Like me, one of my sister’s friends is an ardent feminist. She works in a male dominated sector, and frequently posts examples of everyday sexism she encounters in her work on Facebook. Recently, these have included such gems as, ‘someone just offered to help me because “It’s a male thing.”’; ‘Just had an entirely unplanned full-on rant at my boss about sending men to all our industry events… AM I INVISIBLE?’; and my personal favourite, ‘Give an idea. Wait for a 20 minute pointless debate. Hear someone else give the exact same idea to universal approval. Make your own gender assumptions here.’
Many women reading this post will be acutely aware that although women have made great strides towards equality, there is still a long way to go. The subjection of women to a set of outdated, social and cultural norms in western culture is so entrenched in our individual and societal fabric that sometimes we don’t even recognise it. Sometimes women do it to themselves without even realising, as I did last week asking for some ‘big strong men’ to carry a 50kg box for me because of, ‘my weedy girl arms.’ However, what has really struck me in my latest deployment is just how much sexism impacts on my everyday work as a humanitarian aid worker, and how much harder I have to work to achieve outcomes with communities and authorities than my male colleagues.
Over the last few weeks, I have been assessing and setting up programme activities in a new area in West Africa. Part of this work is meeting local government and traditional authorities and community representatives. All of these figures – without exception – have been men. Consider now the dynamic of having to influence, negotiate and coordinate with a group of men who ordinarily never – or at most very rarely – consult with women on decision making, let alone a woman who is a complete stranger to the whole system. I consulted with women about their level of influence in community decision making structures and the response was that sometimes they would raise their opinions with their husbands, but not – it seems – any further than that.
You might now think, ah, well, it’s the ‘stranger’ aspect, nothing to do with what is – or rather what isn’t – between your legs, but when I compare the reception that a male colleague received, there was no denying it was a question of sex, and not of origin. I introduced my male counterpart to one of the traditional leaders. I had visited the leader twice before and our conversations had been cordial, friendly and welcoming. On my third visit, this time with my male colleague, instantly the atmosphere changed; I was barely spoken to, my male colleague was showered with compliments (apparently for just being able to say hello and sit in a chair) and instead, I was told to go to look at the leader’s horses, the inference being, to leave the men to talk.
Having worked with communities for several years, I am very conscious of the role of culture and tradition in gender dynamics, and of trying my utmost to set aside my own preconceptions of respect and gender relations when working in a different context to my own upbringing. What never seems to be taken into account by organisations, though, is just how much harder female aid workers have to work in these contexts to develop mutually respectful working relationships with male authority figures, and to be taken seriously by them. It bothers me, that a male colleague gets points for just showing up whereas I have to work extremely hard to validate my place at the table.
There are times when being a woman in a particular working environment is downright dangerous; when I was working in Northern Syria, representatives from the local government, various armed opposition groups and my male colleague shook hands after a successful meeting to site a new IDP camp. Unthinking, I offered my hand around in the group as someone who had also shared in this decision making and success. The group froze the atmosphere suddenly frosty and the meeting adjourned rapidly. In the car travelling back, my Syrian colleague told me, ‘That was so irresponsible; you never offer your hand to a man in this place. What if someone from ISIS saw you? You’ll get us all killed.’ Part of me would still like to believe he was over-reacting, but this is the world female aid workers operate in, where sharing as an equal in a gesture of success with men can be a fatal mark against your name.
The difficulties of operating in male dominated environments out in the field might be one thing, but then female aid workers also have to deal with this mess at home as well. There are a lot of articles detailing sexist treatment at the hands of male colleagues in the sector, and despite the fact that there are more women working in humanitarianism than men overwhelmingly, the top level positions are held by men. At a conference I attended earlier in the month, the inter-agency group for WASH took their places at a table for Q&As, and there was not a single female amongst them. My current deployment is also exposing me to this ‘in-organisation’ sexism; one of my male colleagues feels the need to copy other men – sometimes individuals who are completely irrelevant to the conversation at hand – into emails to me so that they can more fully explain the content to me.
It appears that the discrepancies between male and female aid workers extend to their relationships outside of work as well. In late night discussions with two male colleagues, we discussed our ‘extra-curricular activities’ over the past year. For them, telling a woman about their job seemed to make them irresistible; a magic bullet capable of making any woman see their sensitive caring side. For me, there have been five – yes, five – separate occasions where an interested man had cut all contact after he found out what I did for a living, and this is only in the past year. For women, perhaps male humanitarians conjure up images of strong men saving babies akin to an Athena poster from their youth; for men, maybe female humanitarians conjure up images of independent and career driven women who won’t be around to make your dinner in the evening. I don’t think there was ever an Athena poster for that.
In my own world of cripplingly low self esteem, it has been all too easy to dismiss the sexism I’ve experienced around my job as my own fault – I was doing it wrong; I wasn’t professional enough; people didn’t take me seriously; I just wasn’t good enough at my job to get the results that seemed to come so easily to my male colleagues – but such occurrences have become too frequent for me to continue blaming myself for overwhelming inequality. Since humanitarian organisations pride themselves on factoring gender equality and gender dynamics into their programmes, let them not forget that the needs and efforts of female staff too are different to that of their male colleagues. Organisations need to recognise it, and celebrate that female humanitarians persevere despite the odds.