Because it’s 2015

Because it’s 2015. Three simple words. The shrugged shoulders. The strong implication that it’s ridiculous to ask why gender balance is so important. Well played, Canada, well played.

Other #BecauseIts2015 moments that have us cheering are below and we would love to hear more from you in the comments section. This space, after all, belongs to all of you to read, share, collaborate, commiserate and celebrate all things related to women working in aid.

Foreign Policy Interrupted

A brilliant initiative by Elmira Bayrasli (@endeavoringE) and Lauren Bohn (@LaurenBohn), both journalists.  In their own words @fpinterrupted is here to:

…[target] women involved in foreign policy or with foreign policy expertise but who lack the capacity and exposure to major media outlets. Through a fellowship program, involving media training and editorial mentorships at major outlets, we’re changing the ratio.

Go check it out.  There is a weekly email sent out with amazing links to articles, blogs, podcasts, video clips etc.

 

#SayNoToAllMalePanels

This is an actual problem anyone can see who has been to any conference of any kind (in any industry but also our own).  Even David Hasselhoff (now) sees it’s a problem.  We finally have push back on this.

A great article by Hans Schulz (a VP at the Inter American Development Bank) first up, where he ends with saying he has signed the pledge started by Owen Barder to not sit on an all male panel.  He gets points for not only mentioning many charismatic women speakers in his article but also stating how he actively networks, finds and collects this information to pass onto event organisers.  When looking at gender equality and empowerment, men have as much of a role as women and this is a perfect example of that being done right.

Rose Longhurst who works at Bond has written eloquently on how she has pushed back in three separate incidents and the mixed reaction she received.  There is really no excuse especially as Bond has a list of women speakers covering a range of topics in the aid sector and is taking suggestions.  Please do go and fill in the many amazing women speakers that you know so there is no excuse anymore to have all male panels.  Let’s start with gender and then also move forward on the diversity angle (something McSweeney’s, a literary/publishing space, lampoons wonderfully in this piece).

 

#WomenInDevOrgs

Connected to the above, one of the big complaints event organisers have is that there aren’t enough women in leadership or top positions to bring them to panels.  Enter highlighting all the amazing women in development.  The UN Job Finder site (the ones behind the hashtag) are trying to raise awareness of how women are making a difference and want to promote female role models in the international development sector.  This is in part to inspire and encourage more women to enter the work force.

So…get involved.  As the website states:

It doesn’t have to be women in high positions or future Nobel peace price laureates. Actually, it doesn’t have to be some one else. If you are a woman (or a group of female colleagues) working in global development and are proud of what you do, then join the campaign and share a photo of who you are. We want to promote all those who are qualified, passionate, engaged, who have positively affected others and basically are making a difference irrespective of their position in the organisation.

We’d love to see your posts on all social media outlets (twitter, FaceBook, instagram), with pictures of you or your female colleagues marked with #WomenInDevOrgs and #WiA.

 

Report The Abuse

Attention to sexual harassment, abuse and violence in our sector has been a long time coming.  We’ve written about it before but it has taken the horrific story of aid worker Megan Norbert to bring this issue to the forefront as she did what many of us have not.  She spoke up.  She fought.  She’s doing something about it.  Since Megan began telling her story, a whole host of stories have surfaced covered here and here and here in the Guardian.

The big problem becomes, as with anything else, that there isn’t data to point to this being an issue that DOES need to be tackled and taken seriously.  These are not isolated incidents and Megan going public with her story has allowed others to speak up about their own experiences; very importantly there is now a survey/data collection instrument where we can finally start to have the data needed to make sure it is understood how pervasive the problem actually is.  Do go check out the survey and the stories already collected through the 50 Days, 50 Stories initiative as well.

 

Because It’s 2015–what other stories/initiatives/projects would you highlight?  We’d love to know so please leave us a comment or better yet, submit a post! We are always looking for submissions.

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#WiA Profiles: Sally McKay

This blog post for the #WiAProfiles is an interview by Lisa B Greenquist, who spoke with Sally McKay, a professional with many years of experience in both national and international disasters.  Women in Aid is grateful to Sally for sharing her time and  experiences.

Lisa Greenquist is a graduate from Azusa Pacific University where she majored in Global Studies. She is currently working with a public health organization located in Pasadena, CA, on expanding the active transportation network in Los Angeles County. Within the next year she wants to move back to her home country of Norway to pursue her higher education in public health economics and management. You can reach Lisa by email.

Where Convictions Sustain You

I had the privilege of being connected with Sally McKay, mother and role model, through a class project aiming to increase students’ understanding of the challenges women in aid face. Having led disaster preparedness, relief and recovery, community development and humanitarian service delivery in a wide range of countries and communities, McKay offers a unique perspective and helpful insight into her field.

Traditionally, the field of aid work has been modeled after what McKay calls the “truck and chuck” concept where an organization will try to move into a disaster area as fast as possible but then immediately leave when the crisis is over. This mentality is being challenged as aid and development organizations increasingly understand the importance of sustainability. When a natural disaster hit McKay’s homeland, Australia, the local government decided to try this new approach, taking on the role of managing long-term recovery. Having a solid background in community development and social justice to accompany her management skills, McKay was asked to lead the project. Although the field of natural disaster recovery work was new to her, McKay saw the project as an opportunity to challenge herself, something she wants other women to do more of as well.

