Guest Post by ‘Angelica’

27 Sep

I’m pleased to feature a guest post by fellow aid worker/parent and blogger, Angelica, author of “On Motherhood & Sanity“, here today (also linked in my extended blogroll). Follow Angelica on twitter as @onSanity.

* * * * *

Finding the G-spot

I was reading a recent post by J., right here at Tales From the Hood about “local” being an article of faith in the Church of Aid, and it came to me that Gender is the Humanitarian G-spot.

You know I’m right. You just cannot (and certainly should not) have a document, meeting, program or strategy that does not address gender. Depending on the place and theme it can range from anything along the lines of combating FGM to increased political representation and decision making.  As aid practitioners we are acutely aware of the pitfalls and structural biases that leave women vulnerable to abuse and dependency. We ignore the local’s arguments that link these forms of discrimination to culture or tradition, and demand equality be treated as a basic human right.

So why is it we are failing so miserably to achieve gender balance at home?

Some years ago, when the goal of gender balance for UN staff was set for all the agencies, I was working in a large UN agency myself. Very responsibly they hired a (female) consultant to undertake some focus group discussion in order to discover why it was so difficult to retain qualified women. I took part of the young professionals discussions. The YPP was a group of staff selected through an intense process for their management skills to be fast tracked within the organization. For the most part they were in their mid twenties/ early thirties and females. The group discussion, as might have been expected, revolved around two things: motherhood and the difficulty of having men follow a woman around, (which the UN career requires as there is constant rotation between duty stations all over the world, much like a diplomatic career).

I also took part of another mixed group with men and women from different departments and ages. I remember a man in his forties talking about how young staff would come to him for advice on how to advance their career. His advice was to go to a difficult duty station. These are the places were you get noticed, where you get fast tracked, and are mostly non-family duty stations, so, he admitted, hard for a woman in her thirties who is probably starting a family. His suggestion was to introduce the possibility of extended 2-3 months missions to these places for women past the recommend six month breastfeeding period so that they’d be in  a position to compete for these spots.

I was secretly a few weeks pregnant back then. There was something about this proposal that just did not quite work in my head, back then I didn’t understand what.

The consultant’s conclusion after weeks of intense study was that the best way to ensure that women don’t fall off the career track was to have their babies later on in their career, once they were established. No mention of the fact that many (most) women would not be able to conceive by then.

Fast  forward a few months, I’m walking around the office with a big belly when I find out that a job I am perfect for is up for grabs. I start asking around and get positive reactions from the people involved. It’s really interesting and a step in the right direction for me. After a few of these positive informal talks I ask why this position is empty:

“The woman that used to chair this group went on maternity leave. She was meant to return this month but has decided to quit instead”

As his last words echoed we looked at each other in silence. I am wearing large overalls and am but a couple of months away from maternity leave myself. It dawns on us that there isn’t a chance in hell I’m going to get that job. No one is going to say it, they are going to make me go through the steps (written exam, panel interview…) but no matter how well I do we both know that fight is lost. At the same time my husband is interviewing for a great job. The fact that he is about to become a father is irrelevant.

Fast forward to the day I gave birth to my first born. I had been pre selected to be part of the first training for middle level management. I’m not middle level management yet. I’m not even based in Africa which is where the training will be placed. The mere fact they are considering me is a huge pat in the back. As the phone interview to confirm my spot begins I warn her I am in labour and might stay quiet during the contractions. It sounds extreme, but it was the last day they could interview me, and I was determined. I knew what being part of that group could mean for my career. She said:

“Go have your baby and call me back in a couple of weeks.”

I ended up doing the interview while breastfeeding and my mom holding the phone. I got in but I never did it because, like the mother whose job I had wanted, I decided to extend my leave.

Fast forward again towards the end of my extended leave. I get an email from my old boss all excited that my name has been put forward for deputy (second in command) for a small office in south America. I contact the office and set a day for the interview. During this call I mention that although my leave is indeed about to end, I am now 6 months pregnant with my second child. Silence. The interview is set. After a long struggle between my old and new identities, I call back and cancel the interview. You can hear the relief in their voices through the phone line. They thank me.

At the time I was based in Cambodia for my husband’s job. The one he got when I was 7 months pregnant. After some months as a consultant for a UN agency I am offered a fixed term position. My old career self is about to have a fit, but the new mom side wins again, I turn it down. I never got another consulting job from them again.

You might say this was a personal choice, that I didn’t have to turn those jobs down. And you would be right. You would also be ignoring the fact that I’m a psychologist and for a living look after the well being of children, and that inevitably entails the family, and in particular the mother and the role she plays. How can anyone expect me to work all day to get the best possible life situation for other people’s children, and not aim to get the same for mine? We are talking about regrouping families in Africa and Asia, and at the same time about ways to get the women away from their own children so that their careers wont suffer.

