How to Design for Diverse and Gender Inclusive Humanitarian Organizations

Illustration by Ailadi.

By Annie Neimand, Ph.D., Lauren Parater and Eugenia Blaubach

UNHCR’s Innovation Service believes that diversity of thought — the cognitive diversity that benefits from different experiences and perspectives — leads to more creativity and innovation. Over the past two years, we’ve undertaken an exploration of diversity and inclusion to help us better understand how these issues intersect and impact humanitarian innovation. This research is the latest addition to our continuous work on these issues and the UN Refugee Agency’s collaboration with the Center for Public Interest Communications.

Many organizations in the humanitarian sector are working to build more diverse and inclusive workplaces. However, like many sectors, the color of someone’s skin, their ethnic background, sexual identity, citizenship, and gender identity (among many other differences) all intersect to impact their ability to join and feel welcomed by an organization. People of color, ethnic minorities, white women, gender-nonconforming people, and lesbians and gay men systematically face unequal access to job opportunities because of implicit biases built into the policies and practices of the workplace.

Building more inclusive and diverse organizations requires that organizations in the humanitarian sector understand the behavioral, social and psychological factors that create these environments, and implement evidence-based strategies to counter them.

To begin to understand how these biases work within an organization and potential interventions, this report examines the roots of implicit gender bias and what academic research tells us about how the humanitarian sector can work to overcome them. Gender always intersects with race, class, sexuality, and citizenship. However, research suggests that interventions that might work to build a more inclusive environment for people of different races, may backfire when applied to women. In reality, we are all always both our race and our gender, academics, however, tend to study interventions through a particular lens, like race or gender.

As a starting point for identifying evidence-based interventions for diversity and inclusion, the interventions shared here are those that have been studied in the context of gender. When working to eradicate racism, classism, and xenophobia, different evidence-based interventions will likely be needed.

Gender Bias in the Humanitarian Sector

Considerable work has been done to address differences in how men and women are treated in the humanitarian sector. Yet, there remains a challenge in closing the gender gap within the sector. According to the report Women in Humanitarian Leadership, “In the humanitarian sector women still have limited access to positions of leadership”(Domingo 2013).

In the United Nations system, women comprise 42.8 percent of all employees, with a much greater concentration of women at the entry-level (UN Women 2016), and as of January 2016, only nine of the 29 UN Humanitarian Coordinators were women (31 percent) (UNDG 2016). Data from the UN Secretariat Gender Parity Dashboard shows that women make up 39% of international staff, as compared to 61% of men. Women from the UN Secretariat predominantly hold positions in non-field based operations (71%) and only make-up 29% of staff in the field, where men’s positions are more equally divided between inside and outside of the field (46% vs 54%).

Linda Raftree, a consultant who has worked in the aid sector, told Reuters in a piece on Oxfam that “women employees struggle to climb the ladder, partly because they often specialize in areas that are not a route to the top jobs, and may not want to go drinking or hang out in the ‘dude space’. In developing-country offices of international agencies, local female staff put up with a lot because they are worried about losing prized jobs in places where women’s rights may garner little respect. Up to now, the aid sector has not been perceived as having ‘institutional issues’ with sexism and racism, but these are ‘manifesting themselves at every level.’”

At the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), for example, the organization has come quite far in advancing toward parity among professional staff. Yet, they still struggle to achieve gender parity among affiliate staff- those on contract- which is predominantly women. Women tend to get stuck in the affiliate workforce, while men are able to move to more secure contracts. However, they have built-in new temporary measures across position levels such as a requirement that two-thirds of persons shortlisted are women and the prioritization of women when the choice between candidates is equal. These measures are in place until parity is achieved. Women who apply to the organization who have left in the last five years are also given priority. Within the first year, the organization has seen a 1% increase in balance and a higher number of women promoted.

It is not that humanitarian organizations do not see gender diversity and inclusion as critical to their mandate and mission. So, why does this disparity continue to persist? While there are certainly a number of factors, including outright discrimination, a “boys clubs” mentality, people recruiting from their personal networks that tend to look more like them, and tensions between family and work responsibilities, researchers have notably identified implicit gender bias that permeates organizational culture and workplace policy and procedures as a leading factor.

How does gender bias work?

Gender scholars suggest that people rely on shared cultural stereotypes to categorize “who” we and others are within a situation. Known as a heuristic or frame, stereotypes are the common images and stories people remember that inform their immediate impressions of and responses to people in various situations. These impressions are often made and used unconsciously and automatically by people to navigate social situations (Biebly, 2000; Heilman, 2012).

