Women, Work, and Women’s Work in International Development

Maya Woser, Senior Research and Operations Associate, Stefania Pozzi, Global Senior Research Associate, and Yifan Powers, Global Senior Research Associate, pull on strands of evidence to assess the effects of patriarchal practices and cultures in the workplace and the effects of empowering women as role models and leaders, and concurrent effects for organizational development. The piece also integrates reflections from PAD colleagues Maureen Kuboka, Caitlin McKee, Claudia Carbajal Morelos, Sam Carter, Wafa Tahir, Maham Bokhari and Owen Barder.

Whether you live in the United States or India, the past 12 months have been a difficult time for women. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare and exacerbated many structural inequalities and barriers that continue to make it difficult for women to fully participate in the workforce. It also highlighted the indelible value of women’s reproductive labor, which, in many respects, is the often invisible and unpaid work that allows our global economy to function. This is especially true for traditionally marginalized groups, as evidenced by the outsize impact of the pandemic on women of color in Western societies, and highlights the importance of intersectionality when thinking about how each society can best support women and families. Yet while the pandemic has shown how tenuous our progress in gender equality can be, it can also provide the momentum for profound change. As Arundhati Roy wrote, “the pandemic is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next” and we can take this opportunity, when everything seems broken, to move toward a new reality. In that spirit, and in honor of International Women’s Day, here are some reflections from staff at PAD on what factors, especially in the international development field, are important to consider when building a more gender equitable future. 

Role Models

In a now seminal paper, Lori Beaman, Nobel Prize in Economics winner, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande, and Petia Topalova found that while increasing the number of women in leadership positions in India did not  impact structural labor market opportunities for young women, there was a strong, positive role model effect on young women’s perceptions of self-worth and the types of roles they could inhabit. The co-authors also found that increasing women representation in visible leadership positions changed the perception of others’- in this case parents – with regard to what girls can accomplish.

Beaman et al’s paper describes through rigorous experimental data an experience many women are personally familiar with – the profound impact of seeing women in positions of power and in positions they may not have been able to imagine themselves in before. In the workplace, particularly in traditionally male-dominated STEM professions such as economics, this means increasing the visibility of women through hiring, promotion, and keeping them in the workforce – not just in a few token leadership positions but systematically throughout an organization – can be crucial to closing the gender gap. Advancing gender equity is always going to be a work in progress and in the spirit of transparency, PAD can report that 40% of our current staff overall are women and about half of our management roles are occupied by women.  

Reflections from PAD Staff

Maureen Kuboka, Agronomy Associate, PAD – Kenya 

Why do you think having women as role models is important in the agronomy field?

It is important to have female role models in agronomy because they help you know that you can succeed in this male-dominated field. A role model or mentor can hold your hand and help you know how to make it. In my experience, they have challenged me and shown me that it can be done. 

Have you ever had a woman as a role model or mentor, whether formal or informal, who impacted you in your career?

At my former workplace, I was inspired by the success of several senior female agronomists. I took that opportunity to observe and follow in their footsteps through “observational learning”. I am also still in touch with two senior lecturers who are women from my postgraduate degree and several of my former college classmates. We encourage one another in our respective fields of work and I am particularly challenged by college classmates who have been able to scale the ladder as well as those pursuing further education while they work. I am also keen to develop a formal relationship with a female mentor through the African Women In Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) Fellowship.

How does having more women in the workplace make you feel about that workplace and does it change how you approach your work?

Having more women in the workplace makes me feel that women are being recognized and highlights how inclusivity is a powerful tool. It boosts my morale and feeling of having opportunities at work, as well as improves collaboration and teamwork. For example, I can comfortably share a personal issue with a female colleague and we can find a solution through discussing how they overcame a similar issue. I was elated by the recent appointment of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala as the Directory-General of the World Trade Organization. She inspires me to picture myself as the next Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 

Caitlin McKee, Global Research Support Manager

Why do you think having women as role models is important in academia/the development economics field?