I’m not saying stay at home is the only choice or even the best choice. If it makes you a bad mother (which it would make me, trust me: I would go insane), then it’s definitely not the right choice.   Sometimes it’s not even a choice. All I’m saying is that it is high time that we started looking at what we preach and helping families (emphasis on family, not women) find the best solution for them. This might mean flex-time, it might mean that some days you work from home. It probably entails an obligatory paternal leave to level the playing field.  It might mean that each parent can take one day off a week so the kids spend 4 days out 7 with at least one parent, as opposed to 2. (before you laugh, this is common in Holland, so yeah, it’s doable, and in the private sector too where it’s not about politics but getting the job done).

I’m saying that what we are doing now is not working, it’s not good enough, and as a consequence we are hardly in a position to go around preaching to others what we haven’t managed to work out at home. I feel like we keep trying to will the typewriter to be the best option, and frankly, the world has changed, the tools and mechanisms we use to work have evolved and it’s high time that we do too. We can do better. If we are looking at remote management for unstable situations that might blow up, maybe we can consider introducing these options for the benefit of our own staff and their families, and as we know from all the research, the impact of this would benefit us all.

Personally, I believe that these changes would lead not only to happier children and parents, but to more productive, creative and efficient aid workers. Trust me, you’d be surprised how much a working mom can get done in that ONE hour she gets between drop off and the TV repair guy.

Deep down we all know that if we could just find that humanitarian G-spot, we’d all be much happier and better people.

18 Responses to “Guest Post by ‘Angelica’”

  1. Mike 27 September, 2011 at 6:51 am #

    Great post – it was helpful to see the details of what you actually went through as opposed to the abstract concept.

    I think in designing a better world it’s important to look at the ways our own society has unrealistic expectations. It’s not natural for a father – or any man or woman – to be working 40 hours a week, especially away from a family. Your example of The Netherlands makes me nauseous – that we should be fighting to work “only” 4 full days a week shows how truly misaligned our intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects really are.

  2. Anonymous 27 September, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    THANK YOU for your insight. I’m not in the same industry as you all, but as a married woman, the decision on whether or not (or how much) to stay home with the future offspring looms in my future as well. It’s helpful to read your perspective. Don’t even get me started on people who judge moms/dads/families based on who is working. I’m glad you all have found a way of life that works for YOU!

  3. malche 27 September, 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  4. David Week 28 September, 2011 at 1:13 am #

    Full support. A couple of additional thoughts:

    • It seems that general sense of well-being in the OECD countries has not increased since the 1950s, and that we could produce a 1950s lifestyle today by working 20 hours a week. Our economies overproduce in order to keep full employment in the face of productivity increases. In order to stop overproducing without massive unemployment, we have to find ways to reduce the working week.

    • In no way are we making full use of the potential for IT to allow us to teleconference, telecommute, and telework. This is particularly true in the case of international development. The cost of putting an “international” in the field is huge: not just financial, but in terms of personal and family toll, and in low productivity (time spent in cars and airplanes, taking care of basic needs, etc.)

    • Both my wife and work as short-term consultants. That gives us a lot of latitude to organise family life. I’d hate to work for a large org, where such latitude doesn’t exit. But perhaps we freelancers should start creating our own orgs with the market power of a large institution, but the internal freedoms and flexibilities you outline.

  5. soli 28 September, 2011 at 8:36 am #

    I am a bussines owner, and a total of 9 women work in my company, only 3 of us are now mothers, and two are expecting. Our solution to the mamy vs worker has been to intrduce a flexible 9 to 5, or 8 to 4 schedule that allows us to be home when our children get back from school. It has meant turning the lunch hour (which in spain is normally a 2 hour break) into a 20 minute sandwich break, but it is definatelly worth it and it does work out for us.

    • angelica 30 September, 2011 at 9:21 am #

      yei you! it’s not rocket science, its totally doable, we just need to jump into it… I’m so sure we are gonna look back one day and wonder, “why didn’t we start doing this sooner?”

  6. hopewanders 28 September, 2011 at 10:26 am #

    Thank you for this post.

  7. lindsey talerico-hedren 28 September, 2011 at 2:22 pm #


    I’m so grateful that you’ve tackled this topic, and so eloquently (and brutally, at the same time) at that. As a female young professional myself, I often find myself thinking about my career ahead, but also my family in the future. I find myself watching the work situations of new mothers on teams beside or across from me at my organization to try and pick out the “example” I can follow — someone smart and kickass, with a close-knit family and a successful career, someone who is just as committed to her family as she is her career and because of that, both prosper.

    You might be unsurprised to know that after a couple of years of stalking (behind cube walls) new mothers in the workplace, I’ve found that this “example” I’ve been looking for simply doesn’t exist. You can be either a great mother & wife, or a career-driven leader. But not both, or not both to the extent you really want.

