The impact of gender on the lives of aid workers

Posted on: November 20, 2015 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Aid Worker Voices book

“Being a guy is like playing the easy setting. Less harassment, more respect.”
–31-35yo male expat aid worker

“Being female and working in many male dominated cultures I have to be extra mindful about how my actions are perceived, especially in management positions. Also, safety.”
–25-30yo female expat aid worker

The impact of gender on the lives of aid workers

One person’s view from 50,000 feet
That one’s gender is a factor in daily life is a cultural universal.  Gender differentiation has always existed among human cultures all over the planet and for our entire existence, starting in those caves hundreds of thousands of years ago in what is now South Africa.  Humans, a species blessed -or cursed- with the ability to engage in complex thought and having the ability to possess and, more importantly, pass on cultural learning from one generation to the next, have made gender differentiation a major and lasting social factor.

Though with only rare exceptions all of us have either a penis or a vagina -and the attendant secondary sexual characteristics that go along with said equipment, unlike other mammalian species, humans have socially constructed gender.  Further, we havediff taken our sexuality -who we feel an urge to have sex with- and conflated it with gender identity.  We are a complicated species and, unfortunately, have tended in most cultures to find a way to morph somewhat benign and perhaps functionally useful gender differentiation into a not-so-benign and, for 50% of the population markedly not advantageous, gender stratification.  My personal theory is that gender stratification is fairly “new” and that up until about 15,ooo years ago we lived actually most of our existence in a non-sexist manner.  Social differentiation transforms into social stratification in cultural settings where a surplus of food, etc. is being regularly generated (i.e., concurrent with the rise of the domestication of plant and animal species) and this transformation, methinks, gives rise to gender stratification, i.e., sexism.

Yes, sexism.  An ideology of domination and subordination based on the assumption of the biological and/or cultural inferiority of those with vaginas and the use of this assumption to legitimate and rationalize (commonly grounded in our modern Abrahamic religions) the inferior or unequal treatment of these vagina possessors.

Are we doomed forever to a world based in gender stratification, dominated by varying degrees of sexism?  Perhaps not, but I think it will take several more generations before we live in a world where we simply enjoy our differences instead of exploiting them.

Same same, but different; now, from 35,000 feet
Aid work is, well, work.  It is a job in a sector.  Of the 400,000-500,00 people around the world which might fall into this category, there exists a healthy mix of both males and females.  In many organizations there are more females than males, and of those that took the time to complete our survey, 70% were female.  Representative of the sector?  Likely not, but a good indication of strong female presence in the sector.

Given that we live in a gendered and, yes, sexist world, one can conclude that there are few if any occupations where to one degree or another one’s gender is not a factor.  Well, duh.

Screenshot 2015-11-23 09.07.56On to data from our survey 
I have previously written two posts having to do with the male-female differences in our survey responses.  Check here and here for these posts.  I turn now to the results from our specific questions about the impact of gender.

Two questions
Which of these four factors is the most important in influencing how we see ourselves:  race/ethnicity/cultural status, social class/relative wealth and power, gender or age?   Which of those four factors is the most important in influencing how others perceive and react to us?

Certainly every one of these factors is critically important for all of us no matter where we are in the world or what our occupation might be.  Indeed, that is a basic truism in the social sciences. Though Max Weber was referring more narrowly to wealth and power when he first used the term, his concept of “life chances” can be usefully applied more broadly to all four of these factors. Each can and frequently does play into how we go through our lives and our work days, that is, what “life chances” we enjoy -or don’t enjoy- depending upon where we are vis-a-vis these four major social variables.  Which factor is the most important for an individual can change quickly, even moment by moment as we transition from one social setting to the next, for example getting off a plane to a deployment faced with immediate and dramatic cultural shifts.  In short, all four factors are critical, and various combinations can lead alternately to open or closed doors.

This comment from a young, white, male expat aid worker sums this point up nicely:

“In Muslim countries, being a male makes a lot of things easier, even though in West Africa you are generally perceived as white before being perceived as a man or a woman. The only disadvantages in being a Male in some unstable countries are that it makes you more of a target for ‘extremist/hostile’ groups in some contexts.”

Vaginas and penises
That one’s perceived gender can influence how a person is responded to is the focus below, and by presenting some  representative narrative responses from our survey I hope to shed light on the deeper contextual nuances of perceived gender identity among aid workers.