As a woman, having a female role model in the workplace is important for your development, especially in navigating tricky decision points in your career trajectory like furthering your studies, switching jobs, or handling maternity leave. It’s also critical for shaping the lens through which you see your professional work. The perspectives of women, along with other minority perspectives, are critical to understanding the development economics field and identifying what kind of research questions to ask in the first place. 

Have you ever had a woman as a role model or mentor, whether formal or informal, who impacted you in your career?

In graduate school at the University of Washington I worked for a research team led by Leigh Anderson and Mary Kay Gugerty. Despite incredibly busy schedules, these professors encouraged my learning, helped me develop critical skills, and pushed the bar of excellence for our work. There was also a gender-angle to much of the analysis that we did, not only on agricultural outcomes, but also on outcomes such as intra-household decision-making and time use, and they always emphasized the importance of gender-disaggregated data in any context. Their approach to crafting relevant research questions for women living in poverty reinvigorated me wanting to continue in the development field, using data as a tool to shed light on policy relevant questions. 

How does having more women in the workplace make you feel about that workplace and does it change how you approach your work?

Workplaces are better with diversity of all kinds to bring different perspectives and experiences to doing the work itself and in setting organizational norms. Having more women in the workplace, especially in leadership and management positions, is an important part of that. At PAD I’m very pleased to get to report to our female Chief Economist and Director of Research, Tomoko Harigaya. Of the many reasons why I wanted to work for PAD, a solid group of women in leadership and management positions to work with closely was a very compelling reason.


Despite progress in recent years in the number of women represented in leadership positions and in advances toward the achievement of equal opportunity, there are still strongly embedded gendered stereotypes about who a leader is. A study by Martin Abel found that both women and men react more negatively to criticism if it comes from a woman, and work by Gallup found that even women are more likely to report a preference for having a male boss compared to a female boss.

One explanation for these stereotypes may be actual differences in men’s and women’s leadership, but there is ongoing debate as to whether such differences exist. In a 2003 meta-analysis of 45 studies, Alice Eagly and Mary Johannesen-Schmidt found that women tend to use a more interactive style of management called transformational leadership, which emphasizes open communication, intellectual stimulation, and support for staff’s personal growth. The authors also found that women were more likely than men to deliver rewards to subordinates for appropriate performance. On the other hand, authors like Cliff, Langton, Aldrich and Andersen and Hansson claim that there are no significant gender differences in leadership styles. Another possible explanation is that these stereotypes originate from underlying beliefs, attitudes and mindsets about appropriate gender roles and behaviors: our expectations and gender biases might change the way we observe reality. 

Either way, the presence of these stereotypes highlight the depth of challenges to women in leadership positions, especially those in traditionally male-dominated fields where the few women who make it to the top are often confronted with questions on their ability to lead. However, organizations can do a great deal of work that levels the field for women, principally by creating an environment that is free of discrimination and one in which talent can be evaluated on an individual basis and not according to latent gender stereotypes. This will not only grow the talent pool of potential leaders, but will also ensure that different perspectives are brought together to contribute to the multiple challenges society faces. 

Reflections from PAD Staff

Claudia Carbajal Morelos, Regional Director for Latin America

What do you think are the most significant challenges that women leaders face in the development field? 

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the challenges faced by women in the development field mirror those abroad in society. Here are three that are salient for me:

1. Credibility – I think when working with new people, women start out with a credibility deficit compared to their male peers. Women are placed with a greater burden of “proving” their credibility and need to exert more effort and be better prepared to earn an equal seat at the table. 

2. Believing in yourself  – Because society has conditioned women to doubt themselves more, or to exert less authority, women are more likely to caveat their perspectives or opinions. This can reduce the strength and effectiveness of their interventions. Women are also likely to question their qualifications when thinking of taking on new responsibilities. For example, men are more likely to apply to a position for which they don’t meet the criteria. Women are also more likely to volunteer for thankless or low-promotability tasks.    

