Australian Outlook

Not a Care in the World

10 Mar 2020
By Dr Eleanor Gordon and Dr Briony Jones
A mom and her newborn baby at the Maternal & Child Health Training Institute for medically needy in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  Source: UN Photo/Kibae Park

Women employed in international organisations engaged in peacebuilding find it difficult to return to work once they become mothers.  The marginalisation of those with caring responsibilities has a direct negative impact on the type of security and justice being built in conflict-affected environments.

The United Nations marked this year’s International Women’s Day (08 March) with the theme “Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights,” recognising that despite some progress in advancing gender equality, real progress since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 25 years ago has been very slow.

A recent promotional video launched by UNOCHA on #whatittakes to be a humanitarian profiles a black mother who is working for the UN. While portraying a more diverse workforce, the video has, instead, generated widespread outrage, including among current and former UN staff members, for its use of gendered messages, sexist language, and stereotypes (positioning the absent mother against the effective or successful professional, and using words such as “pushy,” “overbearing,” and “impatient” to describe her).

It is these gendered assumptions and biases, combined with other barriers to engagement, advancement, and training faced predominantly by women in the UN, once they become parents or assume other caring roles, that result in the UN continuing to be a male-dominated institution. The demographic of women in the UN system is relatively young, with 32 percent of all female international professional staff aged 35-40 or younger, compared with 20 percent of men. UN personnel data also shows a dip in the proportion of female international professional staff members as compared with men in the mid-30s age group, the age at which many women in this sector choose to have children. Across the whole UN system, women outnumber men up to the 35-40 age range  and thereafter, men outnumber women. There are also over five times more male consultants and individual contractors engaged in UN field operations than females.

Recent research jointly undertaken by Monash University in Australia and the University of Warwick in the UK has identified that in organisations engaged in building security and justice after conflict, these barriers to engagement include: gendered biases and assumptions about the professional competence, commitment, and productiveness of those with caring responsibilities for children (often women); lack of structures, policies, and practices to support those with caring responsibilities (e.g. flexible time, financial support for childcare, or adequate provisions while on mission); environments perceived to be unsuitable for raising children – not just because of security concerns that may be present in post-conflict environments but also because of a transitory, often permissive, and sometimes toxic work culture. This work culture feeds, and is fed by, a false assumption that peacebuilders/aid workers are, and indeed should be, unencumbered – i.e. without the ties that come with caring responsibilities.

This research has found that these barriers adversely affect not only those forced to choose between caring responsibilities and their career in the UN and other peacebuilding, humanitarian, and development organisations, but also the work that these organisations are trying to do in building security and justice after conflict.

The marginalisation of those with caring responsibilities in these organisations has severe repercussions for the type of security and justice being built, how security and justice are conceived, and whose security and justice matters. When peacebuilders are from a narrow demographic community – in part, we argue, because of the departure of women when they assume caring responsibilities, which principally occurs when they have children and is compounded by gendered assumptions about security work and care work – they can have a detrimental impact on security and justice outcomes. This is particularly the case for those who are not reflected in the demographic of the epistemic community, as the specific needs and experiences of those beyond this community are less likely to be heard and so not be attended to. Consequently, the peace being built is unlikely to be inclusive, equitable or, ultimately, sustainable. Moreover, the result is that a diversity of knowledge, experience, and skills is often missing from such organisations, which leads them to become more removed from the environments in which they engaged.

Efforts to build security and justice after conflict are also compromised because of an unhealthy work environment which is fed and sustained by a permissive culture (within which staff may be lonely, traumatised, and separated from familial ties…) and a narrow range of individuals who are able and willing to work in such a way. This, in turn, has been blamed for contributing to the recent sexual abuse and other safeguarding scandals and the more long-standing documented abuses by peacekeepers and others mandated to protect those affected by conflict and disaster.

An absence of policies, processes, and structures to enable those with caring responsibilities to continue engaging or to re-engage in this sector also calls into question the credibility of organisations which outwardly advocate for gender equality.

To avoid these individual, sectoral, and societal harms, there needs to be investment in infrastructures for care which can advance gender equality. Investment should be squarely within the purview of organisations given the severe repercussions for security and peace of constraining the epistemic community to a narrow, male-dominated demographic. These should be the themes which underpin the discussions amongst international development workers and employers during the upcoming International Women’s Day and beyond.

This article is based on a forthcoming publication in the International Feminist Journal of Politics titled “Not a Care in the World: an exploration of the personal-professional-political nexus of international development practitioners working in justice and security sector reform.”

Dr Eleanor Gordon is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Development and Deputy Director of the Master in International Development Practice programme at Monash University.

Dr Briony Jones is an associate professor in International Development at Warwick University in the UK and deputy director of the Warwick Interdisciplinary Research Centre for International Development (WICID).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.