9 Steps to Pursuing a Career in Gender & Development

Jenn Williamson, Director of Gender Mainstreaming and Women’s Empowerment, ACDI/VOCA
Elise Young, Senior Advisor for Gender Mainstreaming and Thought Leadership, FHI 360

1) Study, study, study

If you are currently pursuing undergraduate studies, consider a majoring in or at least taking classes in the areas of sociology, anthropology, international studies, foreign language studies, women’s and gender studies, international political science, public health, or other similar programs. Courses in these areas will help you to better understand key social constructs around such issues as gender identity, cultural identity, and sexual orientation as well as global gender and social issues, international relations, international and foreign policy, civil society, democracy and governance, international development and humanitarian assistance, conflict and peace-building, and other related topics. Take as many gender-related classes that you can to deepen your understanding of the array of different gender concepts, theories, resources, methods, and forms of study. If pursuing a graduate degree, identify programs that specialize in gender and development or that have strong gender coursework within other degrees. For example, you may not be required to have a Master’s Degree that officially focuses on gender (though this can be very helpful), but having an MA in International Development, Policy, Business or Public Administration, with a certificate or significant course work, practicums and/or study projects focused on gender can be very helpful. Identifying key advisors, professors, researchers, and intern supervisors with gender expertise is also extremely helpful.

2) Do your homework

It’s very important to have a thorough understanding of development as an industry and gender as a specialty within development. This in-depth perspective is important to not only understand what a future career would look like and what skills you would need to prepare, but also so that you have a real sense of how much you would get paid (seriously—will the anticipated salary cover future student loan payments or other financial needs?), where you would live (and whether you are willing and comfortable living there), what type of work you would do, the level of risk it entails (understand the context of where living/working takes place and your level of comfort with it), and so on.

There is a wealth of information available online. Begin by reviewing the websites of donors (ranging from public sector/government donors like USAID, MCC, DFID, SIDA, and DFAT to private foundations like the Gates, Clinton, and Ford Foundations to multi-lateral banks and agencies like the World Bank, IMF, various UN agencies and foundations, ADB, AfDB, OAS, ILO, and many more). Identify and review the websites of specific non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that conduct humanitarian or development work (or both) to review their missions, where they work, the types of projects they do, and who funds them. Look at whether these donors and organizations prioritize gender as part of the work they fund or implement and how they describe or explain their gender approach (is it integral or added on? does it just discuss women? does it include people outside of the gender binary? does it describe a broader social inclusion approach? how is the approach carried out in their actual work?)

Another way to learn about the industry and the actors (donors, organizations, and specialists) is to sign up for listservs that focus on gender and development such as the Interagency Gender Working Group (IGWG), the Society for International Development Gender Working Group, the Gender Network, and others. Watch free webinars about gender and development topics. Use social media to connect and educate yourself, including LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Check out these twitter hashtags: #GenderEquality, #HeForShe, #WithStrongGirls, #CSW60, #UNWomen, #GBV, and #GlobalWE3.

3) Get field experience

If you’re interested in working in international development with a focus on gender equality and female empowerment, it’s important to get hands-on field experience in developing contexts as soon as you can. It is important to learn first-hand about the issues development organizations and programs are seeking to address, ground your learning in real-world contexts, and learn how to build relationships and work effectively outside of your own cultural context. Find out more about volunteer programs such as Peace Corps, fellowships, internships, study programs, service projects and/or employment abroad. Even a 3-month volunteer program abroad can help a lot. Before going abroad and while abroad, research, identify, meet with, and/or volunteer with and support local women’s, youth, men’s, LGBTQIA, and people with disabilities’ (PWD) rights organizations to better understand their needs, strengths, priorities and solutions. It is essential to listen, listen, listen, and then do follow-up research. If you absolutely can’t go abroad, consider working or volunteering with local immigration or refugee groups to work more directly with people from developing contexts as well as with domestic women’s, youth’s, men’s, LGBTQIA, and PWD rights groups, to understand the US context of many gender focused issues.

4) Hone your language skills

If you do not speak any languages other than English, explore how you can begin studying languages in high priority areas or parts of the world in which you are particularly interested. If you are a student, you may choose to take language courses—and even pursue study abroad opportunities—based on your career goals. For those no longer in school, you can check whether universities, community colleges, language schools, or tutors offer language training in your area. Some universities offer reduced fees to alumni. There are also online language courses and software programs available as well as inexpensive and free online, phone, and tablet apps, depending on your budget. If you speak more than one language already, work to hone both your oral and writing skills in each one. Consider joining a conversation group or organizing one yourself with other colleagues or students. If you are not currently speaking a language regularly, find ways to stay in touch and use that language as often as you can to keep that skill sharp by speaking it with others, watching shows and movies in that language, reading articles and books published in that language, or through other methods. People who speak and read/write multiple languages are always in high demand in this field, particularly in: Arabic, Swahili, Spanish, French, Chinese, Hindi and Portuguese.  Country specific languages—such Haitian Creole—are also sought after, if you are interested in working in specific countries.