3. Speaking up – In my experience, women are less likely to speak up in meetings. This limits our influence and ability to recruit people to our ideas or initiatives.

Which piece of advice would you give to women who are trying to become leaders in the development field?

1. Find a mentor – Or find a few. Find people that share your vision and can help you advance your professional or personal goals. Recruit people that fully embrace your identity as a leader. 

2. Be aware of internalized gender biases and how those affect your actions – It can be easy to fall into stereotypical attitudes or roles and it can be hard to identify those situations or actions. Find good resources that could help you understand what you are doing and how to change those behaviors. Be intentional with your actions and reflect on them frequently.   

3. Trust yourself –  Believing in yourself and your strengths is fundamental to applying your full self to your work. Identifying your weaknesses and working on them can be helpful, but don’t let that become your entire self-identity. Pay equal or greater attention to your strengths and leverage them widely.

4. Promote dialogue and diversity training in your workplace – Unfortunately, you don’t have control over how others’ biases affect you and you, alone, can’t change their net effect on your work. Actions on an individual level help, but action at an organizational-level is important to reduce the negative effects of bias.

Who inspired you and why? 

I find Michelle Obama inspiring. She is a self-confident woman who stands up for what she believes in. She has fantastic communication skills that empower her to deliver complex messages to broad audiences. She is charismatic and has a strong character. She is perseverant and stubborn, while also compassionate. She is both privileged and well-grounded. She is relatable and accessible. I wished the world had more Michelle Obamas.

I was also inspired by Patricia Bellinger, a professor I had during graduate school. She teaches “The Art of Leading in a Diverse World” and included a lot of sessions on gender. She helped reshape my understanding of identity and gender and taught me how to move from micro-inequities to micro-affirmations. 

Sam Carter, Global Research and Operations Manager

As a development practitioner we may often be working in contexts where the conversation on gender equity is just starting to gain traction. How do you balance incorporating a gender equity focus in your projects and advancing your project’s specific outcomes, which may be complicated by a gender lens, in those contexts?

To design a program that achieves a specific set of outcomes in any given context, we first need to understand the impediments preventing people from achieving those outcomes in the first place, and recognize that different groups face different sets of impediments. Conducting qualitative research to understand the barriers facing each group, and doing so in collaboration with local practitioners and researchers, should be a key part of designing any new project. Of course, gender is never the only source of inequity, so developing an understanding of the ways that other issues (caste, race, socioeconomic status, etc.) intersect with gender-related issues is a crucial piece of incorporating a gender lens. 

For practitioners and researchers who would like to incorporate a gender lens in future work, this resource from my former colleagues at J-PAL offers practical guidance on measuring women’s empowerment and agency. 

What leadership qualities do you think are important in your field and why?

I think empathy, humility, and compassion are crucial for effectively working across contexts and for being able to learn from others. Most of us who work on issues related to poverty reduction got started in the field because of a desire to improve the world and address inequality at some level. Leaders who embody that mission are able to inspire their colleagues, recognize their blind spots, and make space for all voices to be heard. It’s also important to be a clear and proactive communicator about both project-specific things like deadlines and deliverables, as well as big-picture strategy and vision. 

Have you ever struggled as a woman to be seen as a leader? How did you work through those situations?

I’ve worked in a handful of environments where men’s voices were elevated and trusted at the expense of women’s voices, and where structural problems were ignored by defining the primary issue as being one of women lacking confidence. In those situations, I focused on noticing and writing down specific examples of how these biases were detrimental to the goals of the organization or project. I’ve also learned that leadership is more likely to take action on an issue when it is presented alongside a set of potential solutions. I worked with colleagues whom I trusted to come up with options that would be both impactful and feasible for the organization.

