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Where are the women from the Global South in humanitarian panels

By Ophelie Namiech, Mindset-PCS managing director.

June 14, 2020.

Credit: Women Advancement Organization, South Sudan.

A few weeks ago, while preparing a panel on humanitarian funding, my colleague Karen and I received an uplifting message from a potential speaker: “I will be happy to join the panel provided that the panel selection will genuinely guarantee gender balance and diversity”.

As we are striving to champion gender equality, diversity, and inclusion in all levels of our work, we were thrilled with such pledge.

Yet, it was one of the rare times, in 13 years of humanitarian work, that I came across such a conditionality from a guest speaker.

The humanitarian profession, compared to many other sectors, hosts a large minority of female workers from all over the world[1]. Yet, too many panels and conferences are shaped by the same old paradigm: male practitioners from the Global North are still over-represented in humanitarian public events and therefore dominate the humanitarian discourse.[2]

Why is it so?

Even though notable progress has been made with regards to gender representation and diversity in the humanitarian sector, leadership and decision-making roles are still largely dominated by men from the Global North.[3] 

For instance, in 2016, only 9 of the 29 UN Humanitarian Coordinators (31%) were women. Some UN agencies, like United Nations University, had less than 30% of women staff.[4] Likewise, there are striking disparities, in the national representation of women: only 25% of UN staff in Western and Central Africa are women and 35% in the Arab States, against 46% in Europe and 49% in the Americas.[5]

Additionally, I cannot but wonder whether we have been genuine in our quest for diversity. When organizing panels, we tend to look for the ‘impressive factor’ by inviting top decision makers – too many of whom are still coming from the Global North. Even though these experts undoubtedly offer a fantastic wealth of knowledge, I have seen that they are often prioritized over younger (female) leaders from the Global South.

What are the consequences?

Implicit and harmful biases. Panels (of experts) embody legitimacy, authority and power. As such, male-dominated events perpetuate the implicit cultural and social bias that exists in favor of male authority and leadership. Because of this pre-conception, we tend, even unconsciously, to associate 'legitimate expertise' with socially construed stereotypes and pre-determined roles related to age, ethnicity, and gender. When such role models are restricted, we reproduce – and institutionalize – imbalances.

Limited and narrow expertise. Conferences provide a unique opportunity to share various experiences, and advance critical and innovative thinking. Yet, with restricted panels, audiences receive limited perspectives that prevent critical and creative analytical processes, and reduce the chances for innovation.

As Simon Rothery, CEO of Goldman Sachs Australia, indicated: “When we limit the range of perspectives, we limit the quality of the conversation and its outcomes.”

It is proven that “teams that are diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, and social background produce better […] science, generate a broader range of ideas and innovations, and better represent society.”[6]

 What shall we do?

  1. We urgently need a shift in mindset. The very use of this ‘diversity and gender balance card’ illustrates, in itself, a societal problem. We should not invite women, experts from the Global South, people with disabilities, young voices, or other under-represented demographic groups, just because we have to, but because we want and need to. We should be able to recognize the importance of diversity in knowledge-sharing for intellectual, professional and societal advancement. If we are genuine in our desire to grow as a global community of experts, we must advertise the diverse thriving minds and capacities out there.

  2. I am calling on some boldness in the way we organization panels. It is true that panels organizers enjoy hosting traditional ‘big names’, and that’s ok. However, why not combining these personalities with a different category of 'big names' that could include, for instance: young and successful female entrepreneurs, rising activists, female heads of Community-Based Organizations, local designers, academics from the Global South etc.? It is time to think bold and big, break down culturally and socially construed barriers, and shed light on the creative diversity of this world.

  3. We should place more efforts in global education and professional integration. Think tanks, UN agencies, academic institutions, INGOs and others should invest more efforts in identifying diverse talents, especially from the Global South – this includes promoting apprenticeships and scholarships to address the education, professional and representation gaps.

  4. We should dismiss excuses. I often hear: “I tried to identify women but could not find anyone available?”. We are privileged to work in a sector that is shaped by brilliant women and men from different ages and backgrounds, and from all over the world. We should take advantage of this global network to promote its diversity.

  5. We must move away from the paralyzing vertical approach. This discussion on gender and diversity imbalances in humanitarian panels takes us back to a core argument I have continuously been sharing: there is something inherently wrong with the way we approach our sector. Too many decisions are made in restricted circles, (still) mostly in the Global North. We talk localization and sustainability. But let us be honest. Aid is not localized. Panels are not localized. The humanitarian discourse is not localized. Decision-making is not localized. And until we have the courage to recognize that, our sector will not move forward.

It is time to embrace egalitarian and horizontal exchanges of experiences and knowledge. Prioritizing true diversity in humanitarian panels is one step in that direction.

Hence, we call on all humanitarian practitioners and organizations to pledge to only participate in panels, conferences and other public events that can genuinely demonstrate a desire to shed lights on the amazing diversity in our profession, and pay tribute to the multitude of voices and ideas out there.


End Notes:

[1] There is limited data on the topic but the report of the Humanitarian Advisory Group provides a good baseline referring to UN system and American NGOs. For instance, in the United Nations system, women comprise 42.8 per cent of all employees, according to this 2016 report of the Humanitarian Advisory Group.

[2] Again, the data on gender and diversity in humanitarian NGOs specifically is very limited, but we use the Humanitarian Advisory Group report as a point of reference and baseline. According to the report, research focused on the United States found women account for 75 per cent of the non-profit workforce, but only 43 per cent of CEOs. Out of 151 non-profit organisations in the US, only 21 had boards with at least 50 per cent women. At the smallest non-profit organisations [in the US], women make up 55 per cent of CEOs, compared to the largest non-profits, categorised by budgets of $50million or more, where women make up 18 per cent of the CEOS. At the UN, as the level of employment increases, the percentage of women employees continually decreases, with women comprising only 27.3 per cent of employees at the highest professional level.

[3] According to UNDG 2016, in Humanitarian Advisory Group’s report.

[5] UN Women, ibid.

[6] The LANCET, The Lancet Group's commitments to gender equity and diversity, August 2019. Article available here.

[7] Bourke 2016, cited in the Humanitarian Advisory Group 2016 report.


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