Can we ever be completely gender neutral?

Over at The Road to the Horizon, Peter expresses his solidarity with women in the aid sector constantly under pressure to balance their work lives with their personal ones. 

The other evening, I went with E. over all the women we knew. And we tried to flag those we thought had found a good balance between kids, house, husband and career. And are successful in all. We found one. One woman out of the dozens of women we know, we found one. That is a sad observation. And even more sad, when we realized that lady does not work in the humanitarian “business”.

I am no gender expert. But it does seem quite obvious that many of us who work towards a fair gender balance in communities we work with often tend to neglect the same at our own work-places. So this post has some thoughts/questions about organisations, their female workers, and in particular, field workers. I have often paused to think about typical notions that run through some organisations. Sure, there are cultural differences between different parts of the world and I would be in no position to comment on contexts I have not been a part of. (And I am, as usual, stuck on small NGOs)


The following are the most common notions that I (and I am sure most of you) have heard many many times over – 

  • ‘This’ type of job is not suitable for women; they will not be able to travel to/stay overnight at remote rural areas using public transport or a motor-bike (and we cannot afford cars for all field work)
  • ‘She’ cannot travel as much anymore now that she is married/has children
  • ‘That’ community is very aggressive and a woman cannot work with them
  • ‘She’ will get married soon and then will have to move with her spouse. Is it smart to hire her now only to lose her soon after?
  • We should hire ‘her’. She will be good at mobilising communities, especially women for training/health/education/some such soft intervention
So that leaves us with desk-based academics, research or M&E and the whole lot of admin work (finances, procurement, office assistants etc). 

As a result, very few women rise up the ranks of an organisation from the very lowest level, when compared to men who get the opportunity, in the first place, to start work with the organisation. True, some of the notions above stem from social structures in the respective areas. Women may be particularly vulnerable/unsafe in some settings and no organisation would want to put their staff at risk. In such instances, is an organisation being unfair? What about stereotypes – if a woman is assertive, smart and can take care of herself, is she ‘being a man’? On the other hand, if a man is mellow, patient and compassionate, is he ‘not being a man’? I wonder! Through its policies, is the organisation reinforcing these stereotypes? Or is it merely doing the best it can for its staff? 

The other set of concerns stem from prevalent social norms in the respective cultures. In India, I have seen female staff quitting their jobs soon after they get married – sometimes because the family disapproves, or because she has to move to a different city along with her spouse. Why must an organisation invest in a female staff if their tenure is uncertain? Organisation already have limited resources and are affected by high staff turnover. But is turnover actually higher among women than among men? But in the first place, does the organisation see itself as an individual entity or does it consider itself part of a eco-system of organisations/institutions in society? Depending on the answer to this question, one might see variations in some of these decisions… 

In contrast, the chances that a man and woman have comparable career trajectories when they join the middle management (usually out of school with a professional degree) seem much higher. That’s where the professional aid worker comes in. I tend to feel less badly for people at that level. Men or women, they more often than not, get to choose how they want to live their lives and in the long run, have better chances of being on even ground in their chosen areas of work, if they want to… 
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