Overall, however, I’ve been privileged to spend most of my career working in organizations where women are given plenty of leadership opportunities, and to benefit from the mentorship and friendship of many incredible women (including the authors of this blog)!

Organizational Robustness

In both the private and public sectors organizations are increasingly turning to a “business case” for gender diversity. However gender diversity isn’t something to pursue for the sake of impressive statistics in annual reports, it is an organizational value that can strengthen teams and organizations. For example, research has shown that diversity, including gender diversity, at the leadership level is correlated with better financial performance. This may be because heterogeneous groups challenge each other and are more innovative, hence why “diverse teams are smarter.” 

Within the field of development economics, there is suggestive evidence that women ask different research questions. Seema Jayachandran, inspired by a blog post by Rachel Glennerster who explored the critique of randomized controlled trials as dealing with “small” or less “macho” topics, looked at the percentage of women authors by topic in three relevant economics journals. She found there was some segregation in topics, including that women – unsurprisingly – tend to write more about gender and health. Women bring different perspectives to the research table, but the strength of these insights will reach their potential only if they’re given due consideration. This echoes research by Letian Zhang at the Harvard Business School: that the positive impact of gender diversity is only present in contexts where gender diversity is accepted and considered important.

To make diversity meaningful and continue to attract and retain diverse employees, organizations need to make structural changes to support that diversity. This is more salient than ever within the current COVID-19 pandemic, a time when shifts in work structures have led to an increase in working women’s, often unpaid, domestic and care work. This can, and has had, significant impacts on working women, especially mothers, across the world. For example, in the United States, an estimated one in four women is considering downshifting or leaving her job due to COVID-19, with a disproportionately negative impact on women of color. In many developing countries, women are primarily employed in informal sectors which have fewer social security nets and have been disproportionately hit by COVID-19. The pandemic and the associated increase in unpaid domestic and care work threatens to undo decades of progress in terms of women’s workforce participation.

Reflections from PAD Staff

Wafa Tahir, Research Associate, PAD – Pakistan

How has gender diversity affected your team or organization’s performance? 

According to my past experience, working as the only woman on a team can be daunting and lead to multiple misunderstandings between team members. Being very new to PAD Pakistan, I experienced early on that gender diversity in the PAD Pakistan team has led to strong communication between the team members who support each other come what may, which in turn highly impact the team’s performance in a positive way.

Maham Bokhari, Research Associate, PAD – Pakistan

What does an inclusive workplace look like to you?

To me, the definition of an inclusive workplace is essentially about “cerebral equality.” This means that each person working for an organization is equal in all regards and subsequently will be offered equal opportunities, regardless of gender, age, race and religion. The only difference in each worker should be based upon the skills and cerebral knowledge that they bring to the table. I believe that inclusiveness for me shall rest on cerebral opportunities irrespective of any other parameters.

Wafa Tahir, Research Associate, PAD – Pakistan and Maham Bokhari, Research Associate, PAD – Pakistan

What factors from your experience make you feel supported and included as a woman in the workplace?

WT: The continuous help from my team members and their faith in my abilities make me feel included and supported. Moreover, at PAD, the support of our Management team, by acknowledging my work and giving me individual importance, has made me feel that my voice is heard and my opinions are important. 

MB: Having worked in the public sector, I realized that being the only woman in large meeting rooms can often be unnerving. In such settings, women have historically been considered less “influential”. However, working as a young, aspiring woman at PAD, I have been offered immense support and guidance from fellow men and women in my team. Furthermore, my ideas, words, opinions and input has been valued at an equal weightage in meetings, as well as during routine working sessions.

Owen Barder, CEO

How has gender diversity played a part in your organization or team’s “performance”?