A system broken from the top

When disaster hits and chaos spreads, security and control are the first needs that people want to meet. The Australia government, and many other international relief organizations, usually approach this by finding someone who is white, male, older, and with a military background that can ‘take control’, so to speak, and ‘fix’ the problem. McKay explains how this negates the importance of working with the community and enabling them to make the changes themselves. The types of management as well as complimentary skills that are needed are often not considered.

In Australia, the further up you go in a company, the more gender conflicts arise.  McKay explains how numerous men often find it very difficult to work with women, something she experienced during her work with a recent disaster relief program. In the initial stages of this recent disaster, an ex-military officer was put in charge. However, he could not stand McKay and her colleague and did not know how to work with the experience and knowledge they put forward.  The irony of the situation McKay explains, is that more often than not, when ex-military officers leave, there is a whole set of new problems in the community. They often result from a lack of community engagement involving increased dependency; as opposed to trying to make communities self-sufficient and the assisting organization redundant.

Surviving at the top

Most people who go into the field of development work do so because they love working with people. However, the more  you improve in your role, the further removed you are from the people you are there to assist. You easily get pulled into senior roles working with policy and strategy. This is a step many women, although qualified for, do not take. McKay explains how she too often sees women waiting around for permission and confirmation from men to take action, when they themselves have expertise in the field and are well aware of what needs to be done.

McKay explains how she had to overcome her own fear of confrontation as she moved into senior roles. Initially it was smaller-scale experiences, such as having worked with school councils and boards of community organizations that prepared her for these confrontations. Today, however, she also implements other techniques, such as visualizing an actual barrier between herself and the person she is speaking with, in order to distance the hurtfulness of their words. There are plenty of “yell in your face type of guys” when it comes to exchanging views in this field, McKay laughs.

Ultimately what will help you survive in senior positions, amongst the people McKay calls the “bells and whistles”, are your convictions. She explains, if you have a solid basis in social justice you will see that it won’t be “a matter of what is right or wrong for me, but what I have seen and experienced that works for this community”. Based in that understanding, you actually have a responsibility to put your skills and expertize forward, McKay emphasizes. But it does not stop there. From that point on, you will have to find the methods that will also be the most acceptable to those you are working with so you can all move forward together. McKay brings forth a point I think many including myself often forget: The bottom line needs to be that you like working with people. The dislike of a person will have to do with the quality of the interaction and relationship, not their gender or rank.

The balancing act

Work dynamics are not the only areas that need to be juggled. Balancing work with family and friends is also very important. The first step if you are getting overworked is telling yourself that you can only do the best you can do. Aid workers need to start letting themselves off the hook and learning to say no. The more you work the more will be expected because there is no such thing as natural restraint and there is always more work to be done than there are staffing and resources allocated. While abroad McKay intentionally built in way for both her staff and herself to take breaks, exercise, and have nights off from everyone. Bringing some of the routines from ‘home’ in order to put structure into their lives while in the field was one of the most important aspects of staying healthy. Development work is like a race; you have to gauge the length. If you are going abroad for several months, giving it everything from day one as if it is a sprint will make you run out of energy early, making you of limited use. View it as a marathon and pace yourself, McKay explains.

An important tool that McKay has used in order to survive the large amounts of change her work comes with is compartmentalizing. This became especially important when McKay, upon return from a longer stay out in the field, arrived home to a surprise party. The contrast between the dark and dull environment up in the mountains that had been scorched by recent bush fires, and the bright flourishing colors and lights of the decoration of the party was stark. The whole experience was surreal and emphasized just how far apart these two worlds were. “Unless some of my friends work in the same field, I rarely discuss work with friends and family and vice versa. I now have several worlds running parallel to one another and that is what works best for me”, she explains.

More than anyone, McKay’s partner has been her number one support throughout her career. In contrast to many families, McKay initially worked in a range of human services within the regional area of her home base. It was not until her children were out of school that she started working for international companies moving abroad with her partner for longer periods of time. “I do not understand how young people start working abroad while simultaneously raising a family” McKay exclaims astonished. “It can be very difficult for them. I believe I was lucky that my career was the other way around”.

Throughout her career, McKay has challenged herself, taking on senior roles and not been shut down by her fear of confrontation. Alongside this pursuit, she has been able to maintain healthy relationships with her friends and within her family. We can all learn from McKay’s ability to maintain a balanced and healthy life by keeping her convictions straight while simultaneously working effectively for the well being of others and their communities.

(If you have a story to tell or would like to submit a profile for the blog, please get in touch with us at info@womeninaid.com).

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Enthusiastic, disenchanted or rational: What kind of woman aid worker are you?

“I expected a challenging experience, both from a human and a professional point of view, and to get in touch with different cultures. I found that my job is never the same, it is very dynamic and exciting; a complex working network; the precious possibility to get in touch with many children, who are always joyful and smiling despite their needy condition, and the luck to meet enlightened people, who made a better future for children their reason to live” (Woman, 31-35 years old, 2-5 years professional experience)

“I expected being able to assist vulnerable people and try to address injustices. I found myself being trapped into bureaucracy, being trapped by diplomacy and being unable to speak up” (Woman, 40 years old, more than 10 years professional experience)

“I expected to collaborate with locals in order to improve life condition and create awareness on specific topics, putting different ideas, culture and attitude together. I found that collaboration is there but it is difficult to always understand the other culture’s point of view” (Woman, 31-35 years old, 5-10 years professional experience)

Let me introduce to you three profiles that I’ve met while I was doing my PhD research project on international aid workers[1]: the enthusiastic (extract 1), the disenchanted (extract 2) and the rational aid worker (extract 3).

