Women’s Empowerment: Real barriers to women’s empowerment in the humanitarian & development sector

October 14, 2019

Our Marketing and Communications Intern Charlotte Davies kicks off our Women’s Empowerment blog series, exploring what barriers there are to Women’s Empowerment: Real barriers to women’s empowerment in the humanitarian & development sector in the humanitarian & development sector.

“When we empower girls hungry for education, we cultivate women who are emboldened to effect change within their communities and globally” – Meghan Markle

What is Women’s Empowerment?

When I hear the words Women’s Empowerment, I imagine confident, strong, independent women.

I envisage women who stand up for what they believe; women who actively persist when they face adversity; and women who push on in spite of criticism.

An ‘empowered woman’ recognises and embodies her innate strength and is ‘free’ to be herself. She doesn’t have to be bold, outrageous and disruptive.

She can merely be showing compassion, courage and power through her empathetic interactions with others – but that is showing formidable strength in itself.

So what are the most pertinent barriers to the advancement of women in society?

“It’s important to speak out for internally displaced girls because I was displaced for three months, so I know how hard it is to get an education when you don’t have a home.”Malala Yousafzai

Arguably, the most significant barriers to the advancement of women in society are socio-economic factors.

Poverty and a lack of education have a tremendous impact on the success of women.

If women are not educated or informed, they will not be aware of the patriarchal social system that is all-encompassing.

However, if they are subtly mindful, but still lack adequate education and financial independence, women may be deterred by the apparent lack of opportunity to ‘escape’ from their current situation; this can be extremely detrimental for their wellbeing and livelihood.

A lack of education and poverty deny women the choice. Yes, if a woman is informed and free from the hardship, she has an option.

However, more than often, women around the world, as a result of socio-economic barriers and cultural barriers, do not have that choice.

Women's Empowerment

Universal barriers

Socio-cultural barriers:

Traditional gender-based attitudes are deeply ingrained in our social consciousness.

They limit women’s access to and control over all spheres of life – be it educational, political or legal.

Around the world today, both men and women alike are fearful of women’s empowerment.

Perhaps that is because they are unsure of what women’s empowerment looks like, or they are intimidated by the presence of ‘powerful’ women in the workplace.

What is more, every person has biases surrounding gender that are not often visible at the individual level.

The social structures are consistently shaping organisational culture and reflect on the informal rules and behaviours that exist within the workplace.

Unconscious bias:

Be it subtle discrimination or mere ‘banter’, stereotypes and unconscious biases present themselves as fundamental obstacles to women’s advancement.

Unconscious bias has a tremendous impact on women and their leadership potential.

What is more, these may be less obvious and more difficult to address. The knock-on effects are incredible.

Increasingly, women are explaining that they need to adopt a more ‘male’ attitude and persona to succeed in the workplace.

Women themselves are also more likely to consult a male lead figure than a female lead figure.

What are we saying?

It is also the terms we are using.

Where a man is ‘assertive’, a woman may be ‘bossy’.

While a man could be ‘passionate’, a woman may be seen to be ‘too emotional’.

It is necessary to challenge this narrative and unpick the dialogue used to describe different leaders and managers within the sector.

It is important to note that both women and men are reinforcing this narrative. 

Self-confidence in the workplace

Often, female employees do not take higher positions within organisations.

While there could be many reasons for this, namely that women simply aren’t choosing leadership roles or that certain women lack the necessary experience and exposure to leadership roles, societal structures and social norms have a tremendous impact on the choices that women make.

What is more, men are usually promoted based upon their potential as opposed to their qualifications.

Women, on the other hand, need to work harder to access opportunities to advance their careers [7].

Where a man may complete a job application because he has 20% of the required skills or experience, a woman may decide not to apply for the job because she doesn’t have 20% of the necessary skills and expertise.

Self-confidence is thus a fundamental barrier to the success of women in the workplace.

Does being a woman help or hinder work in the humanitarian field?

The leadership gap:

Within the humanitarian and development sector, the amount of women at entry-level is higher than the number of men.

However, as you move up the ‘ladder of success’, the number of women quickly diminishes.

In the United Nations, women make up 42.8 per cent of the employee base.

As of January 2016, however, women only compromised 9 of the 29 UN Humanitarian Coordinators, the most senior UN position in-country who establishes, leads and oversees the Humanitarian Country Team during an emergency [8].

So while women dominate the lower-ranks, they do not progress to the higher levels. 

The strength of women humanitarians:

Focusing on the competencies of woman humanitarians in the field, it is evident that women are strong and capable.

Women can talk openly, empathise and engage effectively with beneficiaries.

Sharing experiences is vital for those experiencing trauma from a disaster or crisis, and women are often the ones who can support other women (and men!) and empathise with their situation.

Looking at the celebrations of World Humanitarian Day this year, there is no shortage of amazing stories of contributions made by women humanitarians to the sector. Please have a read of what HAD has to say on women humanitarians by reading our recent blog post on women humanitarians.

‘Empowering’ is about giving back control

The lack of women in leadership has impacts across sectors and countries.

It inhibits productivity and performance of workplaces and has individual and national health, education, political and socio-economic impacts [9].

‘Empowering’ is about giving back control; giving power to those who are deprived or denied of their power.

Through enabling others, you do not lose your power; empowered women empower others.

“As they are standing up, they are also speaking for other women who are otherwise made invisible.

It is important for us that the visible women make the invisible more visible so that this is truly a global issue that addresses women from all walks of life.” – Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

Written by Charlotte Davies

Marketing and Communications Intern