The puzzle of equitable senior leadership in global development and how your skills can get you there

By : Jacqui De Lacy, Anna Winoto, Esther McIntosh, Lena Kolyada, Priya Chattier, and Leisa Gibson

Many of us have worked hard to address racial and gender inequality so that women are simply recognised for their skills and talent. Recently, we discussed this at the 2020 Women in Global Development Leadership Forum.

It is no surprise to most of us that men outpace women in leadership roles across the international development sector. Research from 2018 showed that two thirds of international development organisations had less than 50% women in leadership, and a fifth did not have any women in leadership. For Black and Indigenous women and women of Colour, the pathway to leadership  is further complicated by racial inequity. Despite these well documented barriers, we find more and more women leaders are delivering high impact investments and leading geographically diverse teams in increasingly complex and uncertain environments.

Women’s leadership: the pipeline problem

Gender biases in work structures and practices put women at a disadvantage. It is not enough to just train women in “leadership skills” without  addressing systematic issues  such as women’s child care needs and the gender pay gap, supporting flexible workplace choices, investing in women’s leadership pools that target Black and Indigenous women and women of Colour, and ensuring gender and racially equitable policies create an enabling environment for women to enter the talent pipeline.

Women are also generally more reluctant to self-promote in a way that is needed to join the leadership ranks and face domestic and family pressures. They may lack qualifications and expertise as a result of existing biases in society, reflected in the workforce, that can reduce their leadership opportunities.

Image credit: 2017 Gallup, Inc. and the ILO

Women leaders in global development: key lessons

As a group of senior women in development, our experience has shown that there are key traits that lead women to rise to leadership and how women might change their career narrative to highlight them:

  1. The ability to manage a diverse and complex team. Workplaces in international development, by their very nature, are diverse, and managing a racially and culturally diverse team topped the list we look for in recruiting leaders. The ability to mobilise, organise people and keep a team happy and connected is essential to producing development results through programs. Women tend to have less formal opportunities for mid-level leadership, but managing diverse teams can also happen through running networks, research projects, working on boards, and volunteer work. It is important for potential women leaders to highlight the value of non-formal management experience beyond a CV and its list of jobs.
  2. Technical skills in international development. As a leader in the field, its essential to be able to demonstrate an understanding of international development as a sector. Time spent in technical fields gives leaders an important understanding of both what effective development looks like, and what development funding organisations, i.e.  governments, foundations, and multi-laterals – are looking for in ‘good’ development. Selling that skill as a part of your leadership package is key.
  3. Stakeholder management. Building on technical skills and being able to respond to stakeholders while fostering respect and influence with clients in the development field is another skill that senior managers look for in an executive.  It is also key to be able to demonstrate cultural competency when working with national stakeholders.   Where women may not meet the formal prerequisites for senior positions, the ability to adapt, learn and grow, and bring transferable skills like networking and stakeholder management, indicates that you are ready for leadership. Have your pitch on this ready, which leads us to…
  4. Proactivity. Senior leaders look for staff who have the ability to reach out and share ideas to improve the workplace and the work that we do. For women, especially Black and Indigenous women, and women of Colour this can be particularly daunting in a male and white dominated leadership structure. However, we see that women who take a chance to promote themselves and their work are already demonstrating leadership skills, and making the connections needed to move into executive positions.  Be your own advocate by demonstrating skills that are applicable to the position/role you are aiming for, using opportunities to promote your work, and accept that it is ok to use superlatives to describe your achievements.

5. Asking for help. Having, and being, mentors is one of the last pieces in this leadership puzzle. All of us have mentors, most of us have a few, and being able to turn to these women and men has absolutely helped us in our careers. As one of our co-authors, Anna Winoto said during our session at the conference, asking for support from your peers and mentors is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength. And your mentorship will lift other women up.

Finally, we all agreed that not all careers are the same, and not every career is a straight line to the top. For women especially, your career may move in leaps and bounds, up and down as you have children, look after elderly parents, or take time out for your mental and physical health. You may not wish to move ahead at certain points, and while it’s good to take a risk on a promotion or new opportunity, there is no shame in waiting until you feel the time is right to move up the ladder.

Diverse leadership is essential in this sector, as much if not more than any other. And while we, in senior leadership, work to make the system and structural changes necessary, we welcome you to bring your skills and join us to realize the broader change that we want to see for all women.

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