At the start of my research I was desperately looking for data on aid workers, and I rapidly discovered a lack of academic and research-based enquiry on this professional category. Thus, to gain a better insight on who aid workers are, I decided to create the online survey “Being an international aid worker”. 188 European aid workers (124 women, 64 men) working in the aid industry (both in development and humanitarian), with at least one working experience in the field, were recruited. In the 6 sections of the survey (you, your job, everyday life in the mission country, being an international aid worker, make an assessment, your future) they were asked both multiple-choice and open-ended questions about their professional and personal experience. One of the questions focused on the expectations participants had before becoming aid workers and the reality they experienced in the field:

“Try to think back to the time when you chose to become an international aid worker. What did you expect? And what did you find? (Please write max 3 main aspects)”

As a social psychologist, with this pair of questions I wanted to investigate the match (or mismatch) between aid workers’ beliefs and their actual experience, and the reflexivity they had about this important aspect of their job, that plays an important role in their satisfaction and resilience. The following are the three characters [2] I identified and some illustrative answers from women aid workers’ reflections.

The enthusiastic is the aid worker whose expectations around the international aid industry became reality. Typically these aid workers describes their experience as ‘interesting’, ‘dynamic’, ‘exciting’ and offering ‘professional growth’ opportunities. The job is portrayed as one that guarantees ‘challenging experiences, both from a human and professional point of view’ and that makes it possible to gain a ‘better understanding of the world’, satisfying the desire to feel ‘useful’ by ‘helping people’. Other aspects that contribute to the satisfaction of this type of aid worker are related to the fulfilment of the desire of discovering: ‘knowing new cultures’, meeting ‘enlightened people’, and seeing ‘wonderful places’. The enthusiastic at times judges her experience as even more rewarding than expected.

“I expected to meet different people and cultures, to know better and understand the world a little more and to offer my work, my talents, my aid to the less fortunate. I found that I understand humans and myself a little more, and also the real richness and important things in life. A lot of good things, I probably receive more aid and more joy than I give” (Woman, 31-35 years old, 2-5 years professional experience) 

“I expected a challenging environment, both personally and professionally and I found what I expected but 1000 times more intense” (Woman, 26-30 years old, 2-5 years professional experience)

“I just wanted to make myself useful by providing my resources for the common good of children and young people. I always thought to develop a job for providing opportunities for those who are denied for distinction of race, gender and social background… I did it! Over seven years I’ve been improving myself and my skills to offer social projects and to rise up the civic and social consciousness” (Woman, 36-40 years old, 5-10 years professional experience)

The disenchanted are aid workers that had the same expectations of their enthusiastic colleagues, but differently from them, they did not find in their professional experiences what they were looking for. They expected aid jobs to be ‘ethical and challenging’, but they found that the aid world was not the ‘idyllic world’ they thought. They wanted to ‘work in the field with local beneficiaries’ instead they described having discovered a world full of ‘bureaucracy’, ‘diplomacy’, ‘administrative blockages’ and ‘paperwork’. They portray other aid workers as ‘lacking in professionalism’, as having a ‘weak knowledge of international development issues’ and as not interested in ‘high ideas and values’, but ‘in money, career and in escape’. Many are also disappointed by the relationships with the beneficiaries ‘not always as positive and easy as expected’. They also point out to the ‘usefulness’ of the aid industry itself, recognizing some of the limits within it, such as the non-immediacy of the achievable ‘impact’. Some of these disenchanted aid workers also criticize having to move ‘here and there all life long’ relating this aspect with the difficulties in ‘building anything that can last’. Finally, a few highlight ‘inadequate working and contract conditions’.

“I expected extending my knowledge of people, cultures and places; being motivated by high ideas and values; improving lives of people in difficulties. I found a lot of compromises; difficulties in adhering to ethical ideas and values and challenging environments” (Woman, 31-35 years old, 2-5 years professional experience)

“I expected to be working in an environment where people were highly motivated in order to bring a change in the economies and lives of disadvantaged population through meaningful and effective projects/programmes. I expected to work with open-minded people and to find professionalism. I expected to work most of the time closely with local beneficiaries. I found myself questioning the usefulness and the ethical approach of many projects implemented by international development partners, including my organisation and NGO. I found myself working and exchanging with people with cynical view and little interest in what they are doing. I found myself working mainly with civil servants from the government” (Woman, 36-40 years old, 5-10 years professional experience)

“I expected more professionalism, less rhetoric, more consideration for our professionalism. I found lack of professionalism, inadequate working and contract conditions” (Woman, 31-35 years old, 5-10 years professional experience)

The rationals are the aid workers that sit in between the enthusiasts and the disenchanted, as in their answers they recognise the good and the bad sides of the aid world. Their descriptions are balanced, and show both positive matching between their initial expectations and the reality, as well as some negative ‘surprises’ they had (the influence of higher dynamics on their job results, ‘politics is affecting the humanitarian aid world’, ‘aid agencies’ are resisting ‘major changes’). Despite acknowledging a number of challenges related to their job, they nonetheless claim to ‘love’ it. As regarding work relationships, they note ‘low professionalism’ and evidence the difficulties in ‘understanding other cultures point of views’ even when collaborating. Some of them define their colleagues as ‘smart and bright’ on their job, but ‘dysfunctional’ when it comes to private life; about friendships some regretted having ‘no exchanges with local people’, but on the contrary they appreciated the relationships within ‘the expat community’.

