UPDATE 03/05/2011 – Shotgunshack has posted a great piece on this issue as it plays out in INGOs – check out ‘Gender and NGOs – Pretty on Paper’
Most international agencies backed International Women’s Day in March, and – some valid concerns about the political  appropriation of the gender movement aside – this is right and proper. But sadly too few agencies can point to changed internal behaviours and attitudes as a result of the ‘gender mainstreaming’ efforts of the last 20-plus years. Recent events highlight the importance of international agencies walking their talk in this area.
First, some statistics from the business world:
  • Since the 1980s women have been earning about one-third of the MBAs awarded in the U.S., yet they comprise only two percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and eight percent of top leadership positions
  • For the same period, women have made up more than 40 percent of new entrants to the legal profession, but they are still less than one-fifth of law firm partners, judges, and general counsels
  • In most democracies, women constitute a majority of voters, but hold proportionally less ‘seats’ of power
  • Across Europe, women constitute about a third of managerial positions but only three percent of CEOs
How about their international counterparts that apparently do so much to promote gender balance and equality in the wider world? Sadly, it seems that  few aid agencies can claim to be free of the gender glass ceilings evident in their corporate counterparts.
  • In the UN, as of 2009 women made up 40% of all of all staff  in the professional and higher categories with appointments of one year or more; but only 26% of all staff at director level and above, equivalent to the legal profession.
  • 17% of UN-equivalents of CEOs are women, which is a marked improvement on other sectors. But actual gender balance has only been achieved at the P1 and P2 levels – the lowest professional grades.
  • Of the most powerful roles in the sector – UN Secretary General, World Bank and IMF chief – none has been held by a woman – but watch this space…
  • Little comparative statistics appear to be publicly available from NGOs, Red Cross or bilateral agencies (if anyone has access to such data, please do share)

Importantly, gender bias is not just about equal representation – this is just the most visible tip of the iceberg. The overall status of female staff can be described as an emergent phenomena of organisational culture that may have little to do with stated rules and regulation. In leadership and management contexts in particular (as a post from a fellow blogger will illustrate shortly), there are a variety of micro-level and informal attitudes and dynamics that while acceptable in themselves add up to an overall institutional bias against women. And this particular version of the ‘invisible hand’ sinks many hopes.

The recent dramas involving the head of the IMF is a point in case, revealing a disturbing degree of tolerance towards sexist attitudes. In 2008 a female colleague – whose relationship with Mr Strauss-Kahn was the subject of a public investigation by outside lawyers – described the former IMF chief as “a man with a problem that may make him ill-equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command”.

And yet his position was not compromised by this. In fact, he is still widely described as an outstanding leader for the organisation. One wonders how these two statements could possibly be true at the same time.

While this clearly needs to be explored further in the context of international agencies, it is clear that women navigate a different societal and organisational terrain from their male counterparts. Could any reader imagine a world where someone was described as ‘ill-equipped to lead an organisation with men under her command’, but was still seen as an outstanding leader?

As long as treatment of women remains an side-issue at the most senior levels of an organisation – and as long as this kind of moral and ethical gymnastics between the public statement and private attitudes continues – it seems inevitable ‘gender  mainstreaming’ in the wider world will continue to be empty jargon within international agencies.

Overall, we are unlikely to see a shift from the damning assessment made by a major bilateral agency: the benefits of gender mainstreaming and impacts on gender equality are at best embryonic and at worst still to become visible

Thanks to Shotgun Shack for comments and to Nandini Oomman for pointing out my error regarding the date of International Women’s Day.

Join the conversation! 12 Comments

  1. What an ignorant post.

    The absence of women at higher levels is NOT ipso facto evidence of bias. It is merely evidence of a difference in outcomes and is more likely explainged by personal choices women make to not pursue those positions or not effectively compete for them because many women, by choice, exit the job market for domestic reasons at some point during their careers, and then upon re-entry are behind their peers, or they decide to work part-time or in different fields/jobs due to personal lifestyle choices of their own.

    The whole bias/discrimination thing is a scam by feminists and their counterparts in the victim-peddling industry to maintain their positions and funding flows. Too bad their aided by useful idiots like you to do their bitching and moaning for them.

    Let’s turn this around. Is the fact that more women are going to college and getting more grad degrees and better grades than men a sign of institutional bias against men, or is it the result of male choice? Is the fact that men are overwhelmingly in prison, on death row, and are more likely to die on the job (and die younger than women on average) a sign of a societal bias against men, or do they result from individual choices men make that lead to those outcomes.

    Explain that.

    I like your blog but this post is lame. Get off your high horse and quit posturing. Your cringe worthy attempt at ingratiaing yourself to women is a bit beta, unmanly, and embarrassing.

    • Dude, your comment is a brilliant illustration of why there is still a problem. It’s almost like you wrote it specifically to provide an example of what Ben is talking about.

  2. […] Ramalingam’s recent post ‘Gender bias as an emergent property in international agencies‘ discusses how the INGO industry has fallen short in walking the talk on gender. Ben […]

  3. ‘More likely explained by personal choices women make not to pursue those positions?’ What a complete nonsense of an argument. Choices happen within a context, informed by real life observations of the options ahead and reward given. If women observe untrammelled discrimination against them, a boys club at the top and an almost impossible task to gain entry, then the “choices” that women make not to bang their head against the glass ceiling are a condemnation of the system rather that a reasonable and acceptable explanation for it.

    As a guy myself, my manly and privileged opinion is that the comment above by ‘dude’ is a near perfect exemplar of why there remains a problem. “Beta, unmanly and embarrassing?” Pull your head out of your arse, dude.

