This month WIPA is honored to interview Oley Dibba-Wadda, Executive Director of FAWE. Ms. Dibba-Wadda is a gender equality specialist within the international policy and programming field. Prior to becoming the Executive Director of FAWE, she was the Global Gender Advisor to Oxfam Great Britain. Ms. Dibba-Wadda has also worked as Project Manager for the Commonwealth Education Fund and has held a number of regional coordination and country management roles in gender- and education-related organizations and projects operating in Africa and Asia.
Ms. Dibba-Wadda shares the experiences in achieving a work-life balance. She encourages young women to follow the path of professional excellence, knowing that a balance is possible when one’s objectives are fully articulated.
[Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity]
How have you managed to balance your career with your personal life?
It is indeed a big challenge trying to achieve a good balance between these two objectives. I have been lucky to receive strong support from my family, particularly from my husband and my four children. My family’s unconditional support, understanding and appreciation for my professional responsibilities has made it possible for me to concentrate on the work front. It is practically impossible to be able to combine a career and personal life on equal terms without this kind of support.
READ: FAWE’s Newsletter on “Empowering African girls and women for life“
Nonetheless, the emotional and psychological aspects – the guilt of feeling that I am not around enough to celebrate birthdays, school events and help with school assignments (as a mother and wife), is one that continues to weigh on me. I often reflect on this struggle for economic empowerment and independence and the simultaneous urge to embrace more mainstream personal and cultural values (i.e. my role as a stay at home mum and the wife who manages the home front). I am by no means under pressure by my family to make that difficult choice, but I am under pressure by my conscience to make that choice. It has not and is still is not easy.
What is the biggest challenge you have encountered throughout your career as a woman? If any?
The biggest challenge that I have encountered was balancing between work, home and university life. When I was in the United Kingdom, I had to juggle the start of my doctoral degree course at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, coupled with working full time as a Global Adviser on Gender at Oxfam GB in Oxford (often travelling overseas) with raising 4 children and a husband at home in Bracknell. Eventually, I almost reached a breaking point. I had no life of my own. I felt I had to work three times harder than an average person to get to where I wanted. In hindsight, I doubt I would have gotten to where I am if I did not experience that journey.
One of the key reasons why women do not pursue leadership positions is the difficulties of combining work and family. What policies could help solve this challenge?
I believe that gender responsive policies and practices need to be in place to solve some of the challenges women face in combining work and family duties. For example, policies and practices that encourage flexible working hours for mothers and fathers with young children, the ability to work from home, adequate maternity and paternity leave, company managed childcare, part-time employment options, “bring your child to work day”, etc. This could encourage more women and men to feel motivated to focus on their work and not have to worry about balancing child-care, their home and careers.
There are some institutions that encourage these policies within the African context, though these policies have yet to be fully integrated into mainstream society. Despite these positive developments, women still have to navigate the full range of demands that are a part of a successful career with the equally important demands and expectations at home. Realistically, women still have to continue to compete in a patriarchal working environment if they want to pursue leadership positions.
Policies need to consider these factors otherwise many women may be forced to make serious compromise their child rearing period, including family duties and social relationships. In the end, they run the risk of fulfilling their careers and losing out on their personal and family lives, or compromising their careers and not getting the opportunity to climb up the career ladder. I appreciate that not every woman is in favour of a family life, but I also do know of so many women who are in this situation and regret the choices they made to start with their career first.
Based on your experience on the African and Asian region, what do you think is the most important aspect that is lacking in gender-specific development policies?
Most national policies are gender blind, meaning that policies are developed with the assumption that “one size fits all” and will address women and men’s needs equally. For instance, policies on national budget allocations fall under these categories. Education policies are another example, particularly as they are usually generalized without identifying and factoring-in the different needs and environments of boys and girls as well as male and female teachers.
From my experience, the fact that women constitute over 50% of the global population and form a significant part of the labor force yet, their contribution to economic growth in Africa and Asia is neither acknowledged nor recognized is worrying.
What advice would you give young women who are interested in a career in development and positive policy making?
My advice to young women who are interested in a career in development and positive policy making are that they might be faced with difficult choices between personal, family and work demands. Following your professional passions may not be an easy journey, particularly if it is not a 9 to 5 job or goes beyond just sitting behind a desk. My career in the area of gender and education in development has been more than a job – it is “a calling”! If you discover your calling, be prepared that you may need to travel considerably. If this is the case you may need to plan your life taking this into consideration. If your “calling” is a career that focuses on advocacy and negotiation skills, be aware that you have to face various cultural, disciplinary and lifestyle choices. That being said, its important to remember that the ultimate goal should be to achieve a fulfilling life.
Knowing that I am playing my part and making a modest contribution towards humanity is, for me, one of the most important drivers in this career. Despite the various challenges (which also open doors for opportunities), trials, and tribulations working in the field of international development is indeed a worthy cause. I personally have no regrets and if I have to do it all over again, I would do it the same way.
FAWE is a pan-African Non-Governmental Organization working in 32 African countries to empower girls and women through gender-responsive education. More information can be found here http://www.fawe.org/