 

“I expected to explore different cultures, to travel and to improve problematic situations. I explored different cultures but understood relationships are not always positive and easy as expected (you are not always welcome), I travelled, I had specific very positive relationships with people in difficult situations but projects were not successful in determining an improvement of these situations” (Woman, 26-30 years old, > 2 years professional experience)

 

“I expected to know deeply a country, a culture, a language; to work together and find out good solutions coinciding with project’s aims; to exit from a logic of profit and to find an idealistic work environment. Staying more than 18 months, I found the effective possibility of understanding other cultures; Humanitarian logic not always corresponding to the needs of the field, but the possibility of rearranging the activities with the different expertise of international and national staff as well of communities; Both motivated and suitable colleagues as well as deceptions in humanitarian staff” (Woman, 26-30 years old, 2-5 years professional experience)

 

“I expected a challenging job, anthropological experiences, and to work in multicultural context. I found very challenging jobs, sometimes with no resources to implement projects, very nice experiences, love, dedicated as well as lazy people, disappointment and joy” (Woman, 26-30 years old, 2-5 years professional experience)

 

While the three profiles described are an attempt to simplify the complex experience of aid workers, in their lives these professionals are more likely to move between enthusiasm, disillusionment and a balanced objectivity. Is this shifting something that characterises the experience and therefore, that cannot be avoided? Could this transition from enthusiasm to disappoint be prevented? What could be done in order to have more rational profiles, and therefore, more resilient professionals? What kind of woman aid worker are you?

 

Ref:

Gritti, A. (2014). Sequential MCA approach to aid worker’s talk: The interactional negotiation of gender identity. PhD thesis, the University of Milano-Bicocca.

Stirrat, R. L. (2008). Mercenaries, Missionaries and Misfits Representations of Development Personnel. Critique of Anthropology, 28(4), 406-425.

 

 

[1]A. Gritti (2014) ‘Sequential MCA approach to aid worker’s talk: The interactional negotiation of gender identity’. PhD thesis, the University of Milano-Bicocca.

[2]I am using these profiles in a similar way to Stirrat’s categorisation of aid workers, that is, “as an entry-point for exploring the tensions and contradictions in ways in which people working in the industry view themselves and others” (Stirrat, 2008, p.407)

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#WiA Profiles: Public Health Professional

This blog post for the #WiAProfiles is an interview by Brittany Carlson, who spoke with a public health professional working in development who prefers to remain anonymous but graciously shared her time and experiences for the WiA Blog.

Brittany is about to finish her last semester at Azusa Pacific University. She is a double major in Global Studies and Biology with a Molecular Emphasis. She hopes to go to medical school or grad school to study tropical medicine/global health. She has an interest in global health, specifically in rural communities that have limited access to healthcare. Brittany loves watching Ted Talks, drinking coffee and scuba diving.  You can connect with Brittany here on LinkedIn or by email.

Finding Balance

An Unattainable Endeavor

In the world we live in, where options and limitations are at opposite ends of the spectrum and we seek to find the middle ground between the two, it becomes easy to be confronted with an entanglement of feelings as we, students who aspire to go into international development, near graduation. Excitement, fear, a craving for adventure, and an inclination towards security tend to preoccupy our minds as we prepare for the overwhelming job search in a broad number of sectors within international development. We wait for that “ah-ha” moment, where we suddenly have an epiphany of where our passions truly lie. A sense of direction calms our soul and allows us to pursue the field of international development with a clearer goal and a slightly more developed idea of our role. But what does it specifically mean to be a woman in the field? And can we, as women, balance work and have a family?

My interview with Mary (name changed) solidified my understanding of successfully entering the international development field, which involves a large learning curve. It takes time, experience, and dedication to develop the skills, knowledge, and understanding of the context in which one works. I hope women reading this blog find this as a source of hope and encouragement, knowing that career success and personal fulfillment can go together, despite the path fraught with challenges.

The “Ah-ha” Moment

Mary had her “ah-ha” moment during her undergraduate studies. A double major in international relations and social policy, she thought that her future career would fall somewhere between public diplomacy and social work. It was not until she ended up volunteering in the healthcare sector as a peer educator that she realized how much she loved connecting with people and working specifically within the HIV/AIDS education and reproductive health fields. This community engagement, along with a women’s health course, and her desire to work abroad, encouraged her to apply for the Peace Corps. After graduation she was posted in Cameroon.

After spending over two years in Cameroon, she realized that there was significant value gained in spending more than a few months in a country. She stated the importance of, “learning from the bottom up”.   She elaborated that one must learn about the context and culture in which one works and taking the time to do that cannot be underestimated. She further explained that the Peace Corps is not for everyone, as you must be committed and be ready to face the challenges that come with working abroad in rural community development. But for her, she gained an “improved sense of understanding of public health and community development”. It was “a humbling experience to learn my limitations as a young American volunteer, working in a remote village”. She learned quickly that her role was to be a resource with connections to help facilitate a response and solutions from within the community.

This was the jumping-off point for her, and 14 years later, is still one of the most significant steps that led to her current position as an HIV/AIDS Adviser, posted in Central-East Africa.  Mary is in a highly sought after leadership position and her experience “climbing the ladder” in the field of international development serves as a source of encouragement and empowerment for women pursuing a career of any kind. The values she was raised with, how she was raised, and significant women in her life served as sources of encouragement for her.

From the Beginning

As a young girl, Mary was told that she could pursue anything she desired. At the age of fourteen, she was sent to a private all-girls school. At first, she resented her parents for sending her there, but attending an all-girls high school ended up becoming a special time in her life. She felt empowered, as the school prepared the young women for future roles in leadership and nurtured volunteerism. She has had many women mentors in her life that have provided her guidance. Her mother remains one of her greatest supporters and role models to this day.