  4. ShotgunShack & cynan_sez, you couldn’t have said it better…It’s sad the level of ignorance by ‘dude’ (and I’m just being nice).
    I guess if he thinks Ben Ramalingam is “Beta, unmanly and embarrassing?” because of trying to imagine a society of equals, starting from the aid industry walking the talk, this means he needs to check out in which values he asserts his masculinity…

  5. You raise some excellent issues about the double standards that exist for men and women in countless organizations, not least in development agencies. Gender mainstreaming is such a ridiculous term with little to offer in terms of what we really want as an outcome(s) from those actions!

    Just FYI–International Women’s Day is March 8th and not February– I just noticed that error in your intro.

  6. Ben, your post aptly describes my experience and observations after 20 years working in development. Even when organizations explicitly examine gender dynamics and try to deal with gender bias — and despite efforts by individual staff and managers — the “micro-level and informal attitudes and dynamics that…add up to an overall institutional bias against women” are difficult to eradicate. Thanks to you and Shotgun Shack for raising this important and neglected part of “capacity-building” in international work (and one example of international and development organizations not walking their talk).

  7. […] Gender bias as an emergent property in international agencies – http://aidontheedge.info/2011/06/01/gender-bias-as-an-emergent-property-in-international-agencies/ RELATED: Gender and INGOs: pretty on paper… – […]

  8. Ben, yours and Shotgun Shack’s posts on gender bias in the human resourcing of international development organisations is very welcome. It reminds me to mention two things. One came out of a expert discussion on food security and gender convened by BRIDGE. Discussing governance of the food system the topic of the gender within the recruitment process for the new head of FAO came up. Two ideas were that all candidates should be asked questions to disaggregate their plans in gender terms and then be accountable for them if elected. Second that, more broadly there should be an independent auditing body on gender scrutinizing the internal gender performance of boards of international development organisations. The other thing to mention is that I think it is sometimes possible to roughtly gather stats on the senior staff in organisations. Using the People database on their website suggests that for the twenty Teams/Depts at the Institute of Development Studies 60% are headed by men and 40% by women: http://www.ids.ac.uk/go/people

  9. The comments by “Dude” introduces complexity into this conversation and should not be shot down prematurely. This website is about looking at our complex society and responding to real lived experiences in our society.

    Part of the problem, is the article’s focus on quantitative rather than qualitative data and the assumption that by changing the gender ratio in the top echelons of society we will have resolved a key barrier to gender rights. “Dude” is saying (although judgmentally) that more is going on with these figures, and this is not a clear illustration of discrimination against women.

    For example: 3 NGO organisations have 60%, 75%, and 80% women on staff, while 2 of the 3 CEO’s are men.
    When presenting the fact that 66% of the CEO’s are men, we ignore that maybe 5% of the staff are ever likely to compete for a CEO position.

    Another example is a CEO position held by a man, but whose female partner seeks to take a senior consulting position/charity position and the couple gains tax breaks. This win-win lifestyle choice is often made by the upper-class elite. Is this a case of discrimination, or personal choice?

  10. Ben, thank you for raising this important issue – it should be so basic, but I doubt that a single international development organisation has successfully applied gender mainstreaming within their own institutional contexts. I couldn’t agree more with your observation that “there are a variety of micro-level and informal attitudes and dynamics that while acceptable in themselves add up to an overall institutional bias against women”. My organisation has a parental leave regulation, but getting male colleagues to make use of their entitlement hasn’t been easy. Even when they do, it’s a huge challenge to get them talk about it openly. It is still considered a ‘woman’s job’ to take care of children, and an attitude like this adds to the constraints women and men have to deal with when making professional choices. I like Carl’s idea about all candidates being asked questions to disaggregated their plans in gender terms. That’ll be the day!

  11. I work in international development and as a man, I sometimes feel that I am in the target in the ‘gender equality’ issues – for nothing other than being a man – and a white one to boot! I am acutely aware of gender issues in development (as much as I possibly can from a male perspective) and try my best to ensure gender equality is put into real action in development programmes I manage. But sadly, I am often sidelined from the deeper and strategic discussions on gender just because I am a man. My contribution is often not considered important or dismissed – simply of what I ‘look’ like.

    Within the development sector there remains the entrenched view that only women can truly do gender. This can be seen in reviewing the gender proportions of development staff that have the title of ‘gender development expert’ (or equalivent). As a rhetorical question – what is the proportion of men who are gender experts compared to women? In my organisation (which is internationally known and very large), I have looked at our African countries and found that 93.75% of such national roles are held my women – only one is held by a man (and that is a temporary role for maternity leave). I am sure readers can fill in their own data here… My question – Is this difference good for development?

    I raise the hypothesis that one of the reasons why gender is not being fully mainstreamed is that we are still struggling to truly understood what gender actually is. Firstly, and foremost, gender is about BOTH women and men. We have – or, at least, I sincerely hope we have – moved on from the failed ‘Women in Development’ approach (but one does wonder at times). For my two cents worth, until men can equally enter the (sacred) gender space in development, then there will remain a failure of mainstreaming gender. Clearly, many of the issues that imapct on women are due to attitudes of men – and it will take men to help resolve them. Many of these attitudes are not the fault of men, per se, rather they are a consequence of how history, for all its good and bad, has unfolded into what we now know as society and culture. To change will take time, but it can change – with men and women working together.

    As an aside, one of the realities that is increasingly becoming more apparent to me is that gender inequality can be a surface observation, hidding the power relations below. I can remember one project in Africa where a few women were very active in the community discussions. It would have seemed from an outsider, that women did have a voice. But I was concerned that only ‘the same’ few women were talking – and on inquring I found that they were ‘wives’ of the main village leaders. All other women kept silent. There are a number of others I could share, but suffice to say, they also support the deeper issues of gender and culture that are bound up in community power relations.


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Gender, Institutions, Leadership, Organisations