Toward Leading by Example: Gender Inequality and the Humanitarian Sector

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Special Operations Command Africa hosted its first Women’s Leadership Forum during International Women’s Day in N'Djamena, Chad, Mar. 7, 2017.

As humanitarian professionals pay greater attention to the differential impacts of disasters and conflicts on women, men, boys, and girls, they increasingly incorporate gender analysis into their preliminary assessments and response plans. These considerations are crucial not only in the emergency response phase—when pre-existing gender inequalities can be greatly exacerbated—but also in the longer-term, post-emergency response phase, when strategic humanitarian programming can play an important role in fostering equitable outcomes and inclusive, sustainable recovery and development. A critical irony facing the sector itself, however, is how often humanitarian organizations struggle internally with some of the same gender-related issues their mandates obligate them to address in beneficiary populations. If humanitarians are truly committed to advancing gender equality, they must begin by addressing these issues within their own ranks.

Women in Leadership

While many UN agencies and INGOs have expressed an ongoing commitment to gender equality—the most prominent of which is the UN Security Council's Women, Peace and Security resolution—there is still a significant gap between what is promoted publically and what is operationalized internally. Writing in the Global Peace Operations Review in 2015, Karin Landgren called gender parity “The Lost Agenda” of the United Nations, a reference to the UN’s professed goal of “achieving gender parity in managerial and decision-making roles” by 2000. Landgren noted that in 2015 former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon boasted the largest number of female appointments to senior UN positions, despite the fact that 84 percent of undersecretaries-general  (USGs) and assistant secretaries-general (ASGs) were men. His successor, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ cabinet currently consists of 42 high-level appointments, only 13 of which are held by women. In 2016, even while 42.8 percent of total UN employees were female, nearly 70 percent of UN Humanitarian Coordinators were men (a discrepancy explained by the fact that female employees were more likely to hold entry-level positions than mid- or senior-level ones). For NGOs headquartered in the United States, women account for less than 15 percent of the directorship.

This low level of visible female leadership also negatively impacts mid- and entry-level women, says Brooke Hirschfelder, the Vice President of Concern Worldwide’s Human Resources Administration. Young women find themselves unable to access female mentors for professional development as “women at the higher levels are exiting the profession.” This is due in part to the difference in professional outcomes for male and female employees as they attempt to climb higher in a humanitarian organization’s hierarchy. A June 2017 publication from Impactpool found 25 percent of women who left jobs at the UN did so in order to advance their careers, while their male counterparts were 50 percent more likely to receive a P5 (mid-career professional) post and six times more likely to receive a D1 (senior-level professional) appointment than their female colleagues.

While the humanitarian sector is by no means an outlier when it comes to lacking women in leadership roles—in 2017 Grant Norton’s “Women in Business” report noted that globally women account for just 25 percent of senior management—what is unique is the sector’s explicit commitment to incorporating gender perspectives into response. According to UN Women, “A strong, continued commitment to gender mainstreaming is one of the most effective means for the United Nations to support promotion of gender equality at all levels.” The sentiment of this statement differs however, from the reality of how gender equality is practiced in the humanitarian space. 

Humanitarians are well aware of the importance of gender and gender equality and as a result, their organizational hierarchies should lead by example, instead of keeping with the status quo. A renewed commitment to gender equality is crucial not only because it is aligned with the sector’s purported values, but because the exclusion of women’s opinions at the highest levels of leadership inherently leaves organizations susceptible to overlooking important aspects of a gender equitable response. As the Humanitarian Advisory Group notes in their 2017 report on Women in Humanitarian Leadership: “over half the world’s population are women and their productivity, intelligence, and insight is lost at the highest levels of decision making.”

Accordingly, a commitment to the principles of gender equality and equity must be matched with a concrete operational response that addresses current gaps within organizations. This means proactively identifying and mitigating institutional impediments to women’s advancement through analysis, training, and targeted interventions—particularly at the senior staff level.

The “Boys’ Club”

As humanitarian organizations struggle to incorporate gender inequality in their leadership and management structures, a key issue influencing this disparity revolves around hiring practices for lower level positions. Many INGOs rely on support from outside contractors and temporary staff in order to meet time-sensitive deadlines, and data suggests these contract workers also skew heavily male. At the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), for example—where three out of every four employees is an independent contractor—80 percent of their service contracts in 2016 were awarded to men.