She followed her passion for global health by furthering her education and receiving a Masters Degree in Public Health at a leading U.S.-based university, where she received mentoring from both female and male professors. And although finding a partner and having a family has always been important to her, her career was always equally important. She followed in her parents’ footsteps and her internal drive to focus on her career first. Nine years ago, she met her husband – at work – they both were focused on similar international goals and passions and together have navigated their international careers.

The Unattainable Endeavor

When asked how she is able to balance a demanding job with her personal life, she spoke briefly on it, noting that true balance may not be possible, especially in a career in international development. One learns to compromise and negotiate in a way that works best, giving and taking between work demands, career goals, and family – at different times in life, one of these needs to take precedence and that is OK, it is the reality. She mentioned, however, that it is very important to learn how to take care, listen to yourself/your needs, and identify coping mechanisms to avoid burn out, which is important to be successful in a demanding career like international development.

Final Thoughts

Often times we as young men and women follow our passions and hope for an instantaneous spark of success. We walk out of college with the experiences that we have gained; the knowledge that has left us with completely altered perspectives and a deep yearning for justice and change. We may too easily walk out of university, bright-eyed and feeling ready to embark on our career, only to realize that we still have so much to learn and that it will take time to gain on-the-job experience and illustrate our capacity in our field.

In reality, post-undergraduate life is just the beginning of a long process in preparing yourself for a career in international development. It takes patience, perseverance and commitment. If you are committed to pursing a career in international development, you must learn to embrace the process. This includes using your resources to your advantage by seeking out mentors and by networking with individuals committed to the field. This further enables you to identify and understand your career goals. As a woman, one of the best things we can do is look to women who have already faced these challenges and learn from their experiences. In addition, consider a longer-term volunteer or internship opportunity that will build skills in, and an understanding of community/local development to provide a strong foundation for work in international development.

In closing, working abroad brings about various challenges, including numerous transitions, work schedule adjustments, homesickness, and cultural integration. Having hopes of climbing the ladder in international development as a woman adds a whole new dimension to the situation, making it more important than ever to remain focused on your motivations and to continually seeking wisdom from women mentors. The obstacles faced are not impossible to overcome, but often take time and energy. However, if you are the adventurous type, there are positives that outweigh the challenges. These include having the opportunity to learn a new language, experience a new culture’s beliefs and practices and expand your worldview. This can be exhilarating and remind us of just how unique and beautiful the world we live in is.

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#WiAProfiles: Soledad Muniz

The first post in the #WiAProfiles is an interview by Jordyn Sun who spoke with Soledad Muniz.

Jordyn is a recent graduate of Azusa Pacific University and recipient of a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. She aspires to be an artist and activist in everything that she does and likes to binge watch Netflix in her free time.  You can find Jordyn here on LinkedIn.

———.

My hope for this piece is to give a glimpse into the perspective of a woman working to forge innovative methods of communication as a process for social change. In having the rare opportunity to speak with Soledad Muniz, Head of the Participatory Video for Monitoring and Evaluation programme at InsightShare, about her unique experiences in the humanitarian profession I have felt enlightened and re-energized. From the moment we began to discuss her entry into the development sector, I was able to sense her optimistic spirit for the work she does in her voice and took away valuable advice about how to excel not only in the profession but also in life. If I have gained anything from my interview with Soledad, it is that passion and pure love for what you do will override all obstacles.

 

Background

Humility is the first thing that strikes me about Soledad. Driven by personal philosophical and spiritual introspection about what she wants in life, she entered the aid and humanitarian sector not with a mindset to save the world, but to ask where she sees herself playing a role to support social change. This humbling outlook reminds me that the focus in entering into this sector should not be on romanticized ideas about solving all the world’s problems but on a serious evaluation of how our individual strengths and experiences can contribute to the aid of global issues. In addition to having a strong sense of purpose, Soledad’s dynamic background using communication as an intervention for development is a reflection of how she approaches her work. Having played a significant role in InsightShare for almost six years now, she emphasizes it is important to find what is professionally fulfilling. While often facing a lot of complex challenges not only within your daily job but also in the industry, it is crucial to have a motivation beyond superficial or monetary purposes. For her, it is being able to see the faces behind the work in supporting other people. It is the human connection and constant reminders of daily impact that helps her to overcome challenges and remain positive through mundane tasks and overwhelming situations.

 

Maintaining a Family

It is evident that Soledad’s enthusiastic perseverance also carries into her personal life. In the topic of balancing work and relationships, she admits she has always wanted a family and never felt like working in this sector would stop her. From observing other women who have gone before her to succeed in organizations as well as maintain relationships, she draws inspiration on how to balance work and family life. Ideal marriages she has seen would suggest taking turns sacrificing. “It is not impossible” is something that I seem to hear from her again and again. However this does not mean there won’t be certain challenges and obstacles along the way. Having been married for a year, Soledad recalls a time when her and her significant other only saw each other every three months due to combined conflicts with work travel. She admits it’s not the same talking over Skype for two hours than it is being together in person but living in separate countries did not stop them. “If it’s the right person you will survive.” If anything, Soledad believes distance made them strong and led to their engagement. While she has seen other professional women raise families, she admits timing is significant and due to work, her and her husband have chosen to wait. In getting to know other women who have climbed the ladder in their profession, there is an understanding that there are limitations and mothers will need to lose the expectation of seeing their children twenty-four hours a day. However, different women face different challenges and certain smaller organizations are very supportive.

