A Shout-Out to World Bank and IDB Mothers

Here is a Mother’s Day shout-out to all the mothers working at international financial institutions (IFIs) around the world, and especially to mothers at the two banks I know best: the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, where I worked for a total of almost two decades with at least one and eventually three children at home.

At CGD, a team led by Eeshani Kandpal has produced a careful study of rates of promotions of women compared to men at IFIs and has sponsored a series of events with guests to explore the implications of the study. These got me thinking about two daunting challenges for mothers at the IFIs. One I remember all too well, i.e. finding good, reliable care for children. The other I didn’t face, i.e. having a partner willing and able to “trail” an IFI mother to a position in an overseas office.  

On care

The CGD study is based on employment data from the IFIs. It could not and did not include information on which women have been mothers with small children at any given time in the periods covered, let alone on how they met the challenge of finding good, reliable, and affordable care. Though over many years my husband and I had wonderful care workers, it was an ongoing challenge–most stayed for a year tops. Still, we were lucky; labor was relatively plentiful in the late 1980s and 1990s, in part due to immigration legislation in 1986 that allowed for legalization of immigrants who’d been in the US since 1982. We had a series of wonderful immigrant caretakers. Most knew how or learned to drive (piano lessons for example); one brought my pre-school children once a week for lunch with me in the World Bank I Building cafeteria.

So, I salute all mothers, especially those with pre-school children, now working at the two MDBs in Washington. The care challenge is omnipresent and ongoing, and psychologically it still falls primarily on the shoulders of mothers. 

On “trailing” husbands

Few women with children at the IFIs have partners who are willing and able to “trail” them to positions overseas. From studies of professional women in the US, we know that becoming a mother takes a toll on women’s salaries. We also know why there are fewer “trailing” husbands: because men in most partnerships earn more, and so women follow men who move for work far more often than men follow women.

Again, I was lucky. When I started at the World Bank in 1979, my husband-to-be “trailed” me to Washington. He is six years younger and was poorer than I at the time, and was an academic who could manage the transfer (and eventually became a lawyer).  

Even if it is true that some women at the banks earn more than their partners, the reality is that in any partnership with children, “trailing” is still less common and less expected from a male than from a female partner.

I hear that women at the World Bank are expected to serve overseas as a prerequisite to promotion to a manager position. I escaped that expectation (or worse, requirement, if it is one). And even if it isn’t, if staff think it is, well…

Indeed, I escaped many of the rules and constraints working at the MDBs in the 20th century–perhaps, ironically, because being a woman eventually in a relatively senior position was more of an exception. I’m an economist not a psychologist, but I think it helped that I was blessed with a kind of naivete–lack of awareness of the constraints normally associated then with being female. I credit that to attending Catholic schools through college run by nuns who ruled their own roosts. The modern equivalent for mothers at the MDBs is in my opinion a kind of polite and quiet hutzpah, the Yiddish word that includes in its many subtle grades of meaning a readiness to push ahead and find your own way.

I believe that becoming and being a mother is a great recommendation in itself for finding one’s way to success at the MDBs. I wish for all mothers at the two banks where I was lucky to work a healthy dose of hutzpah. Push on MDB Mothers!


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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