Women of Colour in Aid Industry: How we Fare and How we Fight Back

6 min readOct 23, 2019

Whilst women writ large are making progress in fighting for equality and a seat at the table, women of colour are being left behind. Across industries, women of colour face heightened discrimination based on their gender and their race: they move up the career ladder slower or not at all, and are less likely to receive critical support from supervisors, without which career growth remains elusive. These challenges to growth are additionally compounded by the aid industry — where staff are more accustomed to seeing women of colour on the other side of the beneficiary line than leading a Humanitarian Country Team meeting. This article seeks to shed light on on-going structural discrimination posed specifically to women of colour and evidenced-based strategies that can empower us to supersede the many obstacles that stand in our way.

The Problem

A 2018 report by Quantum Impact indicates that women of colour face significant professional hurdles including lack of advancements in their careers and the feeling of being invisible, underrepresentation in senior positions, lack of feedback from their supervisors and under-pay as compared to their peers.

A 2017 Race to Lead: Women of Color in the Nonprofit Sector report shows that most women of colour indicate their race has had a more negative impact on their career than their gender. The report shows that 49% of women of colour aspire for leading roles in their organizations. However, despite being qualified for these senior roles, their ambitions are largely ignored by their organizations. The result? Women of colour are also woefully underrepresented at senior levels across industries and notably in the humanitarian sector. A report by Quantum Impact found that of the 162 organizations analyzed, over half did not have people of colour in leadership roles. The findings from Quantum also indicate that organizations rarely have women of colour in leadership positions. These findings are similar to the Race to Lead and Women of Color in the Nonprofit Sector data which suggest that it is less likely for a woman of colour to hold a senior position and be taken seriously.

Part of what accounts for women stagnating on the professional ladder is that they are not receiving the critical feedback necessary to advance, as noted in the Race to Lead report. This lack of feedback results in women of colour remaining stagnant in their organization, despite having additional degrees and exerting efforts to meet professional standards.

A woman of colour would have to work till August 29, 2019, to earn what a white man was paid at the end of 2018 — Equal Pay

Differences in Earnings is also a key finding in the report: despite holding advanced degrees and having the same qualifications as white men and men of colour the report finds that 23% of women of colour still earn less than their colleagues. Women typically earn less than men and women of colour especially earn less than white women. According to Equal Pay, a woman of colour would have to work till August 29, 2019, to earn what a white man was paid at the end of 2018.

Women of Colour in Aid Speak Out

Rosalia Gitau, a co-founder of Humanitarian Women’s Network, notes that: “From day one I stood out, not because of my traits or skills but because I am a woman and also a brown person. Most of the communities we work with look like me but nearly none of the decision-makers ever did and this power dynamic carries over into the office and back into our work in the field”. Her take on the change: “The humanitarian system must acknowledge that women of colour are being subject to heightened discrimination by asking us about our professional experiences and then empowering us to do something about it.”

Aliya Abidi, who works in child protection with Terre Des Homme, had this to say: “There is a lack of representation for women of colour, even when we have much to say our voices and opinions do not hold much weight.” she goes on to mention not being able to be yourself because of wanting to fit into what is expected from you.

Overcoming the Hurdles: What you can do
Despite the hurdles women of colour experience, Elevate Network suggests three ways in which women of colour can manoeuvre and rise above the challenges.

1. Don’t Downplay Our Skills: According to the Centre for women policy, 21% of women of colour are unable to be themselves and often mask who they are at work. They refrain from speaking up and giving their opinion for fear of being ridiculed or ignored. This self-censoring has an impact on standing out to senior leadership, the gatekeepers for career advancement. As women of colour looking to excel and succeed in the workplace, we need to make a concerted effort to overcome our fears and showcase our authentic selves.

2. Identify Our Strength: As women of colour, being overlooked is one of the obstacles that we are constantly going to face. One way to overcome that is by excelling at a skill that sheds light on our competence and professionalism. Elevate Network suggests developing a skill set that makes you indispensable: a competency that your organization needs but doesn’t yet have yet on-staff or that you perform exceptionally well.

3. Keep Showing Up: The hurdles women of colour face may inspire professional apathy or career drop-out. However, despite our hard work going unnoticed, we must keep our consistency up and bring our best to the table. Start by taking stock of why you joined your organization and take note of 3 professional achievements/skills you hope to get out of it — and work towards them. You’re at work as much for yourself as for others, prioritize your ambitions and goals, especially if the organization does not.

To date, there is no data from the UN or leading humanitarian NGOs as to how women of colour are treated in the workplace.

Overcoming Hurdles: What Organizations Can Do

The aid sector needs to realise that women of colour aid professionals are systemically discriminated against and that this discrimination is harming the overall work of the organization and its staff. Hiring a token woman of colour will not suffice. The Harvard Business Review suggests 3 way organizations can do better by women of colour:

1. Representation: Organizations need to dismantle systemic barriers around women of colour by ensuring adequate representation and setting up anti-discrimination policies. As seen in the above reports, 19% of women of colour are qualified for higher positions. Organizations should take notice and assign more responsibility that will enable women of colour to contribute to their organizations more substantively.

2. Issue Feedback: Data shows that most women of colour would like to hear feedback from their seniors and get assigned to more tasks that would challenge them. Organizations need to look into setting up policies that focus on diversity programmes where managers learn to give regular feedback to women of colour.

3. Identify Bias: According to Women in the Workplace report, only 18% of organizations check for bias on gender and race. The number should be higher. Moreover, both the number of women of colour being hired and their assigned roles should be regularly reviewed by a diverse panel trained in detecting systemic unconscious bias.

To date, there is no data from the UN or leading humanitarian NGOs as to how women of colour are currently being treated in the workplace — and this is a gap in need of closing. The aid sector’s main goal is to protect and assist: and this needs to start at home. Women of colour are hard-working, driven and ready to take up important roles, we should not be left behind.