 

Women in the Workplace

As far as being a woman within the humanitarian sector, Soledad remains very optimistic about her own experiences as well as the future of women in professionalism. She believes most of the issues that come with being female often vary throughout different organizations and has not encountered many problems herself. However, most of the important, decision making positions are still not held by women and there is always room for improvements internally for organizations such as allowing more flexibility with work and maternity. As Soledad explains, working in this sector also requires a lot of traveling. While women with teenagers and older children are be able to relocate, she imagines it would be very difficult with younger children. “It would be a shame” for some of the extremely intelligent women she has come across to stop working. “In terms of going into different countries and doing projects, so far I’ve never felt discriminated being a woman. I’ve felt really welcome, I’ve worked in really different contexts from Latin America, to Kenya, and the Philippines. So really different experiences and I never felt intimidated because I was a woman, in any way. But at the same time I haven’t been to really extreme patriarchal societies to tell you the truth.” She tells me more about how she was supposed to travel to Yemen and how that would have been an interesting experience since woman are deemed as discernibly inferior in society. But sometimes simply being a foreigner grants her the status of a man. So while there may still exist a glass ceiling for women within the professional world, it is encouraging for me to hear that women’s voices, opinions, and input are valued just as much as men. It is also reassuring to hear from someone directly involved in the humanitarian sector who has traveled to many different countries that there has been much progress for gender equality.

 

Advice for Aid Workers

In wrapping up my interview, I was able to get a few tips from Soledad about how to pursue a career within the development world and prevent burnout. She was generous to expand on some of my previous questions in order to emphasize the importance of self-care. While stress and burnout is not exclusive to aid work, it has even more potential due to some of the overwhelming environments or situations you may encounter and accumulated exhaustion from traveling. Along with doing yoga or Pilates and setting limits and boundaries on work or travel, something Soledad engaged in was a mentoring program for women. Through this program she is able to be kept accountable for things such as the amount of projects she commits to and is motivated to maintain healthy routines. “To be efficient, effective, you need a balance, you need space,” she tells me along with advice for others, “If this is your passion, go for it.” Everyone has to start somewhere so don’t be discouraged with where you begin. Know your skills and what you bring to the table. Know what is unique to you in your experiences and academic values that you can bring to projects and the industry. Know what your purpose is and what drives you. “Figure out what you stand for whether it be social justice or human rights and choose it over and over again every day.”

 

(If you have a story to tell or would like to submit a profile for the blog, please get in touch with us at info@womeninaid.com).

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Blog Series: Women In Aid Profiles (#WiAProfiles)

Women in Aid is pleased to introduce a Blog Series: Women in Aid Profiles. (#WiAProfiles)

We’ve repeatedly been told that the sharing of experiences from women across the humanitarian and development sector is valuable and needed. We listened to your requests and were pleased when approached by Associate Professor Grace Bahng of Azusa Pacific University.  She asked us to collaborate on a project for her undergraduate students in the class on humanitarian emergencies and assistance.

Together with Grace, we put out a call in our networks of women practioners, and rounded up some willing participants. They were paired with a student from the course who carried out a one hour interview with the women practioners. The students were given two topics to explore:

1) How and why they chose a career in humanitarian/development work?

2) What unique challenges and circumstances they face as a woman practitioners?

After interviewing their practitioner, students then wrote articles sharing their conversations and some reflections they had.  Students commented how much they enjoyed the project and felt fortunate to be able to chat with a current practitioner, especially as they considered their own futures and career paths.  Many of their articles will be shared in the upcoming series.

We are hugely thankful to the 17 women practioners who stepped forward and gave their time to talk to the students and review the pieces which will be published here with their permission.

We hope to keep the series alive and if you would like to share your story and help us create an archive of our collective experiences, please do send us an email (info@womeninaid.com) and we will be in touch to carry out an interview.

We hope you enjoy the series and please do engage on the pieces with comments, questions and suggestions. The more voices we can add, the better.

Fi and Zehra.

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Resiliency: Lessons, Laws and Metaphors from the Natural World

*Helen came home from West Africa after a 5-month consultancy with something beyond exhaustion in her bones. While travel and work there left her with meaningful and enriching memories, occasionally what would surface from her psyche were the detailed images of how war and poverty imprinted themselves on this region. Intrusive and distressing recollections of people with horrific war injuries would “pop up” in her mind’s- eye.  At times, the images of war-torn injuries such as those who suffered amputations of arms and legs, as well as memories of homeless and orphaned children in great need or suffering animals on the streets would haunt her during both her daytime thoughts and nighttime dreams.

She loved her work, yet she realized there is a personal emotional cost to caring.

*Pseudonym

 

Vicarious Traumatization. Compassion Fatigue. Burn Out.  The emotional and psychological residue of working in a helping profession is not a topic that is freely discussed among some workers. Apprehensions of being perceived as ‘too weak, to be in the field,’ having poor emotional boundaries, or even “imposing one’s own meaning onto a situation,” may subdue workers into an isolating silence.

Yet, the effects of working in conditions where one is exposed to the many expressions of the human condition, from deep anguish to great joy, very commonly have intimate and sometimes enduring consequences on so many who work in the development field.

Ironically, it is this very quality of inner responsiveness to another’s condition that pulls some of us into the work in the first place. The ability to be permeable enough to feel and respond to another’s plight can be considered the very essence of “compassion.”

In fact, the Pali and Sanskrit word for compassion, “Karuna,” refers to “ the quivering of one’s heart in response to another being’s pain.”

