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Aid world needs new approaches and different leaders

17 July 2017

Kate Sutton Aid worker

I have been a humanitarian aid worker for more than 20 years. It took 10 years for me to have a boss who was a woman; six male bosses, four countries (including Afghanistan, Albania, Ethiopia and Australia) and two organisations before I reported to a woman. It took 15 years for me to realise this was an issue; and another five to be able to do something about it.

Re-wind to five years ago. In 2012 I joined with three other women to set up a business that provided technical support and services to humanitarian actors. In the private sector I guess we would be called consultants, and in reality that’s what we were in the humanitarian aid sector too. But we liked to think there were some critical differences; our central drive was not about making money. Okay, so we had to make some money in order to pay the bills, but essentially we tried to be much more. We strove to deliver not only great products but also to make our business work to improve the world. In the humanitarian space there is no lack of important issues that we could focus on: world poverty; the disproportionate impact of disasters on at-risk groups such as children; the silence on crises such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Yemen, South Sudan… the issues are endless. And yes, we do focus on these and many other issues, a lot. We work on protection of civilians in war and evaluating the impact of responses to natural disasters in the Pacific, but these weren’t our values, this was our day job. So when we really unpacked our values here’s where we got to: we cared about how young practitioners got a chance getting into the work place; whether our business was ethical; whether we supported nationals to get a say on the consulting projects that impacted on their countries; and yes, how women could best lead and contribute to making the world a better place. The last one niggled me.

There is some evidence that women can improve humanitarian action. There is no evidence that women in humanitarian leadership makes any difference at all. Does a female Humanitarian Coordinator – one of the highest position you can hold in the humanitarian world – do things any differently to a male Humanitarian Coordinator? Does it matter that of the 29 Humanitarian Coordinators globally only eight are women – only 28%? I don’t know the answer to this and it bothered me, because intuitively I believe it must make a difference. Not because women are better or worse, but because I think diversity is critical and if the populations we work with are diverse then so too should leadership be.

And so here we are in 2017. We have just completed the first step of what I hope will be a journey to better understand, and change, leadership in humanitarian action. We have started to piece together the evidence for women leadership. As we stand today the story presents an uncomfortable picture. Aside from the statistics on Humanitarian Coordinators, we are also faced with the reality that women are lost at every progressive level of employment. In the United Nations 43% of entry level positions are filled with women; this is whittled away to 27% at the highest levels of leadership. In Australia in the non-for-profit world, 67% of employees are women but they make up only 43% of board positions. The frustrating thing about these statistics: no one really knows why. Unlike banks, accounting firms, management consultancies and education institutions, humanitarian organisations have momentously failed in tracking and understanding the number of women that are employed at different levels; the likelihood of their promotion; the reasons that they are, or are not, promoted; and the golden ticket item: what difference it makes or what’s needed to make a difference.


Some of the gaps can be filled with research and understanding from the private sector. We know, for example, that unconscious bias plays an enormous role in disadvantaging women in promotions and leadership roles. Add to this the testosterone-driven world of humanitarian response and it is easy to see how unconscious bias plays a role. We also know that women are less likely to put themselves forward for promotions, pay increases and as ‘experts’ on subject matter. And we also know that women may not be able to access effective networking and mentoring opportunities in the same way men can. All of these factors are as true in the humanitarian world as they are in every other sector. We can undoubtedly take a lot of this learning and translate it into the humanitarian world. What I think we cannot copy and paste from the private sector is an understanding of the difference it might make. Take a male-dominated leadership team versus a female-dominated leadership team in the response to Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, or even a gender-balanced leadership team: what is the difference in the response? Does the anecdotal evidence that women and children’s needs are better supported actually hold up? Do female-led teams incorporate more voices and diversity that lead to better and more inclusive decision-making? Are we better able to work out how to protect civilians in Syria with women in the driving seat? And what about reform of the United Nations – might we get some traction with some women at the table?

Answers to these questions are a long way off but I feel relieved to have started asking them; to know better what the questions are; and to begin to formulate ways to answer them. And most of all I am excited to see where it will lead, because quite frankly, with the humanitarian world in the state it is in right now (that is a whole other blog) we need some new approaches and different leaders – soon.

Kate Sutton (pictured above) is co-Director at Humanitarian Advisory Group. Kate was one of the 100 Women of Influence in 2015 for her work in the non-profit humanitarian sector. She is leading research into women in humanitarian leadership with funding support from Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in 2017 and 2018. Anyone interested in the research, please contact Kate on