By Chris Franks
Everything I read these days is encouraging women in business to achieve their potential, break the glass ceiling and take their rightful place in the ‘C’ Suite. There are tips, hints, tutorials and powerful women advocating for them, but the aid and development sector is almost silent on the subject.
Instead, their focus – rightly in most contexts – is on implementing cutting-edge programs to support the cause of women in developing countries, by helping them to be empowered to take their rightful place in society. Or, it’s railing about the negatives or the shabby side of aid and development. I rarely see an article encouraging or inspiring anyone, let alone women; there’s a blind spot when it comes to supporting and encouraging our own amazing and talented women to become tomorrow’s leaders.
I believe it is vitally important to support and motivate women as they progress through their careers and into leadership roles. I want women to stop and think about themselves for a moment, to take their focus from the people they serve and advocate for, and consider their own careers. I want women to have greater influence and impact by leading organisations – not just programs or sections. I want to make sure women working in the aid and development sector get strong backing and a few pointers on what makes a difference when it comes to being selected for a senior role. I want to share what I have learned so they can get there faster.
I know from my career that women in our sector are better qualified than many in the commercial and corporate sector; they are amazing multi-taskers, more insightful and have bigger hearts. Despite this they operate on lower wages, higher adrenaline, longer hours, fewer development opportunities and are either located in a remote in-country spot or third-rate offices in a decidedly unappealing part of the city. Most underestimate their potential and capacity for leadership. I want that to change and hence my willingness to lead the Women in Aid and Development group which, many years ago, ran for a short time in Melbourne thanks to Dimity Fifer. In mid-2012 I took it on in Sydney and following a slowish start we are now meeting four to five times a year in the Sydney CBD.
The group brings together keen, enthusiastic and interested women for an informal meeting over a drink and nibbles to listen to the experiences of women like us. I want them to realise they can aspire to senior roles, organisation leadership and governance, and to know that if I, and others, can do this so can they.
I am also passionate about encouraging women who are hard at work in their careers to see just how awesome and capable they are, and just how far they have come already by persuading them to speak about what they have learned to date. The secret is that these speakers are not always women who have done it all and who know it all – they are women learning, striving and battling their own way up the leadership tree today. They come from different backgrounds and their topics are many and varied, but they share a consistent focus on the challenges they face, the opportunities that come up and the pitfalls to avoid. They are truly inspirational.
I am delighted that the group is making an impact. Several women have found new and more senior roles, internships, volunteer assignments or promotions thanks to a helping hand with a CV, a little coaching or a chat with a fellow development professional upon moving to a new city and finding a ready-made network. There is no secret – it’s simply networking, learning, gaining confidence and getting encouragement to use connections and take the next step.
There’s a simple website set up to support the group with some interesting articles usually taken from business sites, and a Facebook page with more timely updates and links to interesting and hopefully inspirational and insightful articles. I am also delighted that this is a network that’s expanding – we now have a group that’s been up and running in Canberra for almost a year and the Melbourne group is about to meet for the first time with some spectacular women bringing it together.
My aim is for women to gain a few insights and engage with a network that helps them to step up and lead this sector. They already have the skills, knowledge, drive and enthusiasm; with a little help from colleagues they will get there faster and with greater confidence. I look forward to the day our sector leads others with a 50:50 balance of women and men in leadership roles.
Chris is currently Chair of Habitat for Humanity Australia, Chair of RESULTS International Australia, a director of Family Planning NSW and a council member of NSW Kids & Families. She is passionate about helping women in the aid and development sector advance their careers, so she convenes the Women in Development group in Sydney. Amongst many other commitments, Chris is also a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, and has received the inaugural ACFID Award for Outstanding Service to the Aid and Development Sector.
Featured image shows a floating flower. Photo courtesy of Chris Franks.
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