Here’s how we’re going to do it.

Have you ever felt like a hypocrite? Or worse: an imposter? Both emotions have the effect of surprising you when you least expect it. We don’t actively reflect on things we don’t believe to be true – we think with our gut more than our head and science confirms this. If you’re human, you’re likely to have felt like one or both of these characteristics in your lifetime.

Recently, I felt like the former and latter after conducting a small experiment on the team. Inspired by the recently published Atlantic article, “I Spent Two Years Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in My Stories.” I wanted to understand the gender balance (or imbalance) in the stories we have on our website. In the article, Ed Yong, a gifted staff writer at the Atlantic who covers science, reflects on the systemic gender biases in his field as well as the exclusion of women’s voices in his stories. Yong undertook an exercise to understand the gender ratio of those interviewed and quoted and found surprising results. “I looked back at the pieces that I had published in 2016 thus far. Across all 23 of them, 24 percent of the quoted sources were women. And of those stories, 35 percent featured no female voices at all. That surprised me. I knew it wasn’t going to be 50 percent, but I didn’t think it would be that low, either,” he stated.

We did a similar experiment – with the help of our in-house data scientist (or data geek as she likes to be referred), Rebeca Moreno, we used Python to sift through 163 articles on our innovation website checking for pronouns and quotes mentioned in articles.  In addition, I scraped each article to identify how many authors were female vs. male and understand what the gender balance looked like when it came to who we were interviewing. We acknowledge that, of course, there is a spectrum and this conversation should not be binary – but to replicate the study and to gain a bit of insight into what we’ve published – this experiment focused on women’s experiences and voices in our content. You can look at part of our process and the raw data here.

A total of 89 interviews took place over the period of 2015-2017 that were included in the articles we posted and only 34% of these interviews were with women. Nearly 75% of the team at the UNHCR Innovation Service are women – so it was not surprising to me that 68% of the articles were written by women. We also have an additional female consultant who supports writing essays throughout the year. And not all team members write stories for our blog but nearly all the men do. In all the interviews conducted by men on our team – only one article included an interview with a woman– in any article they wrote. Ever.

These numbers are not good and certainly not great. In one article about our Innovation Fellowship that was published last year, we interviewed three Fellows – all who were men – to talk about how the program was changing the minds of UNHCR staff. I remember when I worked on this article having discussions with my colleague Emilia, who runs the Innovation Fellowship, and we were both concerned that none of the women we wanted to include were available before the deadline. But I made a decision to move forward. Looking back, I should have changed the deadline or completely changed the article. As I manually counted the three of them and added them to my Excel, that feeling of hypocrisy washed over me again. We weren’t practicing what we were preaching.  

In Yong’s article, he quotes his colleague Adrienne LaFrance who completed an initial exercise which inspired Yong to do one of his one. Discovering similar surprising data points for her articles, she reflects stating, “These numbers are distressing, particularly because my beats cover areas where women are already outnumbered by men—robotics, artificial intelligence, archaeology, astronomy, etc. Which means that, by failing to quote or mention very many women, I’m one of the forces actively contributing to a world in which women’s skills and accomplishments are undermined or ignored, and women are excluded.”

This feeling had great resonance with me. We witness day-in and day-out stereotypes play out around those working in humanitarian innovation. Blockchain, drones, biometrics: the high-profile innovations associated with the white men at the top talking about them. While we’ve been very vocal that “Tech is not innovation” – I think we have also ignored part of the puzzle and the story here.  Our colleagues who are supporting the more technical aspects of our work – predictive analytics, data science, artificial intelligence – are only women. Rebeca, who I mentioned previously, is an absolute data-innovation-computer loving star. Then we also have our colleague Sofia who is supporting our team as an Artificial Intelligence Engineer. They are working in fields that are outnumbered by men and we haven’t been doing a good job of telling their stories, capturing their voices or those women in similar backgrounds in our organization. I’ve witnessed firsthand the ugliness that men have shown towards women working in these areas and I know we have a long way to go in changing this narrative.

So we did this experiment and we realized quickly we needed to make changes.

UNHCR Innovation Women Series – a starting point

Okay before we move on, let’s address the elephant in the room – yes we do have a series on women that we launched last year.

In October 2017, we wrote a blogpost titled “Why we’re doing a series on women in the humanitarian sector.” The series originated from a conversation my colleague Hans and I had with a senior female colleague at UNHCR. It started out as any normal conversation does prior to an interview: here is the concept, here is our approach, here are some questions, this is lighting we have, etc. But when we began asking her what she wanted to speak to us about (and not what ideas we had in our own heads) we discovered that the stories she wanted to tell focused primarily on the challenges she faced being a woman in the humanitarian sector.

We found the perfect angle for our new series: Innovation and women. In the article I write, “Our experience is that innovation is often associated with technology, and technology often associated with men. The Innovation Service and its partners have worked in innovation collectively for years, across different sectors and locations, and we all recognize that innovation is not only about technology and certainly not about men. Technology alone will never be enough for humanitarian innovation – we need collaboration and cross-disciplinary fertilization that enables new ideas and ways of thinking.” I mentioned this idea above – it’s crucial to the messaging we use as a team and our brand. And we thought we were going to do this right and we were going to address some of the biases we had about women and innovators in the humanitarian field. And you know what else we were going to do? We were not just going to talk about these challenges but start linking action-oriented goals focused on gender equity to our content. Aren’t we great and progressive?

