Can women establish a healthy work/ life balance in the aid industry?

There have been a number of articles published lately focused on whether women can or cannot “have it all” by balancing high level jobs with a family life. These are written about the corporate and public sectors in America. It would be great to get comments about how the two commentaries that this blog post discusses relate to the aid and development sector.

One article published in the Guardian newspaper (“Women at work: ‘Forget the balance. This is the merge’.”) written by Hanna Rosin, but now taken down (you can still view the comments) argued that women can have it all by merging work and home life. The article focused on some case studies from women working in Silicon Valley. It claimed that some bosses in Silicon Valley have given their female executives the opportunity to define what was really important to them (going to their child’s football game, or parent teacher night) and then as long as they fit all their work around it, then a successful “merge” happens. Women leave work in time to do what is important for them, do more work later when children are in bed and therefore are successful both professionally and as a parent. A number of comments on the Guardian article from self identified women working in the Silicon Valley disputed the very positive and flexible picture being painted: ” I have been a successful female executive at a fruit themed company in Silicon Valley for more than two decades. You pick the kids or the job. Period.”

A separate article in The Atlantic (“Why women still can’t have it all”) was published written by Marie-Anne Slaughter. The article argues that feminists have sold young women a fiction by saying that women can have both a high flying career and be a great mother: “I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.” The article ends by arguing that as more women are promoted in to leadership roles, workplace policies will become more open to the balance and that this will benefit both men and women. Rosin argued that it was female executives in Silicon Valley that were making it possible for women to merge and have it all.

There are many points of convergence, indeed below there is a video showing Hanna Rosin,  interviewing Anne-Marie Slaughter about the article:

How does this apply to the aid and development sector, both within head offices and field based positions?

My personal experience has been influenced by a relatively strict approach to my balance between work and home life. I do work long hours as and when required (or when I want to), however when I have committed to spend time with my partner or friends, I try to never cancel because something “crops” up at work. However, If I don’t have anything planned I am 100% flexible. I have often been the one saying that I have to leave the meeting so I don’t let a friend/ my partner down. This has had a mixed reception among colleagues throughout my career. I have found strong resistance from those that choose not to set the very same boundaries (both men and women). Other colleagues have been very very supportive. I have struggled at times to stay strong and to not feel concerned about the judgement of other colleagues.

It has also really struck me that there are many many men in senior roles in the aid sector who have a family as well as a high powered international career, I have seen far fewer women having both. Perhaps it’s an individual choice or maybe the industry encourages this.

Please post comments about how the above articles relate to working in the sector and also anyone in management positions/ human resource positions who help define the options open to employees.

Do agencies in the industry provide a place and support for women (and men for that matter) to have a fulfilling career and a family if that’s what they want? 

Has anyone experienced an agency that has proactively designed policies to promote work/ life balance?

How does moving between head office and field based roles affect the ability to achieve a balance between family and work?


About Zehra

Zehra is a livelihoods and cash transfer specialist working in humanitarian contexts. She has also been a health and lifestyle coach for humanitarian aid workers. Loves food, bollywood and tweeting (@zehrarizvi).
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4 Responses to Can women establish a healthy work/ life balance in the aid industry?

  1. Pingback: Is there life after work? | Women Working in Aid and Development

  2. Pingback: Work life balance: How we can put “work” and “life” on equal levels | Women Working in Aid and Development

  3. Pingback: work life balance women aid development

  4. Pingback: Baby of mine | Women Working in Aid and Development

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