Naturally, most people who work in the development sector is pretty open minded about gender equality. After all, together we’re trying to make the world a better place for people. And quite often the people we’re in the best position to help and who can make the biggest difference to their country if helped are women.
That’s because women often have the roughest deal in these places. They have the fewest opportunities to learn life skills. They also have the most trouble accessing many services men take for granted. For example, in some countries they can’t take out loans while in others they still can’t even own property. Obviously, that’s terrible for those women. At the same time, it means that if we focus on them, we can create giant gains with relatively small interventions. For example, microloans offered to women can make a huge difference to local economies (as well as, obviously, the women).
As a result a lot of development work is aimed at rectifying the differences between men and women. And that means that the people attracted to the job are often going to be the kind of people who feel that this is an important thing to do.
But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine
The development sector attracts a lot of people from different walks of life and different cultures. And though they might be on average more open minded than their country folk, that doesn’t mean they keep an open attitude in comparison to what we’re used to. After all, some cultures have pretty backwards notions on what women and men are allowed to do.
For example, some Muslim men will think they’re already being very progressive if they’re willing to talk to and shake the hands of women. That’s a huge step for them. They therefore believe they’re doing enough in terms of equality – something that can be hugely frustrating when you work in the sector.
Just as damning, there are plenty of people who believe they are the epitome of tolerance in many different ways and forms. The problem with people thinking this way is that when they do, they stop monitoring their own behavior for counter examples.
In psychology we call this the confirmation bias. This bias has people paying attention to ideas that confirm their beliefs and ignoring those that do not. This bias is so powerful that people are even likely to forget incidents that don’t agree with their pre-held notions. In other words, they might believe themselves to be all about equality, when in truth they are nothing of the kind.
And so, it’s okay for them to make sexually tinted jokes, or say inappropriate things. They don’t mean it, after all! The thing is, it doesn’t matter what’s going on in their heads. What matters is how the people around them interpret their behavior. And in that regard it’s just as offensive when somebody makes a sexual joke if they mean it or not.
And then there are the countries you work in
And there’s even worse news. Though you might work with people who are generally all for equality, that doesn’t mean you’ll be working in countries where this is necessarily the case. Personally, I’ve had to work in countries where the men simply do not feel it’s a woman’s place to actually make decisions or be treated as an equal in a negotiation. In these cases, the local men we spoke to would speak at one of my colleagues, even though he was my subordinate, simply because he was male and I was not. This created a situation that could be interpreted as comical on a good day, where I would speak to them, but they would only answer my questions to my colleague. This left everybody feeling hugely uncomfortable – but is incredibly difficult to change.
Fortunately, if you keep engaging with these same figures often enough and upon review they see that you can get things done for their community, they will slowly come around. (Note that this is not always the case – it has happened that it was my subordinate that was praised for the work that I’ve done – even if he vehemently denies it was him).
In these situations, your consolation is that you’re demonstrating to these people that women can do the same as men. In some cases, after you’ve engaged with these people they become a little bit more liberal with their own women – and that’s a big deal, as while you get to go home at the end of the day, these women have to live there their whole lives.
The good work
In the end, the work we do is about creating opportunities for disadvantaged people. We can do this in many ways. We can make money available for projects, buy mules and these kinds of things. But we can also help simply by gradually shifting the way how these cultures view each other. Because ultimately, if we can get these people to treat 50% of their population more fairly and give them more opportunities, that can already make a huge difference.
At least, that’s how I try to console myself after another bout of discrimination. I’m changing minds just by being here.