#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).


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).
This entry was posted in career, family, life/ work balance, WiAProfiles. Bookmark the permalink.

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