    It’s a discovery that I’ve been struggling a lot with lately. I’m not “in the biz” of having kids yet, but one day I will be, and when that day comes I don’t want to HAVE TO make a choice between my career and the future of my family. Because honestly, if it comes down to that, shouldn’t I just make that choice now? It could potentially save me hours of unpaid overtime, stress caused by ambition, ridiculous student loan payments to pay for my master’s degree….

    As you can see, I’m quite stuck. But I’m at least a little encouraged to know there are more of us who struggle with this. And I also believe that the changes you’ve mentioned would lead to happier children, happier parents, and a more production, creative and efficient me (aid worker or not).

    • angelica 30 September, 2011 at 9:07 am #

      hey lindsey, sorry to hear you are already struggling, but it’s probably good that you are thinking ahead. I suspect that we -the workers- are going to have to lead this revolution. I for one went freelance, so in practice I keep working for the UN and NGOs, but I just get hired for a product, and other than certain agreed necessary steps (like field visits) it’s my business when and how I do it.. as long as the final product is good. that means I can choose to take a day off because a kid is sick or because we want to go to the zoo…. it’s not perfect, but hopefully little by little they will realise it is possible. good luck!

  8. T 30 September, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    Thanks J. and Angelica, wonderful post. (not surprised since I dig both of your blogs)
    And wonderful timing for me: I deliver my first offspring in a few days.

    Of course I try to be optimistic about what this means for me professionally in the future, but I have already turned down several opportunities recently. Everyone (i.e. people who want to hire me) act very supportive of taking some time to have a baby, and say “call us when you are ready to go back to work”. To me this sounds like they think it takes a little time off to be a mom, then that’s it, you can go back to working 18×7 work weeks.

    Probably a million stories like this: A friend working for an INGO who had a baby was told by HQ that she shouldn’t have a baby in the field (uh, Nairobi isn’t exactly roughing it) and basically told her she should quit. (The country director, on the other hand was a man, but it was perfectly fine for him to have 4 children.) In the end she did quit because although the CD wanted to work on a part time/work from home solution with her, the HQ wouldn’t let it happen.

    Anyhow, I hope someone listens to you and gets a little creative with their HR policies before the aid sector looses all its awesome women!

  9. Anonymous 1 October, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    Great, interesting post. I appreciate your point of view. I spent several years working for a US-based global health INGO, which, as they tend to be, was dominated by women. I am in my early 30s.

    The problem is that women who want to start a family will have to take time off from their jobs. That costs your company/organization money, and is obviously very disruptive to operations. Everyone knows this, as you outlined in your post. Even with telecommuting, flex hours, and all of that, this is still true. Not to mention that in this business, you have to be able to travel for long periods in very dodgy places, which is hard for anyone, let alone a new mother.

    In this sector, as in many others, I of course understand that women often have to make a decision between climbing the leadership ladder as best they can on one hand, and starting/having a family on the other. That’s a tough choice to make, but at the end of the day, I don’t see that it’s unfair. It’s biology. When I’m in that interview room, you can bet I’m letting my interviewer know that I will never have to go on maternity leave and won’t pick up and quit when I’m starting a family. I don’t see any way to fix this problem without penalizing men unjustly.

    • Anonymous 3 October, 2011 at 10:53 am #

      That last line is unsettling.
      What exactly is unjust about a father taking equal responsibility? If couples decide jointly to become families, what exactly is “unjust / unfair” about “penalizing” men in exactly in the same proportion we “penalize” women? I see it as quite fair: mother takes X months maternity leave and father takes X of paternity leave. Young families (read, mother and father) work 4 days a week or 32 hours a week or whatever works. Both. Equally. And eventually there will be enough of a critical mass of men and women that actually *understand* and flexibility will become the norm instead of the exception.

      • angelica 7 October, 2011 at 7:39 am #

        I agree, I think obligatory paternity leave is pretty necessary to level the playing field. And Ii think it would make a world of difference for the father to have the opportunity to stay home and bond and really understand what is happening at home. if only so that he will appreciate it later on. See, I think men are being discriminated, they -for the most part- just don’t have the choice- (certainly most feel that way, they always argue that there is no way their company would understand if they asked for leave). men are so far behind they are not even aware of this discrimination they are suffering. some day men will and will start fighting for their right to be an active and present member of their family. at least for the right to choose if that is what they want.

        (sorry for monopolising the replies J! ’tis an issue dear to my heart)

  10. K 12 October, 2011 at 9:50 am #

    Just came across this in my google reader and echo all the comments above. Thanks also for mentioning the difficulty of having a man “follow around.” Although I am married to a feminist male, the truth is we are in sub-Saharan Africa for my job, something not easy for a man to swallow. It seems as though the wives and female partners of my male colleagues compensate their boredom by deciding to start or continue their families, something just not possible for my husband🙂 My female colleagues and friends working HQ jobs, or single ladies in the field, always ask me “How did you get your husband to follow you?” I have no clue, other than he’s a great person. But it’s possible that the “charm” of this post will last only so long…


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