5) Intern

Identify and secure internships with respected development and humanitarian organizations working in the realm of gender integration or gender focused rights. Internships are a great way to acquire experience as well as become familiar with an organization and to let them become familiar with you as a potential employee! Internships are not only for undergraduates or for those who have newly graduated. Internships can be very helpful for mid-career individuals transitioning to a new industry to acquire experience and demonstrate how their skills are applicable in the development industry or context. Internship opportunities could include larger secular organizations that work on a variety of issues such as CARE, Oxfam, ActionAid, Amnesty International, Mercy Corps, Plan USA, PCI (Project Concern International), ACDI/VOCA, or FHI 360. It could include organizations focused more specifically on the priorities of women, men or the LGBTQIA community, such as Women for Women International, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Promundo, the MenEngage Alliance, or the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (IGLA.) It could include multi-lateral or Global South leaning organizations such as UN Women, the Association for Women in Development (AWID), or Women in the Informal Economy: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO.) There are also many faith-based or faith-associated organizations that don’t necessarily require that you be a part of that faith group, such as World Vision, American Jewish World Service, Mennonite Central Committee, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, Lutheran World Relief, UMCOR or United Board of Church & Society, and Catholic Relief Services. Know that most internships are unpaid or low paid (though they will often reimburse your transportation costs), so think realistically on whether you can do this full-time.

6) Perfect your CV and cover letter

Get outside help—preferably from someone who works or understands the development industry—in making your CV as strong as it can be. Undergraduates should contact their university career center, which often has resources for CV and cover letter writing. Others may find assistance through your alma mater’s career services office, through a career coach, or if through a contact in the development field. Regardless, ensure that your CV, just like your cover letter, has absolutely no grammatical mistakes or typos. Emphasize gender related skills that you have built in classes, internships and jobs, languages you speak, skills and experience related to the job duties for which you are applying or are common in development, data management, social networking tools, etc. Use strong action verbs and qualitative summaries to demonstrate your accomplishments in clear and concrete terms. Examples: “Spearheaded school-wide women’s education program… Designed and implemented new 10-hour gender-sensitivity training for career services office…Co-led 8-person gender inclusive hunger task force.” Make sure that the CV is no more than 2 pages if you have only 1-12 years’ professional experience or 3 pages if you have 12 or more years.

7) Network, network, network

Once you are as fully informed as you can be through desk research, you should be well prepared to talk to people who work in development organizations. Do not contact people to learn about the overall development industry, about gender, or about organizational information that can be gleaned from desk research or the organization’s website—their time is valuable and limited! You want to use the opportunity to build connections and demonstrate your interest (and potential) by showing familiarity with the organization and the types of work they do.

Identify some target organizations working in sectors or countries that particularly interest you and try to connect with individuals working there. If possible, find someone who can introduce you to a person you’d like to meet. Ask for a brief (15-30 minute) informational interview to learn more about their job or organization. Your goal in an informational interview is not to ask for a job, but to make a connection and learn more about the types of work you are pursuing. Work through websites like LinkedIn to build your contacts and check who you already know in an organization or might be willing to make introductions on your behalf.

Join in-person and online gender-focused international development networks, like the Society for International Development’s Gender Working Group, the SEEP Women’s Economic Empowerment Working Group, different UN Women Chapters, or the Association of Women in Development (AWID). Research, RSVP for, and attend nearby international development events that are open to the public to learn more and network—always introduce yourself to people attending the event. If you’re based in the Washington DC Metro area, events may include public Congressional hearings or briefings, events at the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, U.S. Institute of Peace, UN Foundation, Brookings Institute, or Center for Strategic and International Studies. If you live in NYC, look at different UN events, including UN Women, and annual conferences such as the Commission on the Status of Women.

8) Further develop your skills

If you are interested in a specific type of position but see that you don’t have the needed qualifications, consider your next steps for professional development. Do you need a Master’s Degree in international development or public policy with a concentration in gender to be a real candidate for the position? Do you need a professional certificate in program management or monitoring and evaluation? Do you need training on how to do a gender analysis, develop a gender strategy or budget, or create gender indicators? Do you need on-the-job experience applying your knowledge in gender analysis or gender integration? Are you already well versed in certain key gender theories and components but need to deepen other technical areas of knowledge? If that is the case, perhaps you need to take a class on macroeconomics, qualitative research, data management or program evaluation and then work to sync these skills with your gender knowledge in projects and group work. USDA and other government agencies offer several low-cost classes on such subjects, and you can seek out trainings and courses through local universities. Some organizations and agencies offer trainings at various sites around the world, and costs can range from nothing to tuition and board. There are also several online trainings available for free or low cost through sites such as GenderHub and others.

9) Effectively market yourself

Your CV is an important way to show people who you are and what skills and experiences you bring to the table. However, there are thousands of people with qualified CVs out there. So think about creative ways to market yourself, something that shows not just why you are passionate about gender equality, female empowerment, male empowerment, youth empowerment, LGBTQIA rights or other key gender issues but also what skills and abilities you bring to help organizations and projects achieve goals in those areas! Passion and concern about a topic are important, but caring only takes you part of the way—organizations are looking for intelligent, innovative, motivated people who work well in multiple cultural contexts, think creatively, work well with others, and bring valuable skills with them. Consider your personal “sales pitch” and how you can explain not just what’s great about you, but also what you bring to the job or organization you are applying for. Customizing your CV to audiences and positions is a great way to ensure that your skills are easily noticed. Make sure your LinkedIn page is easy to read and highlights the experience and skills that demonstrate how effective you could be. Ensure that your online and social media presence is not only professional but also amplifies your visibility as a candidate in this field—blog, tweet, link, and post professional articles, discussions, and comments about these areas and demonstrate your engagement in this field (while avoiding any public posts or photos that would reflect poorly on you as a professional or an employee).

Good luck as you take steps on your career path in gender and development! Once you’re on your way, make sure you “pay it forward” and support others who wish to explore a career in this exciting field!