Additionally, the utilization of private military and security companies (PMSCs) for security management – an increasingly common practice – can also influence humanitarian culture. In 2008, ODI found that nearly half of the NGOs and UN agencies they surveyed had used a PMSC. Newcastle University’s Amanda Chisolm notes in her “Gender Audit on Security” that “the practice of private security rests upon heteronormative and militiarised masculine embodiments of those who provide security.” This means PMSCs conduct protection services in much the same way a traditional military would—without prioritizing gender mainstreaming in their activities.

These hiring practices converge to create what the Fletcher School’s Dyan Mazurana refers to as the “cowboy culture” of humanitarian aid, an “old boys’ network” that incentivizes risk-seeking behavior with inherently different implications for female staff, particularly in conflict areas. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Senior Fellow, human rights lawyer, and gender expert, Orly Stern, echoed this sentiment, saying: “The deeper in conflict you go, there really is a pervasive feeling, that it’s a boy’s place to be and as a woman you shouldn’t really be there.” This overtly masculine culture becomes particularly concerning when considering NGO responses to sexual violence against female aid workers.

Sexual Violence Against Female Humanitarians

A further issue for gender equity within humanitarian organizations arises with regard to the protection of staff in the field, including from their own colleagues. While many humanitarian environments pose complex security concerns that can be particularly challenging for female humanitarians, a major issue requiring leadership is the prevalence of sexual violence against female aid workers, many of whom are serving in subordinate positions. Megan Nobert, former director of Report the Abuse and a survivor of sexual violence while on mission in South Sudan, writes that in order to improve the overall security of both international and national staff in the field, the sector must come to acknowledge “there are systemic changes that need to be made, that misogyny and homophobia have not been eliminated, and that there are gaps in the legal accountability of the perpetrators of sexual violence and harassment.”

Fifty-five percent of the 1,005 female humanitarians surveyed by the Humanitarian Women’s Network (HWN) in 2016 reported being “subjected to persistent romantic or sexual advances from a male colleague” and 48 percent “experienced being touched in an unwanted way.” Compounding this issue is the fact that sexual harassment or assault against female aid workers is likely to be widely underreported. Two of the most common reasons for not reporting are listed as “a self-evaluation that the incident wasn’t serious enough,” and a lack of trust in the effectiveness of the humanitarian system’s reporting mechanisms. According to survey results from HWN, 47 percent of women who reported harassment, sexual aggression, or assault experienced no follow-up after their claim. Out of these women, just 19 percent reported that their assailant faced punitive consequences, while 22 percent reported experiencing “negative professional consequences” after their report, including losing their job or being passed over for professional advancement. These inadequate response structures for survivors stem not only from ineffective leadership, but also from the internal policies of humanitarian organizations. Stern notes that almost immediately after an attack is reported, NGOs begin distancing themselves and attempting to place blame on survivors. “Not only is the support that they’re receiving not sufficient, but there’s also in many cases a shift by organizations to try to put the blame on the survivors, saying, ‘You were out past curfew,’ or ‘You were breaking some sort of a security rule’, you were doing something you shouldn’t.’”

A May 2017 report from the Feinstein International Center, entitled, Stop the Sexual Assault against Humanitarian and Development Aid Workers, notes that specific “environmental factors” in the humanitarian sector such as “the male domination of power, space, and decision-making” and “a ‘macho’ environment where males with power foster a work and living atmosphere where… sexual assault is seen as permissible by perpetrators and their supporters” directly contribute to a cultural pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault. These cultural concerns are, in turn, related to the finding that 26 percent of female humanitarians who experienced harassment or assault believed the experience “had a medium to strong impact on the course of their career,” with 46 percent of those women changing missions, quitting their job, or leaving the humanitarian field completely.

As an essential step for effective engagement on this issue, humanitarian organizations should review both reporting and psychosocial support mechanisms for humanitarian survivors of sexual violence. However, even with these mechanisms in place, women also report feeling uncomfortable having conversations about sexual predation with their predominantly male supervisors. Stern believes this is because many “male staff don’t really have an understanding of the things that would make you feel threatened as a woman,” which makes the absence of women in positions of leadership in the humanitarian sector an even more critical concern.  


In order to address the continued underrepresentation of women in humanitarian leadership positions, more effective strategies for recruitment, retention and protection should be designed and implemented across the humanitarian sector. Verbal commitments and catchy campaigns for gender equality are simply not enough. Advancement of women in this sector will require calculated changes in both priority-setting and culture, not only for the benefit of female humanitarians, but also to improve the overall quality of humanitarian response to disasters and conflicts.  The concerns of female humanitarians need to be consistently and proactively addressed—from the highest levels of operational policy to everyday implementation in the field.

If humanitarians truly believe in gender equality, they must lead by example.


For more on this topic, please visit ATHA's Gender and Humanitarian Response Policy Project here









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