Finding the Humanitarian G-spot
“I am wearing large overalls and am but a couple of months away from maternity leave myself. It dawns on us that there isn’t a chance in hell I’m going to get that job. ”
I was reading a recent post by J. at Tales From the Hood about “local” being an article of faith in the Church of Aid, and it occurred to me that Gender is the G-spot.
You know I’m right. You just cannot (and certainly should not) have a document, meeting, program or strategy that does not address gender. Depending on the place and theme, it can range from anything along the lines of combating FGM to increased political representation and decision making. As aid practitioners we are acutely aware of the pitfalls and structural biases that leave women vulnerable to abuse and dependency. We ignore the locals’ arguments that link these forms of discrimination to culture or tradition, and demand equality be treated as a basic human right.
So why is it we are failing so miserably to achieve gender balance at home?
Some years ago, when the goal of gender balance in staffing was set for all the UN agencies, I was working in a large UN agency myself. Very responsibly they hired a (female) consultant to undertake some focus group discussion in order to discover why it was so difficult to retain qualified women. I took part in the young professionals’ discussions. The YPP was a group of staff selected for their management skills through an intense processto be fast tracked within the organization. For the most part they were in their mid twenties/ early thirties and female. The group discussion, as might have been expected, revolved around two things: motherhood and the difficulty of having a male partner follow a woman around (which the UN career requires, as there is constant rotation between duty stations all over the world, much like in a diplomatic career).
I also took part in a mixed group with men and women from different departments and ages. I remember a man in his forties talking about how young staff would come to him for advice on how to advance their career. His advice was to go to a difficult duty station. These are the places where you get noticed, where you get fast tracked, and they are mostly non-family duty stations, so, he admitted, hard for a woman in her thirties who is probably starting a family. His suggestion was to introduce the possibility of extended 2-3 months missions to these places for women past the recommended six-month breastfeeding period so they’d be in a position to compete for these spots.
I was secretly a few weeks pregnant back then. There was something about this proposal that just did not quite work in my head, and back then I didn’t understand what.
The consultant’s conclusion, after weeks of intense study, was that the best way to ensure women don’t fall off the career track is to have their babies later on in their career, once they are established. No mention of the fact that many (most) women would not be able to conceive by then.
Fast forward a few months. I’m walking around the office with a big belly when I find out that a job I am perfect for is up for grabs. I start asking around and get positive reactions from the people involved. It’s really interesting, and a step in the right direction for me. After a few of these positive informal talks I ask why this position is empty.
“The woman that used to chair this group went on maternity leave. She was meant to return this month, but has decided to quit instead.”
As his last words echoed we looked at each other in silence. I am wearing large overalls and am but a couple of months away from maternity leave myself. It dawns on us that there isn’t a chance in hell I’m going to get that job. No one is going to say it, they are going to make me go through the steps (written exam, panel interview…), but no matter how well I do we both know that fight is lost. At the same time my husband is interviewing for a great job. The fact that he is about to become a father is irrelevant.
Fast forward again to the day I give birth to my firstborn. I had been preselected to be part of the first training for middle level management. I’m not middle level management yet. I’m not even based in Africa, which is where the training will be placed. The mere fact they are considering me is a huge pat on the back. As the phone interview to confirm my spot begins I warn her I am in labour and might stay quiet during the contractions. It sounds extreme, but it was the last day they could interview me, and I was determined. I knew what being part of that group could mean for my career. She said:
“Go have your baby and call me back in a couple of weeks.”
I ended up doing the interview while breastfeeding, with my mom holding the phone. I got in but I never did it because, like the mother whose job I had wanted, I decided to extend my leave.
Fast forward once more, towards the end of my extended leave. I get an email from my old boss all excited that my name has been put forward for deputy (second in command) for a small office in South America. I contact the office and set a day for the interview. During this call I mention that although my leave is indeed about to end, I am now 6 months pregnant with my second child. Silence. The interview is set. After a long struggle between my old and new identities, I call back and cancel the interview. You can hear the relief in their voices through the phone line. They thank me.
At the time I was based in Cambodia for my husband’s job. The one he got when I was seven months pregnant. After some months as a consultant for a UN agency I am offered a fixed-term position. My old career self is about to have a fit, but the new mom side wins again. I turn it down. I never got another consulting job from them again.
You might say this was a personal choice, that I didn’t have to turn those jobs down, and you would be right. You would also be ignoring the fact that I’m a psychologist and that I look after the well-being of children for a living, which inevitably entails their families and, in particular, the role the mothers play. How can anyone expect me to work all day to achieve the best possible life situation for other people’s children, and not aim to achieve the same for mine? We are talking about regrouping families in Africa and Asia, and at the same time about ways to get the women away from their own children so their careers won’t suffer.
I’m not saying staying at home is the only choice or even the best choice. If it makes you a bad mother (which it would make me, trust me – I would go insane) then it’s definitely not the right choice. Sometimes it’s not even a choice. All I’m saying is that it is high time that we started looking at what we preach and helping families (emphasis on families, not women) find the best solutions. This might mean flex-time, it might mean that some days you work from home. It probably entails an obligatory paternal leave to level the playing field. It might mean that each parent can take one day off a week so the kids spend 4 days out 7 with at least one parent, as opposed to 2. (Before you laugh, this is common in Holland, so yeah, it’s do-able, and in the private sector too, where it’s not about politics but about getting the job done.)
I’m saying that what we are doing now is not working, it’s not good enough, and as a consequence we are hardly in a position to go around preaching to others what we haven’t managed to work out at home. I feel like we keep trying to will the typewriter to be the best option, and frankly, the world has changed, the tools and mechanisms we use to work have evolved and it’s high time that we do too. We can do better. If we are looking at remote management for unstable situations that might blow up, maybe we can consider introducing these options for the benefit of our own staff and their families, and as we know from all the research, the impact of this would benefit us all.
Personally, I believe that these changes would lead not only to happier children and parents, but to more productive, creative, and efficient aid workers. Trust me, you’d be surprised how much a working mom can get done in that ONE hour she gets between daycare drop off and the TV repair guy.
Deep down we all know that if we could just find that humanitarian G-spot, we’d be much happier and better people.
About the Author
Angélica is an aid worker with a focus on gender, children, and conflict. She’s mom to two toddlers and an aspiring writer, currently working on her first book on gender and identity. Excerpts and other musings can be found on her blog, On Motherhood & Sanity.
The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.