How you can take simple actions for gender equity in the workplace

© UNHCR/Heather Perry

By Caroline Harper Jantuah, Senior Advisor — Inclusion, Diversity and Gender Equity

New ways of thinking and innovation are really important to our organisation. Whilst the prime cause of our work has not changed, the scale and the nature of the issues we seek to address has. We cannot hope to solve them with old solutions or traditional ways of thinking. Hence our ability to innovate becomes a core competence — new ideas, new strategies, new ways of engaging and relating have become critical to our organisation’s ability to adapt and respond to ever-changing challenges.

Women at the table in our strategy and decision-making sessions bring their own characteristic approaches to leading and managing. Women have different life experiences to men and therefore when they are involved, they bring a different perspective to the table. The majority of the people we serve are women and children — seeing women in our workforce is reassuring for them and instils confidence that as an organisation we are in a position to better understand and provide for their needs. Men and women have different life experiences and see the world differently — having access to this diversity better ensures we look at the issues we are trying to resolve from multiple angles.

Additionally, there’s a lot of evidence to show that women are quite naturally talented with the 21st century competencies that really make a difference — more naturally collaborative and inclusive; stronger empathy skills; stronger in diplomacy skills, interpersonal and communication skills; there is evidence to show that the attention to integrity increases as does the attention to impact of decisions on others when there is greater gender balance.

Women are no less ambitious than men, however, their criteria for success may differ; incorporating a more holistic basket of considerations. It is clear from surveys, and from our data analyses that their experiences in the organisation are different by virtue of being female. For example, there are quite a few functional areas where there are fewer women than men — partially because women are not typically associated with careers in those fields — e.g. in ICT; in Field Safety; in Registration; shelter and physical planning to name a few — but also in operational data management; public health/HIV, Project financial control — women are succeeding less well than men. Similarly, in terms of rates of progress to senior level roles — a challenge is to shift the tendency for appointments to go to more men than equally qualified women. I believe there is both an individual and systemic, largely unconscious, bias in the system where we struggle to associate leadership with our women.

Another major challenge is our mandatory rotation system which has a more adverse impact on women than men; especially those women with children. It makes it more difficult for them to balance their career ambitions with other commitments. The majority of our locations are in the deep-field and the conditions are arduous. Also, the cultural context of the location often makes living and working there more of a challenge for women. We notice that women in UNHCR are more likely to remain single and tend to have fewer children than their male colleagues. Acknowledging and tackling such systematic biases is a key challenge for the organisation in its pursuit of gender equity.

The review of our progress in respect of Inclusion, Diversity and Gender Equity in 2015 highlighted that whilst we had made some progress there is still much work to be done to ensure that we have an environment that supports the diversity of our workforce and approaches our work with an inclusive mindset.

There is a responsibility on the part of the organisation to ensure that we put in place checks and balances around gender equity, and that we implement processes and policies. But I would say first and foremost it has to start with each of us at a very individual and personal level. We can make a lot of difference if we take an honest look at our own behaviours and take the time to uncover what our unconscious biases might be from a gender and diversity perspective. It’s vital that we actually take time to stop and reflect on how our behaviours may be contributing to this. Unconscious bias is something we all have; learning more about our biases and taking steps to mitigate the negative impact is key.

Let us not underestimate the power of small changes in our daily actions. These can be very simple things like stopping to consider who it is you go to for consulting on a particular issue — how diverse is that go-to group of people? How can you mix that up? Another example is in terms of meetings. Who is invited to the meeting and how diverse is that group? Once you get to the meeting, whose voice is heard? Do you notice those who are not getting the opportunity to speak up? I think these small things can have a huge impact on the quality of the work environment and how inclusive it actually is. Another important way we can advance gender equity is speaking up when we see unfair practices against our colleagues. The responsibility for changing the experience of women in UNHCR is all of ours to share. What concrete steps will you take today to play your part?

Discover more explorations in inclusion, diversity, gender equity and innovation from UNHCR’s Innovation Service at:

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and…

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