Practicing What We Preach: 5 Ideas to Promote Gender Equality within and among Development Organizations

Earlier this week, CGD co-hosted a candid conversation with Devex on gender equality in the workplace, encouraged development organizations to look inward and consider changes in our own practices, and highlighted persistent gender gaps in the sector. It was just a first step in what will be a longer journey for CGD and all development organizations to prioritize and realize the promises of equality and diversity.

Research shows that pursuing policies that promote diversity and inclusion is not only the right thing to do, but will also improve the quality and impact of our work. Building on the conversation we hosted, here are five ideas that development organizations (including our own) should consider to help ensure we live our values and maximize our impact. As a starting point, we offer ideas focused on promoting gender equality, while recognizing that sexism is not the only challenge we must face. As Angela Bruce-Raeburn underscores, racism is a core issue for development and humanitarian aid and is inseparable from sexism:

Abuse, bad behavior, exploitation, and sexual misconduct are the result of a system that is owned and managed by white men who have no need to be accountable.

Real progress and transformation will require commitments that take an intersectional approach to addressing power relations inherent in class, sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and health status, both in the workplace and in the places development organizations operate.

Here are five ideas as food for thought and action:

1. Commit to 50/50 targets

Committing to diversity and equality starts with the hiring pipeline. Hiring, investing in, and retaining diverse talent up and down the management chain requires a concrete commitment to achieve parity. To reach diversity and inclusion targets, we must extend beyond our traditional networks to ensure a diverse pool of candidates. Recruiting women may also take greater engagement, recognizing that women are less likely to put their hat in the ring. An internal Hewlett-Packard report, cited in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, found that women will only apply for a job if they feel 100 percent qualified, whereas men will apply if they meet only 60 percent qualified. Recently the World Bank, UN, and WHO have demonstrated that concerted effort to increase women in leadership can yield results. Women comprise 45 percent, 50 percent, and 60 percent of their senior leadership teams, respectively.

Commiting to a recruiting and hiring process that ultimately results in a diverse group of employees is only the beginning. In order to retain and promote staff, organizations and its leaders should enact and actively promote policies that promote equality and inclusion in the workplace, like equal maternity and paternity leave (and encouraging men to take the leave they are granted) and greater flexibility (not working less, but working different hours or teleworking). The motherhood penalty is tangible for both hiring and wages, and may be even greater in development where travel is often an important part of the job. Organizations can look for ways to facilitate work and life, for example by enabling women (and men) to take their children on travel, whether for conferences or fieldwork. This matters not just for retaining talent, but for changing the norm on what successful leadership looks like.

2. Consider progress on gender equality as criterion for funding decisions

Some private investors, like CalPERS, are considering board diversity as a factor in their investment decisions. They see the bottom line benefits of investing in companies with boards that are more likely to avoid “group think” and brings diverse experience and skills. Likewise, funders have the potential to play a big role in advancing gender equality in development organizations. By considering progress towards targets for gender equity and inclusion as part of investment criteria, funders can push development organizations to adopt policies and practices that promote equality. For example, some foundations ask for organizations to report their diversity statistics, including breakdowns by gender and ethnicity, but what if one factor in funding decisions was around meeting targets for increasing gender diversity in boards and management? Given the connection between diversity of voices and potential impact, there’s a clear case to be made for consideration of gender in investment decisions (with gender as not the only important criterion, but an important place to start).

3. Encourage and equip staff to check their implicit biases

It is important, both as organizations and individuals, to strive to recognize and respond to  implicit and explicit gender biases. Beyond taking the implicit association test (which everyone should do), there are potential tools that researchers and practitioners can use to check themselves. For example, we can utilize software that analyzes citations by gender; think about concrete positives and negatives when evaluating performance (versus relying on “gut feelings”); and amplify women’s voices at meetings, events and in the media. These strategies are important because, as Alice Evans points out in her viral #Sausagefest post, it’s too easy to fall into the default of venerating and deferring to men, and especially white men. Knowing that we all have implicit biases (including those who are discriminated against), we should aim to have open and honest conversations with our colleagues about equality in the workplace.

4. Establish an ombudsperson and a community for them

The #MeToo movement has underscored the inadequacy of processes to report and address sexual harassment and assault across industries. These structures are built on outdated legal mechanisms for avoiding employee harassment and retaliation. For example, anonymous harassment hotlines in workplaces are largely underpublicized, ineffective, and underutilized. The reality is that formal reporting is the least common strategy victims of sexual harassment pursue, fearful of a wide array of consequences--namely, retaliation, blame, and reputational damage. About three out of four victims of harassment never discuss their experience with a superior. It is the responsibility of an organization’s leadership to prioritize handling these issues as a fundamental component of workplace culture. A task force assembled by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commision found that workplace culture has “the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment.”

Providing employees with multiple channels to report sexual or discriminatory behavior can help mitigate the well-founded fears associated with directly reporting a colleague to a superior or human resources officer. Appointing an ombudsperson to serve as an independent, neutral, and confidential ally for victims can an effective strategy to ensure inappropriate behavior is reported and that all employees have a designated contact that they can voice concerns with. Development organizations can join together to create a community or association of ombudspersons to share lessons and generate ideas.

5. Launch a peer review process

Programmatic trainings, certifications, and standards geared towards the awareness and promotion of gender equality and inclusivity are important tools for prioritizing and instilling these values in workplace culture, but it is imperative that these tools are used to drive organizational and cultural change. The learning and progress achieved through these certification processes must be routinely evaluated and engaged at the organization’s highest levels. One idea to strengthen the impact of certifications is to create a peer review system (like the OECD Development Assistance Committee’s process where donor members evaluate each other’s development effectiveness). Creating mutual accountability among organizations can help drive faster progress and changes across the sector. The peer review process could include a core set of metrics that allows for transparent reporting and comparison among development organizations.


These are just some of the great suggestions raised at the event. Many of these ideas can and should be expanded or adapted to increase diversity along other dimensions, which must be part of the conversation today on International Women’s Day and beyond. We are at our best when diverse voices are at the table, included and empowered.


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.