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Women in Leadership: addressing gender equality through mentoring

Child standing next to a tree facing a graphical representation of a woman

To support the Humanitarian Leadership Academy’s vision for a localised humanitarian sector, we work to promote and prioritise diverse and inclusive leadership practices.

One of our initiatives to help address the gender imbalance at leadership levels is the Across Organisational Mentoring Programme (AOMP), harnessing the expertise of Lis Merrick and Jacki Mason at Coach Mentoring Ltd together with Save the Children UK and the HLA.

We provide and develop opportunities for the professional development of under-represented groups – including women – across the whole leadership pipeline to drive a step change in the social agenda.

Over the past decade, we have seen coaching and mentoring become vital capacity-strengthening tools that have enabled individuals and teams to achieve their full potential and further develop their resilience in increasingly complex and ambiguous environments.

The AOMP was established to connect individuals across participating humanitarian and development organisations, drawing on experience across the sector to support professional development through mentoring.

The Women in Leadership version of the AOMP (WIL AOMP) focuses specifically on supporting women – both current and developing leaders – in their professional development and aspirations to develop further as leaders in the sector.

Mentees from around the world are matched with experienced senior leaders from the humanitarian and development sector, and work together for approximately 9 to 12 months to discuss and work together on the mentee’s individual learning goals.

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, Ka Man Parkinson from the HLA caught up with four of our mentors to hear their experiences as a leader and as a mentor on the Women in Leadership Programme.

Paula Brennan is an experienced coach and leader in the humanitarian sector, working at organisations including Save the Children UK and the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership.

Irene Jucker is a consultant, facilitator and coach; formerly a managing director for Swiss NGOs and a leadership coach at Greenpeace.

Anne-Sophie Lois is Senior United Nations Representative – New York and Geneva at Plan International.

Fiona McSheehy is a coach and mentor with a background in the emergency aid sector including at Save the Children UK and the British Red Cross.

You all have a wealth of experience gained over many years in the humanitarian or NGO sector. What kind of changes have you seen in the role and contribution of women in the sector, particularly at leadership levels?

Fiona McSheehy: I have seen more women at more senior levels since I started, and more women across more roles. When I started the majority of females held positions in HR, finance, or fairly administrative posts. Now I see women holding positions relating to fleet management, construction, and country directors.

This is seen across the organisations involved in humanitarian response. Also, there has been a change in the make-up of senior management teams at country, regional and international levels. There are more women holding senior positions within UN agencies as well.

Paula Brennan: Women are increasingly being appointed to leadership positions in the sector. This is great news because by having women in senior positions we can expect a more gender-balanced approach to decision-making and policy development which ultimately influences how we deliver aid. At every level, and in every type of role, women’s huge contribution is now being acknowledged.

But we still have a long way to go – although we see a better gender balance in the UN and INGOs, that’s not always the case in smaller organisations. Also, those occupying the top jobs are often not representative of the communities they serve and smaller organisations and women of colour don’t always have a voice.

Anne-Sophie Lois: Over the years that I have been working in the sector, I have seen more women coming into the workforce in the humanitarian and human rights sectors. But unfortunately, our sector has still a long way to go to be equal.

Many times we will find more men in leadership position and with higher salaries than female peers. Women are often facing the so-called glass ceiling in particular around the age of ‘the child bearing years’.

Our sector rarely takes into account that it’s difficult to juggle children and work. As a feminist leader, I’m very aware of that and provide support to those within my team. We have developed family-friendly polices so that men and women can have a strong family/private life outside work.

Do you think being a woman leader in the humanitarian/NGO sector has presented any particular challenges that you had to work to overcome?

Irene Jucker: Absolutely. I had the feeling that I had to work twice as hard as my male colleagues to be accepted. It took me quite a while and needed a lot of good reviews to build enough self-confidence.

But this is not particularly related to the NGO sector, I believe. It was more working in a campaign organisation that made it difficult. Campaign organisations had a very ‘macho’ environment. That has changed a great deal over time, but there is still a ‘hero culture’ lingering on.

Fiona McSheehy: I think it is difficult sometimes to distinguish between challenges specifically because I am a woman, as opposed to challenges due to other factors.

In the aid sector, I have been challenged by men in some of the responses I have been involved with. For example, in some countries the government officials have directly refused to speak with me as I am a woman.

An area that has not specifically affected me – but I know has affected other women – is the biological differences between men and women, and the associated reproductive cycle, the monthly periods and the menopause. While this is now being discussed more openly in the western world, this issue still impacts negatively on many women globally.

We are delighted to have you work with us on our Women in Leadership programme. Could you tell us a little about your experiences as a mentor on this programme?

Paula Brennan: I love this programme and having benefitted from mentors throughout my career it was a great chance to give back. I’ve mentored several women and really look forward to our conversations: I can honestly say that I gain more than I contribute. It might sound corny but it’s such a privilege to work with amazing women from around the world and see them flourish in their careers.

Irene Jucker: It is incredibly enriching! I get an insight into different NGOs and find it super interesting to find patterns across NGOs when it comes to organisational culture, strategy and leadership. And I love to get to know so many wonderful, dedicated women in so many different countries. To build a trustful relationship is so rewarding.

At first, I was worried that cultural differences could be an issue, but I realised that it is not a barrier as the topics and the way women feel about their work is the same everywhere. When we talk from our hearts, and explore a situation through our feelings too, cultural differences do not matter.

Finally, what advice would you like to share for women and girls who are interested in developing a career in the humanitarian sector or cause-based organisations like NGOs?

Anne-Sophie Lois: I believe that people need to ask questions that are relevant for themselves and then seek answers for them. Most answers are inside ourselves – but we may not know how to access them.

Coaching and mentoring can support you on your career journey. Potential questions to reflect on could be: What’s my purpose? Why am I interested in this line of work? What could my contribution be? What strength do I bring? How do I manage challenges like uncertainty and complexity?

Irene Jucker: You need to be interested in the cause, not just in working for an NGO. Because values are so important in NGO’s, you need to be able to identify with the cause.

Oftentimes, I applied for a job in an organisation I really wanted to work for that I found not to be super interesting, but I wanted to be ready when the right job was available. I always gave my best in every job which helped me to get the dream job in the end. I guess what I want to say is this: be humble – but dream big!

Paula Brennan: Women, given a supportive environment, can usually work out the best way forward in a way that suits them. So I would say do all you can to create that supportive environment for yourself – surround yourself with people who will lift you up, network, connect with women who are already in leadership positions, get a mentor, be clear about who you are and what you stand for.

Once, I was promoted into a senior role and I requested a coach to support my transition. She asked me what I stood for and what values I’d prioritise above all else. When I didn’t have a convincing answer she said: “You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” It’s such a great line and I still think of it now – once you’re clear on your purpose and your values, the rest falls into place: you can communicate with impact and inspire people to follow your leadership.

Fiona McSheehy: Do it! It is satisfying, rewarding, and is part of the process for changing the lives of women and girls globally. Be the role model that you want others to follow, and challenge the culture that exists when men are treated more positively than women in many places around the world.

With thanks to Paula Brennan, Irene Jucker, Anne-Sophie Lois and Fiona McSheehy for their contributions, and to Lis Merrick from Coach Mentoring Ltd.

Read more about our work in coaching and mentoring:

View our Coaching and Mentoring webpage
Visit our NGO Coaching and Mentoring website


Strengthening Local Leadership localisation Coaching and mentoring

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