Gender in the workplace: do families always have to lose out?

This year International Day of Families is focusing on gender equality. As IIED embarks on our own gender audit, Isilda Nhantumbo looks at the importance of gender and family roles within the workplace.

Isilda Nhantumbo's picture
Insight by 
Isilda Nhantumbo
15 May 2015
International experts on gender and employment participating in an IIED gender workshop in 2014 (Photo: Lucille Robinson/IIED)

International experts on gender and employment participating in an IIED gender workshop in 2014 (Photo: Lucille Robinson/IIED)

This year's International Day of Families, with its focus on gender equality, could not have been more timely for IIED. We are currently undertaking a gender review and audit to look internally at the way we work, the issues we grapple with as men and women in leadership positions, in research, in the way we communicate, and the way we operate, from our front desk through to our IT.

We want to recognise that we are not just professionals, but that we are also current or aspiring mothers and fathers, grandparents, children and siblings.

We are also diverse of course in other ways – such as age, ethnicity, sexuality and language. But one thing that binds us is the fact that we work for IIED and we jointly pursue a mission of building a fairer world.

Our work reflects our concern about the plight of men and women, particularly in developing countries, who are struck by natural disasters and climate change, who live in challenging environments and climate, or who do perilous and precarious work.

We care about their rights, their livelihoods, their access to resources (financial, technologies and human capital). We seek to understand how they can transform and improve their wellbeing while caring for the environment. And we have tried to take a gender perspective in some areas of this work.

In pursuing our mission, we know that we cannot address gender in the fragmented and almost 'voluntary' way that we have taken so far. But in order to interrogate how we address gender in the delivery of our mission, we have to look inside the organisation.

Do men and women have equal opportunities (roles, responsibilities and rewards) not only at the recruitment stage, but also to grow within the organisation and develop a career path that addresses the challenges of the world while bringing professional and social satisfaction? Does our working culture help us to be successful professionally while leading a happier life?

Working hours, childcare, maternity and paternity leave, flexible working (be it in terms of hours or the places we work from) and travel are just some of the issues that affect men and women within the organisation, but also their families.

Working hours

While technology is helping us in many ways to communicate almost from anywhere, it also can feel like a form of enslaving ourselves as we are reachable and (can) feel the need to connect with work all the time (thank goodness for those moments when you are in a tunnel on a train or in a remote village in Africa and the signal fails!). What does this do to our families and our social relations?


What help do we get as mothers and fathers, in partnerships or as single parents, striving to make a contribution to sustainable development while at the same looking after our offspring and caring for others? Do we have systems and resources that make the choice to work easier?

Maternity and paternity leave

While there is clarity on maternity leave, there are concerns that recent changes to paternity leave do not necessarily give fathers a choice to care for their families and allow mothers go back to work earlier if they so choose.

Could paternity leave also be flexible in order to allow the family to decide on how and when it might be most useful to take in order that both parents pursue their career choices?


In our increasingly connected world, working from different locations seems to be less of a constraint. Should we build on this in our recruitment and retention of professionals to ensure that they can contribute as meaningfully as possible to the delivery of our mission?


We live in a world and an age where we need to connect with the people we work with (policymakers, colleagues and partners, the communities we work with). But how much travel is reasonable for our own wellbeing and our families?

Can we interrogate more our current ways of working and perhaps explore more the use of technologies to communicate and work effectively across the globe (technology can also help us!) with minimum travel? That would also reduce our own footprint as well as allowing us to be more with our families and friends. We need this for our sanity and wellbeing, for the happiness of our families and also to contribute to educating the next generation.

As I highlighted at the beginning, IIED is looking both at how we work and how we partner with others to deliver our mission. We will be sharing more details about our gender audit in the coming weeks, inviting others to share experiences from organisations they work or have worked with.

The quest is to integrate gender equality in a meaningful way I invite all my colleagues, friends and families to reflect on how to improve our own understanding of gender equality and how we can address the inequalities at work, at home and in the poor and marginalised communities that we work with.

Isilda Nhantumbo ([email protected]) is a senior researcher in IIED's Natural Resources Group and is leading IIED's gender review and audit.