Following the round table on women aid workers

Presentazione Alice

We thank Alice Gritti for sharing with ExpatWomen at Work her interesting presentation on women aid workers, and some parts of the round table she generously held for us.

When Claudia asked me if I fancied the idea of co-organising a round table for ExpatWomen at Work I accepted in the blink of an eye: I’m always keen in sharing my research findings and this was a great chance to get feedbacks from professional aid workers. As my hope is that my study would lead to further discussion, research and have a positive impact on the lived experiences of aid workers, I am happy to share my notes with all the Expat Women at Work!

So…here they are:

In the first half of the round table I presented my research, showing the major findings on the “obstacles” women aid workers encounter, such as loneliness, difficult relationships, feeling like foreigners; difficulties in gaining professional credibility; security risks and sexual harassment. I also described the “privileges” that characterise women aid workers’ professional and personal experience, like being considered “the third gender” and having “special keys” to gain access to particular contexts and knowledge.
Here you can find my presentation:

After that, a lively discussion followed, in which the 6 participants (apart from 2, all living in different countries) shared their thoughts and asked interesting questions.

Amy was in the humanitarian and development field for many years and now works as a photographer. At the moment she is working on the documentary “Kick At the Darkness” that explores the psychosocial impact of humanitarian work on aid workers, through interviews and personal accounts. Amy said her documentary (available soon at expresses some of the findings I presented. This is her feedback after the round table:

“It was inspiring and comforting to hear your research yesterday. There were mainly points that resonated, particularly in regards to relationships. On the one hand, bonds of friendship forged more quickly and deeply than some long held friends that are maintained across the miles always linked by a shared moment in time. And yet somehow romantic relationships always floundered or fell apart, were separated by contract choices or crumpled by unrealistic long-distance. So much of it resonated”

Jo talked about an episode that happened to a female colleague who was in the field alone, and who was considered “half a person”. She wanted to know something about the men aid workers who took part in the research, their views and perceptions.

“The same questions on gender were asked to men aid workers, but the majority of the interviewees did not consider being men as “a source of problems”; they talked about the challenges their female colleagues were experiencing, and they recognised that as men they didn’t had to do that extra work in order to gain professional credibility, while women aid workers typically had to. They described aid jobs as “harder for a woman”. Some aid men told that they were helping their colleagues with small but important actions, such as openly taking their sides and supporting them during meetings.”

Talking about relationships, Guia shared her very positive and rich experience, with both locals and internationals. She recognised herself in “the third gender”, in being a woman with power, and in having to deal with a lot of men. To tackle the issue of “feeling like a stranger” she introduced the concept of “the third culture”:

“Even if aid workers don’t belong to the culture where they work, by living and working there they can bring and create something new and different”

Tatiana wondered if the gender discrimination experienced by aid women came only from the countries in which they worked.

Sadly the discrimination also comes from the organisations. For example, I found gender-based discrimination in organisations’ hiring practices. Also, aid organisations require explicitly or implicitly to dress and behave in ways aligned with local understandings of femininity, and some women described being subject to sanctions if they did not. Gender discrimination within the organisations is also confirmed by the findings of my colleague Kaisa Wilson (PhD student at the University of Edinburgh).

During the discussion we also focused on “the right way” to support aid workers. We agreed that a preventative approach should be widely used, that trainings before being employed to the assignments (like cross-cultural training) should be improved, as well as Internet based psychosocial support and peer support. I pointed out that, in order to be effective, all these should be informed by research findings. Finally I stressed how the obstacles described should not be treated by the organisations as individual issues, but as problems arising from the context (in which I include not only the country, but also the organisational culture, the colleagues – international and locals), and therefore, should be addressed in a systemic way.

This online conversation was very rich and fruitful; the feedback I got reinforces my desire in keep on researching inside aid workers’ experience: more aid workers voices need to be heard in order to build effective practice to strengthen their resilience!

About Claudia Landini

Claudia is a certified intercultural trainer and life and mobile career coach with 28 years of experience abroad, in Africa, Latin America, Middle East and Asia.