Thursday, November 27, 2014

Finding the humanitarian G-spot

This post was originally published as a guest post on Tales from the Hood. As it now no longer live, I thought it was worth putting it up here again. 

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 local’s 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 for UN staff was set for all the 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 of the young professionals discussions. The YPP was a group of staff selected through an intense process for their management skills to be fast tracked within the organization. For the most part they were in their mid twenties/ early thirties and females. The group discussion, as might have been expected, revolved around two things: motherhood and the difficulty of having men follow a woman around, (which the UN career requires as there is constant rotation between duty stations all over the world, much like a diplomatic career).

I also took part of another 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 were you get noticed, where you get fast tracked, and 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 recommend six month breastfeeding period so that 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, back then I didn’t understand what. 

The consultant’s conclusion after weeks of intense study was that the best way to ensure that women don’t fall off the career track was to have their babies later on in their career, once they were 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 to the day I gave birth to my first born. 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 in 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 and 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 again 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 6months 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 7 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 for a living I look after the wellbeing of children, and that inevitably entails their family and, in particular, the mother for   the role she plays. How can anyone expect me to work all day to get the best possible life situation for other people’s children, and not aim to get 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 that their careers wont suffer.

I’m not saying stay 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 family, not women) find the best solution. 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 doable, 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 drop off and the TV repair guy.

Deep down we all know that if we could just find that humanitarian G-spot, we’d all be much happier and better people.