© Helvetas

Leadership Skills for Women and Men Staff

Management and leadership skills can and should be consciously trained, and prevailing gender patterns must be actively countered.
FROM: Jane Carter – 06. October 2016
© Helvetas

Probably all international development organisations have some sort of written commitment to upholding gender equality and diversity within their internal organisation. At Helvetas, we have such a principle in our gender and social equity policy – but what matters is being proactive about putting policy into practice.

Numbers of women and men staff
Staffing figures in our partner countries show that, overall, we employ far more men than women, although averages mask many differences. Thus 33% of our staff in partner countries are women, and 34% of our managerial staff are women – but in Latin America, there is almost gender parity in staffing, whilst in Africa and Asia, less than 30% of our employees are women. In countries in the latter category, we may practice affirmative action in recruitment – Nepal provides one example.

Why do numbers matter?
Of course preaching equal opportunities for women and men when implementing activities in the field would ring rather hollow if we failed to do the same within our organisation. In many situations, it is also far easier – and sometimes only possible – to have access to women through women staff (this was true, for example, in the Pakistan situation recently documented). More than this, however, is the argument that diversity within an organisation is a strength in itself – bringing different opinions, ideas and experiences, and thus fostering innovation and creativity. That is certainly the argument commonly found in the private sector.

Leadership skills for diversity
Monitoring numbers of women staff, both overall and in leadership positions, is just a starting point. There is a lot more that can be done, as nicely observed by our Executive Director, Melchior Lengsfeld:

“Not so long ago, we still worked under the assumption that on the job learning of leadership skills is fully sufficient. And that men and women would have automatic equal access to leadership roles. Today, we know that this is not automatically true. Management and leadership skills can and should be consciously trained, and prevailing gender patterns must be actively countered.”

These words were written in support of a staff workshop on leadership skills that we held last week in Colombo, bringing together 30 staff members from a total of 14 different countries. Of them, 24 were middle level managers proposed by their senior management. The remaining six were individuals already in senior managerial positions – people who will take particular responsibility for a wider sharing of the workshop outcomes within the organisation. The ratio of women to men was much debated, but was fixed at 2 to 1, as this reversed the current overall norm. The male participants accepted this with some humour and no apparent unease, whilst a number of women participants said that being in a majority gave them more confidence to express themselves openly. With the skills and knowledge that they had gained by the end of the week, I trust that this confidence will remain.

Theory, practice and commitments
We had an excellent professional trainer, Pamela Lupton-Bowers, and in three days managed to cover a range of theories, practical exercises and a (hypothetical) case study that provoked a lot of reflection. A day of visiting three companies that explicitly promote women in their workforce then stimulated further thought, and reinforced the “business case” for gender-responsive leadership. On our final day together, we discussed and agreed a series of next steps – at an individual and organisational level. On the latter, for example, we can be confident as a result of an external analysis that in Switzerland there is equal pay between women and men for equal work. We need to check that the same is true – that there is no gender pay gap – in all our country programmes (pay and conditions being subject to national laws, this is more complicated than it sounds).

“Interesting” “motivating”, “inspiring”, “productive”, “memorable” were some of the adjectives used by the participants at the end of the workshop. Whether relatively senior or junior, we all took away skills to promote healthy team interactions at the same time as an awareness of the pitfalls of gender stereotyping and the unconscious biases that exist in us all. Particular observations in this regard include that of my colleague Nenad Celarevic from Serbia, “I would say that one of my key learnings is that I need to be less competitive towards my female colleagues – that is not because of my generosity, but bearing in mind one of the key values of the organisation”.

We are planning follow-up interactions with all participants, to see how everyone gets on.

Director, Programme Development
Jane Carter