As a related note, how you feel about yourself at any one moment is influenced by how you believe others are seeing you and how they are evaluating -judging-what they see.  Perhaps that is part of the allure of being an aid worker: “How wonderful you are to help other people!”  Though the “looking-glass self” can have that positive side, the way you are perceived by others can sometimes be negative (“When two thousand years old you are, see how many times a week you are accused of being ‘too male, too pale, too stale.'” stated one male respondent to our survey).  

To go one step further, looking through the lens of sociologist Irving Goffman’s concept of “impression management” when we are at home and/or in our cubicle environment we are able to use myriad props, cues and affectations to enhance -or mute- any or all of our gender, ethnic/race, age or class statuses.  We are in control of how we are seen by others and can manipulate -albeit most times doing so unconsciously- the looking-glass effect, somewhat.  By stark contrast, while in the field there are times when we have very little control over how we are perceived.  One important interpersonal skill any aid worker must have is the ability to imagine what people in an array of contexts see when they look at them and then act in accordance with that knowledge.  To the point:  a young, black, female, American aid worker gets of the plane in [fill in the blank].  What do the beneficiaries see first, i.e., which of these four demographic variables is most salient?  Yes, it varies.  Yes, it is culture/situation specific.  But in the end, the person getting off the plane is not the one in control of how she is being perceived, how she is identified and reacted to.  The choice of whether or not you wear your aid organization branded t-shirt is trivial.  You will -despite your intentions otherwise- be seen as a “Westerner’ first.

Some results
Below are our results to the question related to gender being a factor for aid or development workers.  On one level I am a bit surprised that nearly a third -30%- Screenshot 2014-07-22 18.00.29of the respondents indicated their gender was not a factor at all in their work.  When broken down by male compared to female, the percentages differ in what I would consider a predictable manner with females lower at 28% compared to 36% for males. I can understand that a male might not be habituated to thinking in terms of gender, but for well of a fourth of the females to report gender not a factor sounds, well, a bit odd, especially as I look more closely at the other numbers and read through some of the comments that were offered in the open-ended followup question (Q41). That said, perhaps these numbers nod at the points I made above.

What we do see very clearly in the data below is that that by a very wide margin, gender is a more negative factor for females than for males, with 39% of the females indicating that their gender was a negative factor compared to only 7% of the males indicating the same.

Q 40:  To what extent has your gender been a factor in your humanitarian aid work experience?

Screenshot 2015-10-26 11.42.15

Combined responses:

Screenshot 2015-10-26 11.46.47


In the words of women -and men- in the field
Among the 443 (thank you all!) that provided a response in the followup open ended question (Q41) several themes and patterns emerge.

Gender impacts both relationships with colleagues in the aid worker industry and those with the non-aid workers (both aid/support beneficiaries and non-beneficiary community members) in both negative and positive ways. Below are examples.

  • “It’s been creeping up on me … I never thought it is an issue but over the years I did notice that it is. Either with project clients and sometimes with colleagues.” (30+yo female expat aid worker)
  • “I would say the positive aspects outweigh the negative. As a woman, I have been able to work with women and children in communities more closely than if I was a man. I also feel blessed to have close female friends in this field and we try to support and nurture each other as much as possible. I have not witnessed men bonding in this way. However, I have experienced sexism and harassment quite a bit in the course of my work. In some countries the harassment was significant and carried with it the threat of violence. On a couple of occasions I have not received jobs due to my gender. I have also experienced female bullying.” (41+y0 female expat aid worker)

These next ones gets pretty specific regarding power dynamics and expresses anger that I suspect may generate some head nods among the women reading this post.

  • “Because white women like me can still be viewed negatively, dismissed, ignored, by other white men – yes, really. So, a white woman in a senior position in Africa? Tough. African men ignore me routinely, especially if I am in the company of a male colleague, I may as well not be there sometimes. Only when they realise they need me to get to the money, do they talk to me. By then it is too late. Enough assholes in aid work, I am not supporting those who do not acknowledge a white woman.”  (31+yo female expat air worker)
  • More risk associated with being alone/out Sometimes I get the sense that people don’t take what I’m saying as seriously, and I noticed they’ll look to or defer to the man in the group, even if I’m the one in the position to answer/position of authority.

The next few examples highlight the nuance of gender impact and, importantly, voice clearly the point that in gender stratified cultures getting free access to -and generating a sense of trust with-women is much easier for female aid workers.

