change, but there were very clearly defined, reasonable requests the youth leaders asked for and it is not clear if that is going to be done or not,” Maneshi said. “The fact that Katja was missing from the call, when her statement said she was going to be listening, is somewhat ironic, and I hope that doesn’t set the tone for the conversation.”

Update, June 19, 2020: This article has been updated to clarify that the call held by Women Deliver to address the allegations occurred after Iversen began her leave of absence.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.