Walking the Talk on Gender Equality

Photographer: Anna Carlile on behalf of Viola Designs and the International Women’s Development Agency

Rebecca Hamilton

28 Jul, 2017

Recently I was astounded to learn that globally we are still 118 years away from closing the gender gap. This despite the entry of nearly a quarter of a billion more women into the global workforce, and despite the emergence of a reverse gender gap in higher education, with 98 countries recording more women entering university since 2006 than men. At current rates of progress, it appears that not even in my daughter’s lifetime will these women around the world be paid equally to their male counterparts.

What more can we do collectively and individually, to ‘walk the talk’ on gender equality? This was one of the key questions taken up during the latest ACFID-DFAT Gender Equality Workshop in Canberra, which focused on advancing Women’s Leadership. In this blog, I look at some of the workshop outcomes, and how the aid and development sector has resolved to overcome some of the barriers women confront - specifically within aid and development agencies’ internal structures.

Setting the scene for the workshop were Dr Victor Sojo, from the Centre for Ethical Leadership, and Ayla Black from the Humanitarian Advisory Group, who presented confronting facts and statistics revealing the true depths of the gender gap in Australia and around the world. The barriers women confront in the workplace are predominantly structural, dominated by rigid stereotypes of leadership and gender, unconscious bias influencing the decisions and assumptions of management, and working practices where men and women alike experience discrimination in attaining work-life balance.

As for women in leadership, even in the development sector gender balance remains staunchly elusive – looking at the overall gender balance across ACFID Members’ boards, women make up 43% of board members overall, but just 25% occupy the head seat, and whilst 67% of this non-profit workforce are women, only around 40% are CEOs. [1] Similarly, a recent report on the status of women in the United Nations system revealed that as the level of professional employment rises, the representation of women steadily declines, with the percentage of women at the peak level sitting at just 27.3%. [2] Closer to home, the average full-time female employee in Australia takes home $27 000 less annually than her male counterpart. [3]

ACFID, DFAT, and NGOs across the sector are already committed to advancing women’s leadership and gender equity in their development programming and international engagement, but there is much work to do in strengthening gender justice in our organisational culture. Workshop participants heard from a dynamic panel comprising experts from DFAT, ACFID member organisations and the Women in Aid and Development network about the many and varied pathways to initiating and progressing agency-wide Women in Leadership agendas. Amongst the approaches shared, Emily Fisher from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) Women in Leadership (WIL) Secretariat and Amy Haddad, DFAT’s Principal Sector Specialist on Gender Equality, outlined the genesis and progress of the Department’s WIL Strategy which aims at ‘catching the wave of history’ to break down some of the barriers preventing women’s career progression in the department being equal to that of their male colleagues.

It became clear during the descriptions of each agency’s journey to overarching gender strategies or women in leadership agendas that whilst the pathways to progressing gender equity fall across a wide spectrum, the basic motivations and intentions are usually the same. Wider gender strategies are often borne from the results of a simple cultural audit or staff survey that forms the foundation for both further work and high-level buy-in. Across the panel, the motivations for embarking on these activities were analogous, including: ‘bringing home’ external programming policies on gender equality; enhancing institutional acceptance of part-time and flexible work for both men and women; establishing benchmarks for women in leadership positions; and developing a cohesive, agile and inclusive organisational culture that is fully aligned to gender equality.

In CARE Australia’s case, CEO Sally Moyle commissioned a self-assessment survey as a precursor for a wider gender strategy to determine where CARE stands organisationally on gender equality. Issues surrounding women’s leadership came to the fore for the Fred Hollows Foundation in two ways – through data analysis of their program work in gender equity, and an organisational staff survey, leading to the formation of a Gender Action Working Group. The Foundation’s approach includes the engagement of a gender specialist in the short-term and employment of a gender programs adviser over the longer-term to create an organisation-wide gender strategy to address internal equity issues.

In the aid and development sphere, understanding how relevant gender justice is to our work is paramount. Organisations, after all, are reflective of broader societal norms, prejudices and attitudes. We can all be better champions for women’s leadership - in a sector dominated by women with a strong rhetorical commitment to gender equality, in practice this means recognition of the importance of gender equality as both a means and an end of development. If you’re not on board yet with the gender equality conversation, now is the time, or the gap between rhetoric and reform will only widen. Let’s not fall short on truly walking this talk. 

The ACFID-DFAT Gender Equality Workshops are held twice-yearly. Through shared learning around a topic of mutual interest, the workshops provide an opportunity for DFAT and NGOs to gain a better understanding of their respective priorities and identify opportunities to work together towards gender equality.

The ACFID Conference in November 2017 will continue the conversations arising from this workshop including through a panel comprising DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson and human rights activist and IWDA partner Noelene Nabulivou.

[1] https://acfid.asn.au/sites/site.acfid/files/G2300_ACFID_ANNUAL%20REPORT%202016_WEB%204.pdf

[2] http://humanitarianadvisorygroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/HAG-Women-in-Leadership_Final_email-and-web_120217.pdf

[3] http://humanitarianadvisorygroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/HAG-Women-in-Leadership_Final_email-and-web_120217.pdf


  • Rebecca Hamilton
    Rebecca Hamilton

    Rebecca is a member of ACFID's Policy and Advocacy Team, from a background in both the public and private sectors – with the International Policy Division at the Department of Defence, the Pacific Branch within the then Australian Agency for International Development, and more recently with Coffey International working on the Australia Awards Indonesia Scholarship Program. 

    Rebecca has a BA and Master’s Degree in International Studies from the University of Queensland.


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