I’m passionate about gender diversity because I think creating an inclusive workplace is the right thing to do.  It is also very good for the organisation, in at least four ways:

  • Widens our talent pool: By recruiting and retaining women, we benefit from the skills and expertise of half the population.
  • Broadens our perspectives. We benefit from the different points of view and it helps to understand the people we aim to serve. By making PAD more inclusive internally, we can do a better job of increasing inclusiveness and equity in the communities we serve.
  • Builds better teams and improves organizational culture.  In my experience, gender diverse teams collaborate better, are less macho, more supportive, and less competitive.  Diverse teams tend to be more emotionally intelligent and draw the best out of all staff.
  • A more inclusive workplace enables us to retain talent. Many organisations underestimate the costs of staff turnover in terms of lost expertise, the pressure caused by vacancies, and the cost, effort and risk of recruitment.  By paying attention to inclusivity, we are more likely to keep more of our excellent staff.

What policies make a difference? 

We need to listen carefully to staff members about what they think is important for creating an inclusive workplace. Some themes I have learned are important are:

  • Fair and equal compensation – we are still in a world in which women are often paid less than men. We need to address this head on, by ensuring that salaries and benefits are set in a fair and transparent way.
  • A culture of flexibility – recognising that different people have different commitments. We can offer flexibility in terms of working hours, location, working style and we can accomodate people who have to rearrange their work to deal with unexpected pressures (e.g. a school is closed). And we need to be disciplined about ensuring that discrimination does not creep in against those who exercise these flexibilities.  
  • An inclusive working culture – we must make sure that women are listened to and recognised in the workplace. Organisational culture can and does change, if people with power are self-aware and model good behaviour themselves.  
  • Tackling multi-dimensional discrimination – it is important to recognise that discrimination and privilege take multiple forms. Not just gender, but race, class, nationality, disability, sexuality, religion, physical appearance, and educational background can all affect a person’s opportunities. When we think about being more inclusive, we should be particularly thoughtful about the many different forms of discrimination that some people face and how these interact with each other.
  • Role models, sponsors and mentors – by increasing the visibility of women in leadership roles, and supporting others to advance, we can ensure that women have more access to opportunities to advance their careers.
  • Inclusive talent management – good leadership depends in part on spotting talent in the organisation and providing pathways for people to grow and succeed.  Addressing biases in the way that talented colleagues are identified and supported can create a much more inclusive workplace.

How can we incorporate global values of gender diversity and equality while working within local contexts?

Precision Agriculture for Development is an increasingly global organisation that works in places with different cultural norms. I don’t regard these differences as a reason for us to equivocate on gender diversity – our sense of injustice about discrimination is the same for everyone everywhere; and our ambition to be fully inclusive is universal. Our commitment to being honest, humble and self critical should make us sensitive to differences across social contexts, but need not make us accept injustice.

As we create a more inclusive organisation, these differences may mean that we need to adopt different approaches to change in different places. For example, I recently took part in training on unconscious bias, intended to help me challenge my own perspective on inclusivity, which was organised here in the UK.  The trainer had developed material which was particularly relevant for leaders in the UK. For example, class plays a much more prominent role in Britain than it might in other contexts, and that featured a lot in the training; while there was relatively little in the training about religion, which might have been given more weight in course for a different context. So while our ambitions are universal, differences between places might well lead us to conclude that particular problems are a higher priority in one team than another, or that we need to tackle problems in different ways from place to place.

In writing this post, a lot of what we learned reinforced what we already know: there is much work to be done. Just a few weeks ago, a New York Times piece reported on an upcoming research paper  led by Pascaline Dupas and Alicia Sasser Modestino which studied the types of questions posed to economists at research seminars. They found significant evidence of gender discrimination and bias. Reading the comment section of the article, which was filled with similar stories of bias from women both within and outside economics, it’s clear this research affirmed an experience many women are all too familiar with. As development practitioners, we know that data is a powerful tool that can catalyze action, yet the data we need doesn’t always exist, as evidenced by the difficulty Dupas et al faced in further studying the experience of women of color in economics. It is therefore up to us all, using the strength of our diversity, to recognize what is missing and address it in our effort to build a more equitable future.