Musings on research, international development and other stuff


International development and the ‘f’ word

I’m not sure if I have mentioned it, but I am kinda into gender equity.

Or, more precisely, I am a card-carrying, misogyny-hating, bra-burning*, don’t-you-dare-tell-me-I-can’t-do-that-just-cus-I-have-a-uterus kind of feminist.

Most of my friends are similarly inclined** and thus, recently, I got into a discussion about how feminism relates to international development. We talked about two facets – how feminist is the international development movement in its actions and how feminist is the international development industry as an employer.

The answer to the first question seems obvious: development is obsessed with gender issues and supporting women and girls. Surely it is more feminist than Caitlin Moran reading the Female Eunuch while chanting suffragette slogans? Well, sometimes. It is true that many of those working on projects for women and girls, regardless of gender, are feminist in thought and action. But my friends and I also noted that projects targeting women are particularly susceptible to the ‘white saviour’ myth; there are some who love the idea of parachuting in to save poor vulnerable women from primitive conditions. This type of rhetoric frequently comes from men, but not always. In fact, it is particularly prevalent in that most un-feminist of publication – the women’s glossy magazine. Inserted between articles about why you should feel inadequate about your body or spend ridiculous amounts of money on your appearance, there is often an article about someone who has gone out to Africa to save the poor vulnerable and helpless women there.

breakout sessionsThis patronising approach is popular with celebrities aiming to show their caring side – but to some extent it can seep into serious development agencies. One of my friends, a gender specialist, described a recent development conference she had attended. She noted that during the tea breaks, there was a good mix of genders but when the breakout sessions started the (mainly male) economists and political scientists went off to discuss the meaty governance issues while the (mainly female) social development and gender specialists were ushered into rooms to discuss more ‘fluffy’ issues. It drove my friend mad. She didn’t think gender should be reduced to ’boutique’ projects about disadvantaged women but that rather there was a need to think about power relationships much more generally. She said she felt like shouting “I want to talk about gender-sensitive tax regimes not about periods (well, not always but I reserve the right to also be allowed to talk about that too but at my choosing!)!”

So what about the development industry as an employer – to what extent does it support, promote and empower women? In my career, I have encountered the odd sexist person, but have generally found that the people and organisations I work with promote gender equity more than seems to be the case in many other industries. Actually, in some cases I have assumed that someone has a problem with women but have later discovered they are just downright rude – in a gender non-specific manner. My other development friends reported a range of experiences on this – some, like me, had not found sexism too much a problem but others had encountered it frequently.

But whether or not people are overtly sexist, there are structural issues in the industry which may disproportionately impede women. I will give a couple of examples.


The point at which the conversation turns to competitive development stories is definitely the time to LEAVE the bar…

Development people are preoccupied with the level of experience that people have ‘in the field’. This is completely justified – I have witnessed the problems you can get when people who have no clue about life in developing countries are managing development programmes, particularly if they don’t have insight into their own lack of knowledge. However, this principle is sometimes used as an excuse for a slightly macho bragging culture and, at times, downright rudeness towards those who are perceived as being less experienced. Unfortunately, people who are more introverted, younger and/or female seem to be disproportionately targeted in this way. And thus I have seen some very unedifying meetings in which a collection of people who have happened to be mainly male have acted in a very discourteous and disrespectful way towards a collection of people who have happened to be mainly female. I suspect these people are not sexist per se – but the combination of their assumptions and their bad manners can still result in gender discrimination. In fact, I suspect that such attitudes probably have a disproportionate effect on other groups as well – including those who come from poorer backgrounds who perhaps don’t have the same level of self-assurance that a lifetime of relative privilege brings with it.

Another issue is that certain groups may genuinely be less able to gather ‘field experience’ – but may have much to offer. Parents with caring responsibilities may not be able to travel overseas at short notice – and, although this is slowly changing, this currently disproportionately affects mothers. Once again, women are not the only group disadvantaged in this way; individuals with physical disabilities may not be able to travel to all locations while people with mental illnesses may struggle with the emotional impact of overseas travel.

None of these issues are insurmountable – but it is important to at least recognise that the industry is set up to favour cis-gender, straight, able-bodied, white, middle/upper class men. By starting with this knowledge, it is possible to consider what actions we can take to improve opportunities for a variety of groups – including women.


*Of course I don’t really burn bras since EU regulations have made them all flame-retardant. They spoil all our fun.

** To be honest, I kind of expect you are too. My view on feminism is summed up by comedian Azis Ansari when he says:

‘If you believe that men and women have equal rights, and then someone asks you if you’re a feminist, you have to say yes. Because that’s how words work. You can’t be like, “Yeah, I’m a doctor who primarily does diseases of the skin.” “Oh, so you’re a dermatologist?” “Oh that’s way too aggressive of a word, not at all, not at all.”’