It is no surprise to most of us that men outpace women in leadership roles across the international development sector. Research from 2018 showed that two thirds of international development organisations are unbalanced with less than 50% women in leadership positions. A fifth did not have any women in leadership. For Black and Indigenous women and women of colour, the pathway to leadership is further complicated by racial inequity. Despite these well documented barriers, we find more and more women leaders are delivering high impact investments and leading geographically diverse teams in increasingly complex and uncertain environments.
Women are also generally more reluctant to self-promote in a way that is needed to join the leadership ranks, and they face domestic and family pressures. They may lack qualifications and expertise as a result of existing biases in society—which are reflected in the workforce—that can reduce their leadership opportunities.
Women leaders in global development: key lessons
As a group of senior women in development, our experience has shown that there are key traits that lead women to rise to leadership positions, and we’ve seen how women might change their career narrative to highlight them:
1. The ability to manage a diverse and complex team. Workplaces in international development, by their very nature, are diverse and managing a racially and culturally diverse team topped the list of experience we look for when recruiting leaders. The ability to mobilise and organise people and keep a team happy and connected is essential to producing development results through programs. Women tend to have less formal opportunities for mid-level leadership, but managing diverse teams can also happen through running networks, research projects, working on boards, and volunteer work. Where you can, highlight the value of non-formal management experience beyond a CV and its list of jobs.
2. Technical skills in international development. As a leader in the field, it’s essential to be able to demonstrate an understanding of international development as a sector. Time spent in technical fields gives leaders an important understanding of both what effective development looks like, and what development funding organisations—governments, foundations and multi-laterals—are looking for in ‘good’ development. Selling that skill as a part of your leadership package is key.
3. Stakeholder management. Building on technical skills and being able to respond to stakeholders while fostering respect and influence with clients in the development field is another skill that senior managers look for in an executive. It is also key to be able to demonstrate cultural competency when working with national stakeholders. Where women may not meet the formal prerequisites for senior positions, the ability to adapt, learn and grow, and bring transferable skills like networking, stakeholder management, etc., indicates that you are ready for leadership. Have your pitch on this ready, which leads us to…
4. Proactivity. Senior leaders look for staff who have the ability to reach out and share ideas to improve the workplace and the work that we do. For women, especially Black and Indigenous women, and women of colour this can be particularly daunting in a male- and white- dominated leadership structure. However, we see that women who take a chance to promote themselves and their work are already demonstrating leadership skills, and making the connections needed to move into executive positions. Be your own advocate by demonstrating your skills that are applicable to the position/role you are aiming for, using opportunities to promote your work, and accept that it is ok to use superlatives to describe your achievements.
5. Asking for help. Having, and being, mentors is one of the last pieces in this leadership puzzle. All of us have mentors, most of us have a few, and being able to turn to these women and men has absolutely helped us in our careers. As one of our co-authors, Anna Winoto, said during our session at the conference, asking for support from your peers and mentors is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength. And your mentorship will lift other women up.
Finally, we all agreed that not all careers are the same, and not every career is a straight line to the top. For women especially, your career may move in leaps and bounds, up and down as you have children, look after elderly parents, or take time out for your mental and physical health. You may not wish to move ahead at certain points, and while it’s good to take a risk on a promotion or new opportunity, there is no shame in waiting until you feel the time is right to move up the ladder.
Diverse leadership is essential in this sector, as much if not more than any other. And while we in senior leadership work to make the system and structural changes necessary, we welcome you to bring your skills and join us to realize the broader change that we want to see for all women.