The work of supporting others through various challenges can offer one a life bursting with meaning. Yet, what can we do when this inner quivering, this response to the call of another, unsettles our own foundation too severely?

It is best not to give from an empty cup. Give from your overflow-

Dr. David Viscott


“Resilience” is a term that has gained popularity among those both within and outside the field of mental health. Originating from the field of physics, this term is used to describe the capacity of matter to regain its original shape, even after it has been subjected to extreme stress. A rubber band is resilient because it can recover its shape even after being very forcefully extended.

This version of resilience has been widely adapted by resiliency trainers with even the United States Army using the concept to train soldiers in fostering the, “battle proof mind” or the mind that it is impervious to duress of war. Some resilience experts also refer to the process of “inoculating” oneself against the attack of stress, by adequate preparation.

While useful in some contexts, the notion of having an immutable, fortress- like presence in the face of the human experience does not always fit with what is called for and even experienced in aid work. We know people are affected and sometimes are forever transformed by their work.

There is another version of resilience that comes from the world of ecology that may, in fact, be more appropriate to the type of “tender yet tough,” porous but powerful stance aid workers so often identify with.

In the study of living systems, the quality of resilience is accorded to those systems that are diverse, versatile and adaptable. The capacity of forests to endure great environmental havoc, such as fire has something to do with the variety of species that exists within that biosphere.

 

As Frijof Capra the author of the Tao of Physics states:

 

A diverse ecosystem will also be resilient, because it contains many species with overlapping ecological functions that can partially replace one another. When a particular species is destroyed by a severe disturbance so that a link in the network is broken, a diverse community will be able to survive and reorganize itself… In other words, the more complex the network is, the more complex its pattern of interconnections, the more resilient it will be.”

 

It is with this embodied complexity, the resilient forest that not only endures a raging fire but it responds with new growth.

 

Thus, in the world of living systems, “resilience” is not a quality of enduring challenge with a steely stoicism. Rather, it is the quality of being able to respond to it, through a myriad of channels with enlivened creativity and vigor.

 

We, as living organisms, can use nature as our metaphor for resilience as we navigate the ever-present challenges of humanitarian work. We can promote our own ability to survive and reorganize while being present and alive with another by using a variety of approaches to promote our own versatility, adapadability, and these approaches can be categorized as:

Endure, Respond and Reflect

Endure

During an especially difficult assignment, tolerating challenge without succumbing to despair or a desperate urgency to leave can be facilitated by a number of commonly used and easily learned strategies of self care. While in the moment of stress, one of the most accessible methods of being present and withstanding duress is using your breath. Simple elongated inhalations with even longer exhalations, “square breathing, and many yogic breathing techniques can all be potent strategies. Besides breathing, there are guided imagery techniques, mantra, ( using sacred sounds) and silent prayer techniques that can be quite effective to help one countenance challenge with equaminity without numbing out. All of these practices have been shown to activate the para-sympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that governs relaxation.

 

Respond

 

The very act of engaging in some type of response is integral to healing from duress. As living systems we are naturally oriented toward action. The noted trauma researcher, Bessel Van der Kolk writes:

 

“Living creatures more or less respond to incoming sensory information on a neuronal and hormonal level, which eventually generates action. When this orientation toward action is thwarted, all kinds of disruptions occur on a biological level”

 

Essentially, when we either experience or witness traumatic or stressful events, the primitive, survival oriented parts of our brains are activated—fight, flight, or freeze responses materialize in our bodies, even on the most subtle levels. As Van der Kolk, suggests, interruption of this orientation to act can produce complications in our bodies. For example, some researchers suggest some chronic anxiety issues have their origins in a person’s unprocessed traumatic experiences, where the original traumatic event elicited a fight/ flight/ freeze response that was some how prematurely interrupted, thus becoming “locked’ or embedded in her nervous system.

 

“Responding” in the resilient organism, respects this innate predisposition toward action. When encountering overwhelming “incoming sensory information,” while in a disaster zone or in a new buzzing and bustling metropolis, this process calls for some type of action or some manner of using the body to discharge the corporeal imprint that inevitably comes with such experiences. Exercise is most commonly associated with this concept.

 

Reflect

 

In the natural world, we observe there are times that living systems lay dormant. Winter descends. Hibernation happens. These periods of stillness are ultimately reviving and strengthening.

Reflection, in the context of cultivating resiliency, can be viewed similarly. As we create stillness for ourselves, both on physical and mental levels, we allow ourselves the opportunity for physical recovery. Researchers are now aware that the body’s natural self repair mechanisms are activated once we are in relaxed states.

Reflection also can refer to periods of quiet that accommodate

“meaning–making” or the process of gleaning significance about we have experienced or witnessed.

As the neurologist Oliver Sacks writes, “It is not the historical truth, but the narrative truth that informs our impression of the world.”

In meaning-making, we can consider not only the duress and challenge of one’s work—we also can whole heartedly embrace how our own intentions, and actions represent higher purposes, principles of living and values we hold precious.

These themes can be incorporated into the narrative truth of our work. Knowing that we have tried our best and acted in a manner that is congruent with our deepest and most treasured values, can serve as a source of renewal.

Resilience can be envisioned in a number of ways. Using the metaphor from the natural world, we can be inspired to create a version of resilience that both tolerates and responds to challenge in a manner that honors the most precious gifts of being alive.