In reality, the series was focused more on giving voices to women we had worked with (at HQ and in the field operations) and the women our interviewees had also worked with, than actually speaking about innovation. They wanted to speak about their experiences and identify actions that can help us address the biases in our day-to-day work. And that’s okay. We love the series and we’re going to keep doing it. We believe there is a gap in the humanitarian space and these stories should be told. The majority of women we have spoken with are also innovators and have been at the forefront of transforming the organization. But we believe that there is a larger focus needed on women innovating in the humanitarian sector and ensuring that their voices are contributing to the current trends and conversation. And on a separate note – why did we box these leaders into the “women category” to acknowledge the impact they’ve had in the first place?

In a way, this is exactly the problem. In order for us to speak and write about women (or women as innovators), we needed to make a series on its own. And that really bothers me. As Yong states in his article for the Atlantic, “I’m not asking people for their opinions because of their gender; I’m asking because of their expertise. Every single person I contact is qualified to speak about the particular story that I’m writing; it’s just that now, half of those qualified people happen to be women.” And this is where I, as a communicator, have failed in our stories and directing the conversations and contributions. There are women who are experts in this space – but we haven’t been focusing on their stories or interviewing them.

The faces of humanitarian innovation i.e. the number ones and number twos in the media are usually white men. It’s easy to go back to the usual suspects featured in Fast Company or at SXSW every year – but we can do better. This is the current master narrative and we want to help change it.

I’m not saying everyone is on the same page here – there are those ahead of us.  But I would challenge you to do this same experiment as a starting point and see what your numbers look like over the past few years.

Before we move on, I also want to be very clear that we have not addressed the separate issue of the total number of refugee women that were included in our content. We also calculated this: 13% of our articles had refugees that were direct authors or specifically interviewed for the article itself. This deserves a separate article that undertakes not only the question of including refugees voices in the humanitarian innovation conversation (because we all know they are the true innovators) but also defining what meaningful journalism and stories are that include “refugee voices.” Ideally, these are stories written and led by refugees themselves. But again, this is for another day.

So what are we going to do about all of this?

Let’s go back to diversity in teams and let me give you a few examples of how we’ve made changes:

  • Putting diversity and inclusion at the focus of everything we do. Talking about it internally but also externally. We’ve made diversity and inclusion a core part of our vision and our objectives as a team. Our boss recently published an article titled, “Innovation is about diversity and inclusion. Stop with the gimmicks, catch up.”– now we need to make sure those other voices are heard. Whether we’re recruiting a new member of the team or setting up a feedback mechanism in Nigeria – we have to be accountable as it is now indispensable to how we operate.
  • Senior Management refusing to participate in manels. The Head of our Innovation Service has been steadfast in this approach, and while it may seem like an obvious or small contribution – it’s important. You can help shift the master narrative by highlighting women with expertise who can speak instead of another male panelist or usual suspect. And if they don’t accept your suggestion, it’s probably an event you don’t want to attend anyways.
  • Ensuring there is gender balance in our innovation learning programmes. My colleague Emilia who leads our Innovation Fellowship program has made sure this is a priority in how we approach our training on innovation. She told me, “I think we have made a real improvement when it comes to the gender balance in the Fellowship program. If we look back to 2015, only 25% of those applying to the Fellowship program were women while those for our 2018 cohort has improved to 45%. While we’ve made progress, it is not enough. We need to make sure that women are represented in all other innovation learning activities as well. From a learning perspective, having a list of workshop participants consisting only men is not, and should never be acceptable.” Again, we have work to do but if you are running similar programs – take an active role in ensuring there is equal representation.


Moving forward – correcting the gender balance in our stories

I’ll be honest – this article took me a long time to write. I wasn’t really sure where to start except for trying to understand how I could personally change some of the stereotypes in our stories. There are a lot of layers and challenges to these issues that I can’t sum up eloquently but I thought I’d give it a try and hope to inspire more of the humanitarian innovation tribe to also do better.

And I’m sure you have ideas and recommendations on this too. Tweet at us, send me a message if you want to work on this together or just email [email protected] and we can provide a space for others to contribute to this conversation. Innovation is about the diversity of thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Collaboration is key for us to tackle these complex issues, remember?

So, after completing our experiment, I’ve decided these are the actions I will take in my role to help bridge the gender balance gap in our stories:

  • Interview more women on humanitarian innovation. Interview them about their work, their impact and their opinions.
  • Track this. Be diligent and accountable to these statistics.
  • Encourage and mandate contributors to our blog to include women’s voices, ideas, opinions, and expertise in their stories.
  • Have an evolving list of women with expertise throughout the humanitarian innovation space that can be interviewed.
  • Hire more women writers. Hire more diverse writers in general. Purposely seek out and highlight these voices.

And this comes to my final action point that I’m really excited about:

In light of this, we are looking to hire a few freelance writers as consultants to help us do this. We want your stories on innovation in the humanitarian space – particularly refugees, women, POC and LGBTQI are encouraged to apply. If this sounds like a journey you’d like to join us on – please send us a cover letter, CV and a writing sample to [email protected].

We won’t accept the argument anymore that you couldn’t find a qualified woman to interview or speak about innovation. Neither should you.



Image Credit: © UNHCR/David Azia

We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

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