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Women in Humanitarian Leadership – Where are they?

Globally, women remain underrepresented in leadership across sectors.

Those women who do manage to break through the barriers can expect to be remunerated significantly less than their male counterparts. New research by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), detailed in the 2016 Gender Equality Scorecard, has found that full-time female employees in Australia take home just 77 per cent of men’s average full-time income – a staggering $27,000 less. Despite making up half of the nation’s workforce, women hold just 16.3 per cent of CEO positions and 37.4 per cent of all manager roles. Only one out of every six CEOs in Australia is a woman. Women not only remain underrepresented in leadership roles, but they’re disadvantaged in the path to attaining them; as women’s careers progress, their representation declines, along with their opportunities.

How do women in the humanitarian sector fare comparatively?

Recent research being conducted by Humanitarian Advisory Group and Centre for Humanitarian Leadership suggests that the challenges facing women aspiring to leadership in the humanitarian sector are as pervasive as in other sectors. In the humanitarian sector women still have limited access to positions of leadership. The humanitarian workforce worldwide consists largely of women, up to 75 per cent in fact, but as of January 2016, only 9 of the 29 UN Humanitarian Coordinators worldwide are women (just 31 per cent). Barriers to women’s leadership in the humanitarian sector are diverse, including attitudinal and cultural barriers, lack of pipeline, self-confidence gap, lack of effective networks and mentors, non-family postings, and bias (both conscious and unconscious). The tension between professional roles and caring responsibilities may explain why some women self-select out of leadership roles.

Discourse surrounding the recent US election and Donald Trump’s ultimate victory over Hillary Clinton, an exceptionally qualified female candidate, has focussed on analysing the impact of gender on Clinton’s inability to break the “highest and hardest glass ceiling”, the gendered nature of the election’s media coverage, and the way sexism is still used to delegitimise and invalidate women in, or seeking, power. The recent appointment of the United Nations Secretary-General has also been analysed in terms of the challenges for women to reach high profile positions, with Antonio Guterres (former head of UNHCR and former Prime Minister of Portugal) being appointed as the new UN Secretary-General ahead of several credible women including Helen Clark, the head of the United Nations Development Programme and former Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Why do we need to improve the numbers of women in leadership positions?

The lack of women in leadership has impacts across sectors and countries. It inhibits productivity and performance of work places and has individual and national health, education, political and socio-economic impacts. Strong female leadership has been linked with disrupting the dynamics that prevent women and girls from aspiring to leadership positions.

There is some progress. In Australia, across sectors, the pipeline of women into manager roles is strengthening. Similarly, in the humanitarian sector efforts are being made to see women’s leadership opportunities strengthened and a pipeline developed.

Leadership equality isn’t about simply having the same number of women and men in positions at the top or in the organisational structure, it is about ensuring that there is equal opportunity for both women and men to get there. The world, collectively, needs to do this better.


Humanitarian Advisory Group and Centre for Humanitarian Leadership are currently conducting joint-research assessing what is currently know about women in humanitarian leadership and identifying the evidence gaps. This research will be released in December 2016.