Women in the Australian international aid sector

*Blog originally posted on 8/3/19 (International Women’s Day) 

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD). A day to celebrate women’s achievements, and forge a more gender-balanced world.

Abt Associates’ aid programs overseas are marking this day with events in country. These events bring focus to the tireless efforts of the men, women, local organisations, governments, donors and international aid organisations working to improve the status of – and outcomes for – women and girls in the Indo-Pacific.

Yet IWD is also an opportunity to reflect on our own circumstance. The organisations, institutions, norms, and behaviors that shape our work as women and men in international development.

Do we—the Australian donor, managing contractor and NGO community—practice what we preach? Are women and men given equal opportunity in the international development sector?

The facts

The evidence[1] reveals three trends:

  1. Generally speaking, the Australian international aid industry has an under-representation of women in CEO and senior management positions – but the trend is slowly improving.

Significant strides have been made in women attaining CEO or directorships—for example: Secretary Frances Adamson at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Jacqui de Lacy as Managing Director of Abt Associates, Judy Slatyer at the Australian Red Cross, Sally Moyle from CARE Australia and Helen Sozke of Oxfam Australia.

Yet the industry as a whole employs more men than women as CEOs (13.5% of CEOs are women in in the professional services sector and 39.8% in the health services sector) and often more men than women in positions of executive or senior management positions (32.1% of senior managers are women in in the professional services sector and 50.6% in the health services sector). In Government (DFAT), women comprised 38% of SES Band 1 positions and 32% of SES Band 2 positions in 2018, up from 35% and 28% respectively[2]. Conversely, across the industry, women tend to dominate the non-managerial – and thus lower-paid – half of the aid sector. This is consistent with nation-wide trends[3], and as we know, is one of the factors contributing to the nation-wide 14% gender pay gap.

  1. Australian not-for-profits seem to do a better job of employing women than their private sector counterparts

Acknowledging that the distribution of women and men tend in senior management positions is uneven, NGOs tend to do a better job of attracting and recruiting women than their private sector counterparts. For example; in the Australian Red Cross, Save the Children and Oxfam, over 70% of all employees were female in 2018. This is compared to 52.6% in Palladium in 2018 and 23.8% at Cardno in 2018.

  1. Good progress has been made across the sector on measures for paid parental leave, sex-based harassment and responding to domestic violence – but more needs to be done

Lastly, good progress has been made (in some cases from a low base) across the international aid sector to implement measures for paid parental leave, flexible work arrangements and implement sex-based harassment and domestic violence measures. Employers more often than not have flexible work arrangements in place (for example DFAT’s ‘if not why not’ policy), support unpaid and carers leave, offer part-time work arrangements and have policies and training in place to prevent and manage sex-based discrimination.  However there are still areas requiring attention – for example; ensuring parental leave is provided equally to primary and secondary careers and topping-up Government PPL entitlements to match full pay rates.

The lived experience

Beyond the facts, there are also institutional, behavioural and normative practices which influence the progression and experience of women in the Australian aid sector. Some of these are unique to international aid, whereas others are common to many other industries in Australia.

While there are many, two factors worth highlighting here – and which friends and colleagues raised with me when compiling this blog – are as follows:

  1. Some women (both local and international staff) tell me that the barriers to equal opportunity in their organisations are becoming harder for them (and their counterparts) to identify and respond to. From (what one colleague jokingly referred to as) ‘mansplaining’[4] to being interrupted in meetings, being left off the invite list for social events[5], or having comments dismissed by a person in a position of power – we know that gender discrimination emerges in covert as well as overt ways.

Whether these actions are intentional or unintentional, these personal stories remind us how important it is for both men and women to call out inappropriate behavior when it happens, and continue to find ways to promote the positive and equal voice of women throughout the Australian aid sector.

  1. The nature of international development work also means that women may experience gender discrimination in their work overseas, including where cultural and legal norms are different to those in Australia. One common refrain from international female aid colleagues is the “double bind” of living and working as both a foreigner and a female in patriarchal political systems, where foreigners are not always welcome, and women are at far greater risk of gender-based discrimination and violence than their male counterparts. This is a tricky situation: the Australian jurisdiction does not apply, and local legal and normative frameworks are often insufficient. In other instances, some local female staff recount struggles trying to navigate their own cultural norms and barriers (which may discourage women from say speaking out or challenging the opinions of older staff) with the different expectations of their international employees.

Such experiences remind us of the important duty of care that international aid organisations have (be it government, NGO or private sector) to continue to protect and promote the rights of their employees working overseas – as well as the rights of the men, women and children who their aid programs are seeking to help.

Concluding thoughts

For most of us in international development, the goal is to support our local partners to make positive change in their countries. To improve the social and economic well-being of men, women and children in the places they live and work, and where aid is delivered. And when undertaking this work from the perspective of an Australian aid provider or funder – IWD reminds us that we need to ensure our organisations uphold the same practices, rules and behaviours that we wish to help others achieve. A more gender-balanced world requires the sustained efforts of all of us – at home and abroad.



[1] All data in this article is sourced from the 2017-18 WEGA datasets. Note that organisations working in the Australian aid sector are generally catagorised under two different divisions: the professional, scientific and technical services division and health care and social assistance division – which include organisations other than those working specifically on international aid. Thus there are limitations to the types of generalisations that can be drawn from this dataset.

[2] DFAT 2018 Annual Report – https://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/corporate/annual-reports/Documents/dfat-annual-report-2017-18.pdf

[3] According to the WGEA, in 2017-18 women in Australia held “….13.7% of chair positions and 25.8% of directorships, and represent 17.1% of CEOs and 30.5% of key management personnel.”

[4] Apparently this term even has its own Wikipedia entry now https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mansplaining

[5] In this case the individual was referring to male-only social events, which they believed allowed younger men to build a rapport with male senior managers, and thus increase their potential for career advancement.

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