Image: How gender stereotypes bias evaluations (Correll, 2017)

Sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway (2009) writes:

“Social-cognition studies show that in fact, we automatically and nearly instantly sex categorize any specific person to whom we attempt to relate (Ito and Urland 2003; Stangor et al. 1992). We do this not just in person but also over the Internet and even imaginatively, as we examine a person’s resume or think about the kind of person we would like to hire. Studies show that Americans categorize others they encounter on black or white race almost instantly as well (Ito and Urland 2003)…We so instantly sex-categorize others that our subsequent categorizations of them as, say, bosses or coworkers are nested in our prior understandings of them as male or female and take on slightly different meanings as a result (Brewer and Lui 1989; Fiske 1998). This initial framing by sex never quite disappears from our understanding of them or ourselves in relation to them. Thus, we frame and are framed by gender literally before we know it.”

This cognitive process leads to gender bias. Importantly, gender is not binary. The sex one is born with does not determine their gender identity. Gender is a continuum and is fluid. Some people identify as either male or female and culturally normative gender roles, and there are some people who identify as gender non binary, queer or transgender (Neimand, 2016; Lorber and Farrell, 1999; Schilt and Westbrook, 2009). Depending on how a person presents themselves (gender-conforming or not) will influence how others respond to them. Impressions are made automatically based on previous knowledge of non binary people.

Bias can manifest when employees or job candidates are evaluated for hire, promotions or job assignments. Shelley Correll, Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, explains that men and women who are equally qualified are often evaluated differently — especially when evaluation criteria are vague or when information about their performance is scarce. This is because, in situations of ambiguity, people unconsciously pull information from gender stereotypes to fill the gaps in their knowledge, which leads them to base decisions on assumptions instead of facts (Correll, 2017).

“At an unconscious or implicit level, people categorize others on dimensions of race and sex in a matter of milliseconds,” Correll explained in an interview for this project. “As soon as that happens, stereotypes about race and gender affect what they expect of that person. But, when people can’t see the race or gender, when they can’t race categorize or sex categorize, they can’t go on to be biased against them.” This is why, for example, some organizations elect to remove names from job applications.

Gender stereotypes can influence evaluations in three main ways. First, women are held to a higher bar, needing more rigorous proof of their abilities to be considered as qualified as their male counterparts (Correll, 2017; Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham, and Handelsman, 2012; Steinpreis, Anders, and Ritzke, 1999).

Second, for women to be perceived as competent, they must be self-promotional and show ambition (Correll, 2017; Phelan, Moss‐Racusin, and Rudman, 2008). However, researchers found that this behavior places women in a double bind. Women who display these behaviors are often perceived as less likeable, while men engaging in the same behaviors are not (Correll, 2017).

Third, gender stereotypes may cause people to shift evaluation criteria in favor of men when evaluating candidates for traditionally male-dominated occupations (Norton, Vandello, & Darley 2004).

While there are multiple factors driving gender discrimination in the workplace, understanding the role of implicit bias is critical for designing solutions. In the next article, we will discuss 5 ways to outsmart gender bias through evidence-based design interventions.

Thank you to Carolie Harper Jantuah, Dr. Shelly Correll, and Dr. Allison Wynn for their time and insight for this project.

You can discover the article of this series, “Outsmart Gender Bias through Design” here.

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About the project

In an effort to move past communication strategies that simply “raise awareness” of an issue, the UN Refugee Agency and the University of Florida partnered to better understand how science can connect individuals with calls to actions that will result in lasting difference on the issues that matter most.

This research project shares theory and science that helps us understand how people think and act, and is designed to help you incorporate those insights into your work. Each article theme has robust empirical and theoretical findings and debates. We’ve sought to include the works of prominent scholars to get you started, and hope to spark your desire for further exploration. You can discover more about our collaboration and additional research on topics such as xenophobia and climate change displacement on our website, “Bending the Arc”.

More resources

We encourage you to explore the work done by The Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. For more on gender bias, check out these resources.

We also encourage you to read What Works: Gender Equality by Design, by Iris Bohnet, and Framed By Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World, by Cecilia Ridgeway.


  1. Schilt and Westbrook ( 2009) write, “The persistence of gender inequality is well documented within sociology. Behind this reproduction of inequality are cultural schemas about the naturalness of a binary gender system in which there are two, and only two, genders that derive from biology (chromosomes and genitalia) (West and Zimmerman 1987). These schemas constitute and are constituted by our current gender order — the patterns of power relations between men and women that shape norms for femininity and masculinity by defining what is gender-appropriate in arenas such as romantic partner selection, occupational choice, and parental roles. The gender order is hierarchical, which means there is consistently a higher value on masculinity than on femininity (Connell 1987; Schippers 2007)….In many social interactions, transgender people’s private bodies matter little, as — if they “pass” in their desired social gender — their appearance is taken to be proof of their biological sex.”

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