One Saturday afternoon in Guinea in December 2015, a group of women working on the Ebola response gathered to discuss their respective experiences as women working in humanitarian aid. The women represented many races, religions and nationalities, and were professionally diverse representing heads of missions, middle managers and entry level personnel, both international and national staff. Within an hour of the meeting, the women realized one thing: they have all experienced some form of discrimination and/or abuse in the humanitarian workspace as a direct result of their gender, and that there was no reliable system in place to address their grievances and not result in backlash to their professional positions. This startling conclusion prompted the women in the room to wonder, are we alone? From January to March 2016, we launched a survey that reached over 1,000 women aid workers in 50 days. We asked you to tell us about your experiences with discrimination, harassment and abuse as a woman working in the field. We probed into whether you feel safe, listened to, and respected as a professional. Suffice it to say, there is still progress to be made.


From January- March 2016, a group of female aid workers carried-out a survey of their peers to better understand the experiences of women working in the humanitarian field. The survey sought to capture information about the demography of respondents in addition to four broad categories pertinent to issues facing female humanitarians, namely: (1) Discrimination and Harassment, (2) Sexual Aggression and Assault, (3) Reporting, and (4) Impact on Professional and Personal Well-Being. The 35-question survey captured both quantitative and qualitative information. Options were offered to respondents to share their experiences and some results were coded into qualitative data. The survey was conducted on SurveyMonkey in French and English, and participants were informed through word of mouth, social media, and professional networks. Survey methodology and analysis was guided by PhDs in qualitative and quantitative research. A total of 1,005 women from more than 70 organizations responded over a period of 50 days. Some of the results confirmed what the group had believed to be true from anecdotal evidence, other results were surprisingly positive, and still others worse than we had anticipated.

This survey is not meant to be an exhaustive evaluation of all gender issues internal to the profession, but rather an indication of how prevalent certain issues may be. Moreover, the survey is heteronormative and focuses exclusively on the experiences of female staff in relation to their male colleagues. We recognize that men can be victims of harassment and assault and women can also be perpetrators, but exploring these dynamics would have been too ambitious for this initial survey. We strongly encourage others to conduct further research to explore any key aspects or dynamics we have not included.

Sub-saharan Africa & Indian Ocean
is the most represented continent in terms of field interventions.

% of respondents who agreed with these statements:

*Rated on a scale of 1-10. Responses between 1-5 classified as disagree”, between 5-10 was “agree”

Gender breakdown in Senior Management Team

*Statistically significant difference

% of respondents who felt they were discriminated against from getting a job opportunity because of gender

*Scale of 1-10: 1 is “not sure”, 10 is “I have evidence”, = mean

% of respondents who felt they were favored for getting a job opportunity because of gender

*Scale of 1-10: 1 is “not sure”, 10 is “I have evidence”, = mean


Discrimination is defined as a woman being treated differently than male colleagues in areas such as professional advancement, salary, professional respect, access to certain services, etc, due principally to gender.


  • 51% of women who reported having these experiences at least once report that it came from a male supervisor
  • International aid workers report comments on physical appearance and demands to conform to stereotypes more than national counterparts (statistically significant, p<.05)
  • In the past month before taking the survey, women have felt badly on average 1.7 times due to gender related comments made by colleagues. This number is not associated with age or number of years of experience, and is equal between  national and international workers.


Harassment refers to any unwanted words, actions, or gestures with sexual connotations that create discomfort or concern and that threaten the professional wellbeing of the targeted person. Examples derived from stories from women in the field include:

  • My male boss always invites me for after-work drinks even though I always decline the offer
  • My boss always calls me by nick-names like “dear, honey, sweetie”
  • My colleagues stare at me in a way that makes me uncomfortable during breaks, I hear inappropriate jokes about women in general
  • My colleague tried to touch my breasts and I put him in his place. Since then, several times, he has broken into my computer files and altered them to undermine my work
  • My colleagues, who I share an office with, have pinned up a calendar of scantily-clad women to the wall
  • During a work cocktail, a small sausage fell off of my plate, and my boss said to his other colleagues (all men) “she prefers the big ones”.
  • My boss has confided in me about his sexual preferences
  • I had a relationship with a colleague at work. After we broke up, he made public displays of jealousy in our office
  • I turned down the advances of a male superior, and since then he doesn’t give me work and speaks to me aggressively
  • My boss often stands close enough behind me that I can feel his breath on the back of my neck
  • When I pass in front of the photocopier in stretchy pants, my colleague slaps my butt

Experiences of sexual aggression and assault while on mission

  • The number of times these events happened to a woman is not correlated with age, number of years of experience in the field, or number of missions. However, the acts are correlated to each other (p<.05), meaning there is a strong probability that a woman who reports one of these acts will also have experienced another one.
  • All acts above are reported as being committed by male colleagues; of the women who affirmed they had experienced these acts, 33% reported that it came from a male supervisor.

