How “de-biasing” humanitarian organizations could lead to more gender-equitable programming during COVID-19 and beyond

By Vandana Sharma, MD, MPH and Jennifer Scott, MD, MPH

While there has been progress towards achieving gender equality globally, a recent study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which included data from 75 countries, reported that 91% of men and 84% of women hold gender biases against women [1]. Using the Gender Norms Index (GNI) [2] to assess social beliefs and attitudes towards gender equality in numerous domains, the study sheds important light on some of the deeply ingrained and often invisible barriers to achieving gender equality.

While the UNDP study highlights gender biases held by individuals, organizational-level gender biases are equally important to assess and address. Organizational gender biases can influence policies, processes and decision-making as well as the work environment and culture. The way in which organizations consider gender can further contribute to a work environment where both types of gender biases are able to operate.

In the humanitarian sector, neither individual-level nor organizational-level biases have been well studied. However, it is clear that gender biases exist and influence humanitarian leadership and programming. For example, while the humanitarian workforce is comprised primarily of women, women hold only 25% of leadership positions in humanitarian organizations [3]. There are gendered pay gaps [3], biases in decisions related to field work and deployment, and lack of appropriate considerations for women’s needs when in the field or in other work settings [4].

Without gender-responsive programming, where gender issues and gender-based violence (GBV) risk are taken into account, and mainstreaming of gender across the humanitarian system, women in affected populations, and also those on the frontlines of emergency response may face additional challenges and risks.

Gendered impacts of COVID-19 pandemic and response measures

Take for example the current global response to COVID-19. Evidence from previous infectious disease outbreaks demonstrates that underlying gender inequalities are exacerbated during crises; outbreaks have been associated with increased violence against women, and reduced access to gender-based violence services and primary health care [5].

Unsurprisingly, the current COVID-19 pandemic and associated response measures appear to be following a familiar pattern. Numerous gendered effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are being reported across the globe. Anecdotal reports from several countries including the United States [6], France [7], the UK [8], Myanmar [9] and China [10] suggest that efforts to mitigate COVID-19 spread, such as quarantine and movement restrictions, may be contributing to increased intimate partner violence (IPV) [11]. While these measures may be necessary to control the spread of the virus, they may also limit survivors’ ability to distance themselves from perpetrators of violence in their homes, and reduce their access to GBV support services and resources.

Other gendered effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and outbreak measures, including additional burden of caregiving have also been reported [12]. Calls for gender-responsive approaches to addressing COVID-19 are gaining momentum but in practice there remain gaps on the ground despite lessons from previous outbreaks and crises.

There are other gender issues at play as well. For example, the majority of humanitarian practitioners and health workers on the frontlines are women. Thus, women humanitarian practitioners may be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to high exposure. In addition, women may not be prioritized to receive adequate and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) [13] or the PPE they are provided may be ill fitting and not designed for women’s bodies, potentially increasing risks [14]. However, despite their critical roles in response efforts and associated risks, given the gender imbalances in humanitarian leadership, women may not be included in decision-making or in the design of humanitarian response efforts, and their needs may not be prioritized.

It should also be noted that gender-responsive programming and GBV interventions may not be prioritized due to lack of funding. A recent study reported that only 0.12% of humanitarian funds were devoted to GBV programming [15], despite its high prevalence and health, mental health and economic consequences. Lack of prioritization of this issue may also be linked to patriarchal culture in decision-making structures, and socio-cultural perceptions, biases and attitudes towards gendered programming [16]. Gender biases also affect humanitarian program implementation and evaluation. Despite the emergent evidence base that gender equality programming improves humanitarian outcomes, programs have not fully integrated gender, and data are rarely disaggregated by sex [16–18]. Addressing gender biases could therefore improve the effectiveness of humanitarian response, narrow the gendered leadership gap and ensure women on the frontlines are protected.

How can we address gender biases within the humanitarian sector?

While workplace diversity and inclusion programs focus on individual-level gender awareness training, behavioral research illustrates that individual-level gender bias is prevalent and difficult to overcome through training alone [19]. Innovative solutions from behavioral economics suggest that employing principles of behavioral design to “de-bias” organizations can help address gender bias and ultimately reshape the way we work, learn and live. For example, a study found that blind auditions led to significant increases in the number of women musicians in the top five orchestras in the US [20]. Changing the design of the recruitment process by adding a simple curtain between musician and evaluator changed the environment such that unconscious gender biases were unable to influence outcomes.

As part of an ongoing project, our team will apply similar behavioral design principles to address gender bias in the humanitarian sector. The project builds on expertise from humanitarian organizations, and includes researchers from Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Program on Gender Rights and Resilience (GR2), Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) at Harvard Medical School. With funding from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at BIDMC and Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), we will conduct a mixed methods assessment of gender bias in the humanitarian sector, develop simple, low-cost approaches to de-bias humanitarian organisations, and pilot these with or without individual-level gender bias trainings in Ethiopia and a second country.

Given the significant evidence gaps on gender biases in the humanitarian sector and interventions to overcome these barriers, if effective, the de-biasing solutions developed as part of this project have the potential to significantly alter the humanitarian system, changing the way organizations design and implement programs, and the workplace itself. Addressing gender biases now could improve COVID-19 response efforts as well as other emergency response programming in the future.

Vandana Sharma, MD, MPH is a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard T.H. School of Public Health and an affiliated researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).

Jennifer Scott, MD, MPH, is the Director of the Division of Global and Community Health in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.


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20. Goldin C, Rouse C. Orchestrating impartiality: The impact of” blind” auditions on female musicians. American economic review. 2000;90(4):715–41.

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