  • “My answer will change based on the day. It is definitely a large factor but in some instances it is positive and in others it is negative. I deal regularly with sexist rules and comments made by other expat staff members who I am sure do not even realize what they are saying or doing (e.g. no you cannot ride a bike, no you cannot drive a car. you are too emotional you must not be able to cope with stress. no you cannot attend this meeting with us, etc. etc.) When dealing with locals I have found that being a woman is often a positive as people seemScreenshot 2014-07-22 18.02.25 to open up and trust women more than men and are more likely to feel they must take care of a woman, therefore offering me more access to people’s homes to be able to talk to them.” (41+y0 female expat aid worker)
  • Being a woman can be exceedingly difficult, especially in conflict zones where I’m working with mostly men. All of the decisions are based on a 2-dimensional perspective. It takes a lot of explaining to bring about a holistic approach and/or incorporate the lives of women in planning. Sometimes, as an expat woman, I’m considered androgynous and given the same access as a male. But that can also be isolating, depending on the context since I end up in the male category and have to fight to speak to a woman or plan things that factor in women’s lives. Sometimes, I’m a critical bridge between the women/vulnerable and decision makers, a “voice” for women when they’re kept out of the process. That can also be a burden if decision makers are expecting you to be the voice for millions of women.  (40+yo female expat aid worker)
  • In my organization, “rank and file” staff at HQ level are dominated by young women, whereas senior managers and leadership continue to be dominated by men. This is changing, but still observable. In the HQ setting, being a driven female was positive because my motivation was rewarded with opportunities. In the field, the overwhelming majority of “rank and file” staff (local nationals) are men, as well as heads of local organizations and government, and often fairly traditional. This made being a senior leader challenging at times, as I had to work harder to earn respect from my male counterparts.

More thoughts on safety, sexism and the advantages of being a female
Many respondents referred to the fact that being a woman carried -or was perceived to carry- more risk:

  • This was a challenging question. While I don’t feel I have ever been discriminated against for being female in my job, there are certain implications. In my organization, the majority of staff at HQ are actually female – so I am at a slight disadvantage were I to try and work at HQ. In the field it is different – there are some perceptions by male coworkers that some deployment areas are ‘too dangerous’ for women so this can limit your movement.
  • It’s been difficult in two ways: 1. There is certainly an “old boys network” in my work context. My bosses are more likely to listen to other male workers’ opinions, especially on academic or theoretical topics. 2. Being a woman in a Central American context is frustrating on a daily level (catcalls, threats to security) which I think decreases my productivity.
  • I have experienced sexual harassment from “locals” and staff alike too many times to count. I have at times felt like a liability to male staff when confronted with armed groups who use the threat of rape and kidnap of females as pressure to get what they want. I also believe my gender has enabled me to connect with children despite language barriers and open conversations that may not have happened otherwise.
  • The only issue that my gender has caused is that it was a factor in deciding whether or not to go to work in Afghanistan. That’s the only time it has influenced any decision I’ve made.
  • In a lot of countries being a woman means working ten times harder than men just to be taken seriously (even by your own colleagues). And I have been in situations when me being a woman put me in more physical danger.

This pity response provides a great summary of the above:
Sometimes positive (interviewing female participants) and other times more dangerous.

Which is the most salient demographic variable?  In many cultures (most?) age is traditionally a major factor regarding to whom respect and attention is given.  The first comment below captures just that, and the second one, from a male, illustrates that even physical stature can have an impact.

  • I think as a woman, there are still issues in respecting me in some cases, likely. I think my age (I’m still young compared to most local colleagues) has probably been a bigger factor than my gender though.
  • Being a (tall) male has helped to gain respect, especially among beneficiary communities and local partners.

Being able to access female beneficiaries is critical and is an advantage for females.

  • Being a woman can sometimes help in communication and negotiation
  • When I am able to work directly with poor or marginalized women in visual storytelling processes, my gender creates a more open and safe environment for them. As such, I always ask for a female translator, if needed, when working with women.
  • It has been relatively easy to speak with authority figures in other countries as a male, however I know how much is lost because I have not been able to speak to some females in some countries. (male expat aid worker)

Here is the view of the same situation from a few male expat aid workers stressing the access issue:

  • Being male, and given the strong pro-male bias in all developing countries, it makes the decision making aspect and coordination aspects of the work easier; however, due to my focus on maternal health, it is a problem in getting full access to women in all cultural contexts and when you do have to do a needs assessment or medical interview, you may not get all the information you need, you need to rely on translations that are often not so good.
  • It has been relatively easy to speak with authority figures in other countries as a male, however I know how much is lost because I have not been able to speak to some females in some countries.
  • In most of the world, being male has come with added respect, increased security access, and the ability to bully when necessary. Unfortunately, i don’t have access to the female voice.

