Australia Ahead of the Curve: Thought-leaders and female representation

Alice Ridge

07 Oct, 2016

Earlier this year, ACFID put out a call for think-pieces on the future of development. We called for established and emerging voices alike to share with us their thoughts on the global trends that the world will face over the next decade.

We called for bold ideas from thought-leaders, sector experts, and fresh voices… and we received very few submissions from women.

To break down the numbers, of the 35 submissions ACFID has received at the time of writing this blog, only 7 are attributed to either a single female author or a group of female authors. An additional 3 had multiple authors including at least one woman, so by that count we have just 10 out of 35 pieces – or less than a third – not written exclusively by men. (The other 25 pieces were either attributed to male authors or had no attributed author but were submitted in the name of an organisation. Many, but not all, of these submissions are now available here).

As ACFID’s policy lead on gender and full-time feminist both in and outside of my work life – and as someone working for an organisation that has committed to gender justice as an underlying principle of all our work – I was dismayed to find such a poor gender balance in a project I was working on.

I’ve been mulling over the reasons why I think this might have happened – did we do something wrong, or is it an inevitable feature of the unequal world we live in? – and I’ve come up with a few different explanations.

Theory 1: women less likely to put their ideas out there

Maybe we received so few submissions from women because women are less likely than men to put their ideas out there. I know the stats about women not putting themselves forward in the workplace. I know about the ways in which women are punished for showing the same personal qualities that are rewarded in men, like assertiveness, confidence, and belief in their own abilities. I know that all-too-often women are not credited for the ideas they do have, and not given space to pursue them.

Theory 2: women have less time to do voluntary work out of hours

It is also possible that we received fewer submissions from women because contributing to a series like Ahead of the Curve may fall outside the scope of someone’s role or function within an organisation, and need to be done outside of work hours. Finding time to write a voluntary think-piece on top of an already busy workload can be tricky, and given that even in Australia women still do the bulk of unpaid care and household work, finding the time outside of work is even harder.

Theory 3: there are not enough female leaders to put their name to pieces

On the other hand, I know that the development sector – despite being a workforce dominated by women – lacks the commensurate representation of women at the highest levels of leadership. In fact ACFID published the sector’s stats on women in leadership in our Annual Report last year, and they’re not great. Women make up around 70% of ACFID members’ staff, but only a third of members have a female CEO. At the board level it’s even worse – women make up 40% of board members for ACFID member organisations, but only around 20% have a female chair.

Theory 4: we chose our language poorly

So maybe there just aren’t enough women in positions of leadership, either in development or other sectors, to put their names to submissions as the public face of their organisations.

Maybe we received so few submissions from women because women are less likely than men to put their ideas out there.

Or maybe we chose our language poorly, and by calling for ‘thought leaders’ and ‘experts’ we triggered the almost sub-conscious mental processes that we women have developed as both a response to and a consequence of the patriarchal society we live in: “I won’t bother – they’re not interested in hearing from me”.

The truth is probably some combination of all these factors and more, but the outcome is the same. And a project that seeks to challenge the current paradigms of development, to shake things up and surface bold new ideas for how we can do things differently will never be successful if it replicates and reinforces the very structures it seeks to question.

But the good news is it’s not too late. We’re still accepting submissions, which will be published on the ACFID website and will inform ACFID’s thinking on the future of development into 2017.

We want your ideas on Australia’s future role in international development – especially if you’re unsure that the title ‘thought leader’ applies to you.


For more information on making a submission to Australia Ahead of the Curve, please contact Alice Ridge at ACFID on 02 6281 9223 or [email protected]

To read the submissions we have received so far and learn more about the project, check out the web page here.

  • Alice Ridge
    Alice Ridge

    Alice is the Policy and Advocacy Advisor at ACFID, and leads on ACFID’s work in the areas of gender equality and SDGs. Alice studied International Politics and Philosophy at Melbourne University, where she was involved with the environmental activist movement. Alice writes in her spare time and has been published in a number of online feminist journals.

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