 

 

 

 

Bharati Acharya MA, LPCC, Diplomate Narrative Therapy

Trauma therapist, Consultant, Trainer

bharati718@hotmail.com

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Women, leadership + finding emotional balance

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EVENT ALERT: round table for women aid workers

Are you an expat woman working in the international aid industry or have you been working in the aid sector in the past? Would you like to share your experience with other professionals like you?

ExpatWomen at Work is pleased to offer you this opportunity. In a round table guided by Alice Gritti (a social psychologist specialized on humanitarian and development workers), you will have the chance to talk about the “good and bad sides” of your professional and personal life experience in the aid sector.

As Alice says:
Despite the acknowledged number of challenges and stressors aid workers are likely to face in the field, scarce attention has so far been paid to their needs. In my PhD research I found out that aid workers not only have to face expats’ and overseas professionals problems (such as loneliness, re-adaptation, unsettledness, cultural gap), but also specific sector issues (ethical dilemmas, frustration and sense of guilt arising from the daily exposure to poverty and death, security threats, just to name a few). Also, other challenges already documented in the expat literature, like the relational ones, become more pervasive and ubiquitous for aid workers, due to their higher rate of occupational mobility”.

In the 188 questionnaires and 67 Skype interviews collected, the aid sector was described as more challenging for women aid workers:
At a personal level, women participants have reported higher rates of work-personal life conflict and at a professional level they had voiced difficulties related to different roles expectations of women and stereotypes about women’s skills. Being a woman was described as something ‘critical’ in the achievement of professional credibility and in relation to personal security”.

On the other side, working in international aid can be extremely rewarding in respect to professional development, personal growth, cultural richness and opportunity to travel and much more.

If this broad picture sounds familiar to you, don’t miss the chance to share some of your successful strategies to make the most out of your experience without being overwhelmed by it, to inspire and be inspired and to build new connections!

Write to expatwomenatwork@expatclic.com to reserve your place on Thursday 22nd May 2014 at 8pm CET.

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Women building resilience in our own community – the community of expat aid workers.

This article is contributed by Amanda Scothern. Amanda Scothern works in organizational and community development and teachers yoga to aid workers and others.  She consults for The Garrison Institute’s Contemplative-Based Resilience Training program, offering resilience training for aid workers in May in West Cork, Ireland.

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Last month, following on from an article published as part of the DevEx month-long focus on women in aid and development, The Garrison Institute @TransformTrauma hosted a Tweet Chat on women and resilience with humanitarian and human rights professionals from around the world.

The #She Builds Tweet Chat focused on how women – as part of the community of humanitarian aid workers – are playing an important role in the movement to build resilience among aid workers.

Zehra has blogged in this forum about her own experience of this when she herself took an “unintended”break from humanitarian work and found herself connecting with other women who, like her, were beginning to focus their energies toward improving aid worker psycho-social health.

The chat discussed possible reasons why women seem to be leading in this area, what was understood by resilience, and what the components of resilience are.

Participants noted that kindness and compassion, connecting with others, “knowing one’s limits” and self-awareness were all behaviours or ways of thinking that closely correlated with resilience.  Some suggested that perhaps women are more “educated for” kindness and compassion, and likely to connect with others more, compared with men.  On the other hand, knowing one’s limits is an area that recent research suggests aid workers are likely to be weaker in.  Barb Wigley, a researcher into organisational and personal aspects of aid worker psycho-social health notes that “… a reaction against the potential for weakness in the self may be found more often in humanitarian aid…” (Wigley in Bowie, Fisher et al. eds., p148)

While having a sense of purpose is widely understood to be a key element of resilience, @ImogenWall made the point that sometimes a driving sense of purpose may be what blinds us to the danger signs and pushes us into burnout.  Maybe the lesson here is that a sense of purpose has to be balanced with self-awareness and knowing one’s limits.

These struck me as two elements that need to go together: first, being self-aware enough to notice when our behaviour or thoughts are getting into the danger zone, and second, having a sense of when we’re reaching our limits, and where the fuzzy line is between being temporarily stressed and chronically stressed.  A practical post on this topic appeared on the WhyDev blog as part of their Mental Health Week series last year.

Self-awareness becomes more important once we recognize that aid workers’ sense of purpose may not always be a constant.  Zehra in her post described an experience that will resonate with others. She recognised that something was wrong, wasn’t working, and acted on this awareness even without having a clear plan.  In this case awareness was the critical first step, and led to a revised sense of purpose.

But we don’t always manage to change direction in time, even when we know something is wrong.  Chat participants agreed that ‘crumbling under adversity’ is not the opposite of resilience.  Rather, crumbling may well be “an appropriate response to horror and [allow] us to process and recover” – part of the process of developing resilience.  Resilience in this context might be best defined not only as “recovery,” but as “recovery + growth.”

Women as a group may have an advantage in that for cultural reasons the behaviours and mindsets that correlate with resilience may be more accessible to women than to men.  Examples cited in the chat included practice of compassion and kindness, reaching out to others rather than withdrawing as a response to stress, and engaging in mind-body practices that enhance self-awareness like yoga and meditation.

While such assertions have to be made with care to avoid gender stereotypes, I do think the large numbers of women in the humanitarian aid sector and their increasing representation in leadership roles may be important factors in building a more resilient humanitarian workforce.  As the DevEx article concluded:

“Women remain underrepresented in leadership positions. But learning to identify and value the qualities that go into resilience may also help gain greater recognition of the qualities women bring to emergency response and for their contributions and leadership in building resilience in their communities.”

What do you think?  Do you believe women can or do play a leading role in promoting or enabling more resilient culture and practice in the aid sector?

 

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