How we can all make concrete changes to improve gender equality in humanitarian innovation.

Effective innovation requires diversity of thinking. Diverse teams are more productive and creative, and collaborations that reflect the world outside are more likely to understand it.

However, as UNHCR has pointed out, humanitarian innovation suffers from a lack of diversity. One of the aspects of this is gender equality: while women’s voices don’t need ‘strengthening’ as it is sometimes referred to—they need to be listened to better.  As in many other parts of society, the least powerful and lowest paid positions are often held by women—while when we look at the ‘boardrooms’ of humanitarian innovation, male voices often dominate.

Within the humanitarian sector, this imbalance has been particularly noted in traditionally male-heavy sectors such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

At Elrha, we set out to change this, working with a gender and governance expert as well as building on good practice from other sectors. We found that small adjustments to how we work can make a big difference to the breadth and quality of discussions—and therefore results—that we have.

Below are three small changes organisations and individuals can make to better support gender balance—in our case, it has changed how we work on innovation in WASH:

Visibility and platforming

‘Manels’ are so 2018. A growing number of men in the humanitarian sector are refusing to participate on panels that comprise only of men. But—there is still a long way to go to get real gender balance across the humanitarian innovation sector, and better visibility for female voices at events and meetings is key.

In January, Elrha held a Humanitarian Innovation WASH Showcase to present our new WASH Innovation Catalogue and a number of our innovation projects. We ensured that every panel and block of thematic presentations was gender balanced. We also trialled an approach of asking all facilitators to pick a woman first when taking rounds of questions from the audience, and to balance the amount of questions taken from women versus men. This is because evidence shows that during academic seminars (and, it can be assumed, in professional forums this is similar), any given question is 2.5 times more likely to be asked by a male than a female audience member—and data suggests that when a woman is the first to ask a question, this imbalance is smaller.

While this practice is rare and there is still no conclusive evidence on how to increase visibility of women on professional platforms, there are promising signs of progress. Recently, the planner of a large WASH conference got in touch with me for advice on how to support women’s voices at her event. When researching this, she had found no relevant guidance or case studies.

Instead of giving up, she collected her own evidence. Six months later, she has now finished a comprehensive guide based on extensive research, and her conference is set to have an equal ratio of male and female speakers.

Representation at governance and strategic levels across the sector

The humanitarian sector and the innovation space within it is full of steering groups, advisory boards and trustees. When recruiting external experts for these positions, organisations should be intentional about diversity and gender. It is not enough to ask for the most senior people and hope that this results in a 50/50 split of men and women. When nominating their own staff for external sector groups, organisations need to reflect on where they’re looking for talent. Relevant experience comes in many forms, not just years worked in the sector—it’s also about lived experience and bringing new perspectives.

Last year, Elrha’s WASH Technical Working Group (TWG) consisted of 18 senior WASH experts, of whom only three were women. We wanted a better gender balance; to be transparent and ambitious about achieving this; and to make it a collaborative process. We asked the 15 men in the group to do two things: to nominate 1-3 talented women in WASH for TWG membership, and to consider stepping down to make space for them.

We were worried about potential pushback from this bold ask, but our concerns were unfounded. We were delighted by the phenomenally supportive responses we received and proud to be working with principled people prepared to act on ensuring gender equality in their work.

Six months later, we’ve just held our annual TWG meeting where we had, for the first time, almost complete gender balance. The most remarkable thing about this wasn’t a WASH forum with as many female as male voices; rather it was the balance of many voices, without a few male ones dominating the conversation. This made for a more nuanced and productive discussion—which leads me to my final point.

Be mindful of your own behaviour and the space you occupy

Last year, I was invited to an event on humanitarian innovation. A topic which, given that I am a Senior Innovation Manager at Elrha working on our Humanitarian Innovation Fund, I’m fairly familiar with. However, after the first networking break I found myself feeling insecure and out of place. Texting a small group of female friends, several of them in very senior positions, I quickly realised that I was not alone. One woman shared evidence showing that in a range of settings, men on average pay more attention to male than female voices. Several of my friends had stories of being asked to take notes in meetings for no apparent reason other than being female; many had examples of being spoken to as if they were junior and inexperienced; and all of them had numerous experiences of feeling excluded from conversations in subtle, covert ways that left them questioning their own merits as well as their perception of the situation.

I often find that reflecting on how you impact your surroundings is a hallmark of a great (innovation) leader. All the colleagues I admire the most are accomplished men and women who are also humble and genuinely interested in listening to others. To truly listen to a diversity of voices, we need to remind each other that every conversation is a negotiation: a strong facilitator is not enough; we each have a responsibility to limit our own speaking to make space for those whose voices are heard less.

It’s important to recognise that Elrha is not perfect in terms of balanced representation—as are, I suspect, very few organisations. However, we are committed to improving, and aware that we still have a lot to learn.

We live in a time where the momentum for gender equality and increased diversity is stronger than ever. The time for change is now—and the humanitarian innovation agenda has an opportunity to play a central role in driving this shift.


Photo Credit: Suleiman Al Sumairy (from Qatar Red Crescent Society’s User-Centred Sanitation Design Through Rapid Community Engagement project)

About the author

Cecilie Hestbæk is Senior Innovation Manager at Elrha and leads the Humanitarian Innovation Fund’s (HIF) WASH programme. Working closely with the HIF’s group of WASH technical advisers from across the humanitarian sector, she designs and runs innovation challenges. She manages a portfolio of around 50 humanitarian innovation projects, the majority of them WASH, providing flexible funding and support to help the projects plan and manage innovation processes from recognition stage through development, piloting and scaling.