I= International Staff       N= National Staff
Data comparisons are statistically significant (p<.05).

  • The data reflects the frequency of reporting the above instances among national and international staff members. In many instances, international staff members reported more or equal occurrences of sexual aggression and assault indicators as compared to national staff.
  • The one critical exception is for forced sexual relations. Though there is no difference in international and national staff in the occurrence of this acts, when it occurs, the number of times it happens to a national staff is greater than for an international staff.


Sexual Violence is defined as a non-consensual sexual act, imposed by a psychological or physical coercion


31% of the women who experienced gender-based harassment, aggression, and assault, officially reported the act


  • Concerned about professional consequences
  • Felt it wasn’t “serious enough” or “violent enough” to report
  • Did not trust the system/anyone
  • Absence of mechanism to report
  • Lack of “proof” and/or knowledge of how to report
  • Dealt with it personally (i.e confronted the abuser)
  • Being told not to report because of a cultural excuse
  • Shame, confusion
  • Fear of reprisal by aggressor


  • When women denounce these acts, they reported it first to the head of office/mission, followed by the direct supervisor and then human resources/staff counselor. The person they reported it to was in the majority of cases a man (56%) that was part of their organization (95%).
  • The level of satisfaction reported about the way the organization handled the incident is 3.7 out of 10, with 36% of women being “not at all” satisfied.


  • Qualitative results confirm that, after reporting, most women felt minimized, judged, or ignored. Two respondents shared instances of being fired after reporting.
  • There were several examples of constructive results, including two instances of the woman being moved to a safer location.
  • Of those women who reported ‘negative professional consequences’ when they reported, 25% say they lost their jobs and 18% report being blocked professionally.
  • When an investigation was carried out, the investigator was in 83% of cases internal to the organization.


Qualitative results confirm that, after reporting, most women felt minimized, judged, or ignored. Two respondents shared instances of being fired after reporting. There were several examples of constructive results, including two instances of the woman being moved to a safer location.


OUR STORIES Qualitative Findings from Survey (in order of frequency)

1. Many women felt they were being denied opportunities  because of their gender, mostly through generalized sexism, although a few were targets of retribution for denying romantic/sexual advances

2.Most women just “took themselves out of the game” by:

  • Choosing to leave a mission/country/organization
  • Hesitating or refusing to take a job opportunity because of fear of repeated exposure to a previous experience of discrimination /harassment/assault
  • Leaving the field altogether (or considering leaving the field altogether)

3. Developing coping mechanisms/changing behaviors that had negative impacts on their job performance

  • Becoming more withdrawn, quiet, passive, shy
  • Become more aggressive, direct, rude
  • Withdrawing from certain situations (both professional and social) that could be helpful to career
  • Loss of motivation for work

4. Some women used these experiences to empower themselves to develop strategies to deal with these issues themselves, or to alter career to work as gender advisor or in protection to address the issue at a systemic level

5. Five women shared instances of being forced to leave because of their experience


The most prevalent response to this question was feeling as if opportunities were being denied to women because of their gender.

The second and fifth most prevalent response has to do with women taking themselves out of the game: either by choosing to leave a mission/country/organization, or hesitating/refusing to take a job opportunity due to their experiences with discrimination/harassment/assault. If you combine the two results of these codes, this becomes the most prevalent theme, which means that women are taking themselves out of the game. This is a strong result that confirms what we were hearing about women dropping out due to harassment.

The third and fourth most prevalent concerns voiced were of women altering their behavior and performance due to the stresses of discrimination/harassment/assault.



Now that you know the problem, become part of the solution. Get in touch with our growing network of professional women who are here to support your professional development. Join our Skype discussion group and Facebook page where women share information, tips on getting ahead and job vacancies. Reach out to our network of more senior women to learn how to excel professionally and adroitly navigate the system with your professional integrity intact.


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