This final thought comes from Annalisa Addis, a female aid worker who wonderfully sums up most of the above.

“Regarding Q40, a partial explanation of why so many respondents said that gender was “not a factor at all” might be due to how the question was formulated (i.e. too generic and/or lacking a “mixed impact” answer). Let me elaborate a bit. It is clear that gender might play a role in several aspects of the life of an aid worker: for instance in their recruitment, in their interactions with their bosses, in their interactions with local colleagues, in establishing relationship with beneficiaries, in the way they spend their free time, and so on. For some of these things, being a woman might be detrimental (e.g. personal security), but for others it can be an advantage (e.g. easier access to female beneficiaries). Some people (like me) may feel that, on average, the impact of their gender is neither negative nor positive, and thus they may have chosen “no impact”. But literally speaking, “no impact at all” is very different from “there are both positive aspects and negative ones, but I can’t choose which one is stronger as they somehow even each other out”. I bet that you would have gotten different percentages had you asked to evaluate how gender has affected a series of separate things (for instance: recruitment, professional relationships within the office, professional relationship with local authorities, life outside of the office).”

Some take-home thoughts
imagesBeing a female aid worker is, in sum, not the same as being a male aid worker in many, many ways.  The quantitative results from our main question highlighted the fact that one’s gender is more of a negative factor for women. The qualitative data produced the insight that though there are negatives and positives of being a female when working with colleagues as well as with beneficiaries and locals, the negatives working with colleagues were much more commonly cited than the negatives when working with beneficiaries or locals.  Indeed, what I am reading is that in terms of doing her job, being a female was frequently a distinct disadvantage.

One take-home point from all of the above is that aid and development organizations recruiting and hoping to retain qualified females need to be constantly aware of the impact of gender and ceaselessly work to minimize the negatives in whatever ways they can. They should begin by hearing the voices of the women already in their ranks and using their insights and growth to support those who come behind them, both males and females.  A second and critical point is that the gender mix of the team in any aid situation needs scrutiny and work needs to be done to insure maximum effective use of gender differences.  Finally, this comment from a male expat aid worker nails much of the above pretty well.

“I find that most people in this sector are women. They have a monopoly on a lot of jobs around gender and child welfare. So for a man, it is good as we are under-represented in a lot of areas. Having said that, it seems to me that there are too many men at the top end of the sector, and this should perhaps change, although I think the humanitarian sector must be better than average regarding equality.”

With regard to the different demographics variables (gender, age, ethnicity, nationality) and how all of them, not just gender interact is critical.  There is a growing literature about “intersectionality” focusing on how an individual’s many biological and social identity characteristics interact on multiple levels, and for me this phenomena is even more complicated when imagining how aid worker identity is understood both from a first person perspective and in the eye’s of the beneficiaries.

In the words of Annalisa Addis (cited above),

“In the context of aid work, all these things get reshuffled, so being a woman might actually be an advantage (or a non-issue) in certain situations, but you may still get problems (or special treatment) due to your skin colour, or your age. At the end of the day, you are ALL these things at once – what changes are the implications attached to each of them, and which ones prevail. This resonates with those respondents who felt sort of genderless, but very much racialised, in the context of aid work. Crucially, intersectionality illuminates why the simple fact of “being a woman” is not sufficient to make any sort of generalisation (you need to differentiate among women of different ethnicities, from different backgrounds, of different age groups, etc.). Local authorities may listen to NGO country directors regardless of their gender, because they can provide or withold critical resources: in this case power is more relevant than gender, but there may be millions of examples where other considerations prevail.”

There is so much more to report from our survey data about this general topic, so stay tuned.  In my next posts I’ll comment more about gender differences and about the impact of all of the social variables on the lives of aid workers.  Perhaps the sociologist Irving Goffman was on to something when he said “This special kind of institutional arrangement [that we find ourself in] does not so much support the self as constitute it.” Indeed, in many respects we are as others see us, like it or not.

Thoughts, questions or comments?  Reach me via email.

Special thanks go to Annalisa Addis who contributed to this post.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:


Comments are closed.