Women in Development – The Changing Field.

A mother and daughter talk about their roles and perspectives as women in development work

In the early 1980’s, Elisabeth moved to the town of Tanga in Tanzania and started working as a medical doctor. Her daughter Friederike, who was born around that time, later started a career in development also working abroad an in the development sector. In this inter-generational conversation they share their motivation and experience of working as women in development, reflecting on what it means to live as a foreigner abroad, raise a family, and the challenges of gender in the development sector.


Q: Moving to a foreign country in Africa in the 80’s to work seems like an unusual decision for a woman at the time. How did you start working for the German development service (DED)?

Elisabeth: To be honest, chance played a big role. Africa wasn’t on my agenda. But when my partner at the time received an offer from the (then) Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) (English: German Corporation for International Cooperation) for an interesting project, after much deliberation I decided to come along for at least a year and postpone my plans in Germany. But getting married and taking on the role of ‘the accompanying wife’ was out of the question for me. Ultimately, I ended up looking for (professional) work at DED. My goal was to get specialist training in gynecology. Not a very popular choice at the time. The male colleagues considered women incapable of proving themselves in surgical training and female doctors had to deal with derogatory and sexist behavior. When it turned out that my time in the Tanzanian hospital would be recognized, I decided to stay longer. DED’s concept of providing capacity through external support – where local was lacking – was in line with my beliefs. My curiosity about foreign cultures and distant countries was certainly also an important driving force.

Q: What shaped your decision Friederike?

Friederike:I agree that careers are so often shaped by chances. Naturally having been born in Tanzania and later finishing secondary school at the International School Moshi, had an influence on my way of thinking about the world, about inequalities, questioning the status quo. With a small detour into arts, I decided to study Applied African Studies at the University of Bayreuth. A decision that I discussed with some of my parent’s friends that, unlike my parents who worked as classical ‘experts’ for a limited time-frame, were among the first who started a career in development. But despite their questioning whether ‘development work’ should be considered as a career, or whether we shouldn’t be working to make us as international experts redundant, and despite their warnings about the disruptions that the regular moves that come with along with this job would cause, I went ahead. At that time, I was motivated to do my part in making the world a little more equal and at the same time really took pleasure in moving around, exploring new places and cultures, so probably not so different from your situation, only that of course I had a much better understanding of what to expect.

Q: How has your motivation changed over time? What made you stay or not stay in development work?

E:The work in the hospital was extremely challenging. For me, with only two years of professional experience, I often pushed the limits both professionally and personally. I was particularly dissatisfied with the feeling of being a welcome employee but not being able to change much in my position. A life as a guest, not as a part of society, did not correspond to my ideas. And I didn’t see it as my job as a stranger to teach people. Of course, I also had a lot of positive experiences and what had interested me about gynecology in Germany, namely being in close contact with women was also important for the women in Tanzania. In the end it was a win-win situation. I consider these experiences, which have definitely broadened my life and horizons, to be very fortunate. But I saw and still see my place in Germany.

F: I guess the difference between you and me was, I had already spent some years critically discussing and analyzing development and structures before I even started. So while I was super motivated, there were plenty of situations where I questioned the effectiveness and sustainability of the work, or the system of development support throughout. I feel that in earlier days there were so many idealistic people working in development, that because of their over-enthusiasm they often didn’t see when they were doing the opposite of what their intention was. I thus see development studies as a huge advantage as it provides you with better capability to critically question your own actions. In fact, I think it this critical reflection, both individually and among organizations, is indispensable as we all continuously need to adapt to an ever changing environment.

Q: What role has being a ‘woman’ working in development played for you?

E: In my job as a gynecologist, I think it makes a big difference whether I’m a man or a woman. Regardless of where (in the world). As a woman, I have an easier access and intuitive understanding of other women’s problems. For cultural reasons, this is not quite as easy in another culture and misunderstandings are more common. But in the field of women’s health, I think it’s a good solution to let women work with women. I was personally recognized as a woman and as a white doctor by both women and men. In a different field and with a different skin color, that would probably not have been the case. But that also applies to Germany. Women in surgery, for example, are still viewed with skepticism.

In Germany there used to be almost only male gynecologists when I started to work. That has changed completely and that has to do with the fact that women dared to take up this profession and assert themselves. And women, as patients, voted with their feet. Accordingly I could see the same happening in development.

I think it’s important that women help other women to recognize and enforce their needs and rights. And women often find other ways and solutions. This is not specific to development cooperation, but universal. And it is certainly important that children and young girls get to know women who have managed to overcome traditional, restrictive roles. Preferably women from their own culture. Origin certainly still plays a major role here: change is progressing more slowly in rural areas than in the cities. Women who work in the field of development should particularly encourage these young, strong women and support them as multipliers.

F: I think you summarized the situation really well and I strongly agree that it makes a difference in all kinds of different sectors that woman have a say and of course it particularly pertains to issues around women’s health. As such I really find it shocking that after so many years of women’s empowerment and gender mainstreaming, you still have (more often male but not only) colleagues sighing aloud when it comes to ensuring that gender components are realized in programming. It is still not uncommon that gender is reduced to ensuring an equal participation of woman and men in activities. This just reflects that many still haven’t understood that gender equality and women’s empowerment forms the basis for sustainable development.

Which is why it is so important that women today are much more present than before in development work. In fact most my colleagues have been woman. Yet, what remains is that at decision-making and top management positions you often find a male-dominated world. So again, even though things have changed since you started your work, we still haven’t closed the gender gap in development work.

Q: Would you say there is a difference for women from the global north working in the development sector?

E: Compared to local women, as a woman from the Global North you may have had and still have an undeserved bonus in terms of prestige and acceptance. At least in my job. But this leap of faith doesn’t last long if the performance isn’t right. The opposite may be true in other professions.

F:I agree and it actually is visible in terms of mobility, job opportunities and of course in monetary terms. As national consultant or a national officer still gets a much lower salary than the international staff. A gap that naturally has an implication on power dynamics. The goal of development aid should be to make it superfluous. I fear that few organizations are really envisioning that and – being devil’s advocate here – the pay gap can also be seen as a way to maintain power relations. I am happy though to see these relations are being questioned and you can see that at least in some countries the salary gap is reducing, so I guess we are moving into a different era here as well.

Photo caption: Elisabeth visits Friederike during one of her first positions in Rwanda, ca: 2007. Photo courtesy of authors

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