NGO Suckitude – A small rant
Something I have noticed quite clearly in my admittedly short time working for NGO’s is how frequently they reinforce the very behaviours, attitudes and structures they aim to dismantle. In many feminist and/or women’s rights organisations it is fairly common in my experience to not make proper allowance for women who have children, to rely heavily on unpaid work, to operate from a heavily hierarchical structure where those who have not actually contributed to projects but are more senior in the organisation get to enjoy the ‘perks’ of those projects (such as attendance of conferences, book launches, activities etc…).
I personally find this deeply problematic. I understand that some of these practices are driven by pragmatic concerns – funding for not for profit organisations is never easy to secure and most philanthropic avenues do not seem to think that funding operational costs is a valuable use of their money (something I will comment on at a later point). Thus there is a very real need to keep operational costs down – including the cost of staff. Hence the heavy reliance on voluntary labour, howeber I do not think there is enough analysis of why such practices are deeply problematic despite their practical neccessity.
The devaluing of women’s work has been one of the cornerstones of patriarchal social structure. Care work has been particularly devalued but women’s contribution outside the home has also suffered. Women are paid far less than men for doing exactly the same work, Women’s achievements are often co-opted by their male superiors or co- workers, women are expected to do the crappy jobs no one else wants to do and not complain about it. A famous example of this dynamic is the historic discovery of the double helix shape of DNA – credited to James Watson and Francis Crick but was actually initially made by Rosalind Franklin who found the shape via X-Ray crystallography. She shared her prints with Watson and Crick who published it. History is littered with examples where a women’s professional contribution has been undervalued or credited to someone else.
Looking at this context it is deeply problematic to me that this history of undervaluing women and women’s work is continued in the very organisations that purport to work to benefit women. Furthermore women who speak out against this system of internalised exploitation are attacked and criticized for not being sufficiently committed to the cause, or for acting too entitled. This is a form of silencing that is very damaging. I understand the practical limitations that constrain most women focused NGO’s however I believe that small changes to ensure organisations are critiquing this patriarchal dynamic rather than reinforcing it. Allowing volunteers or people lower down the food chain to enjoy the fruits of their labour by attending a conference perhaps. Simply acknowledging that the current situation is less than ideal but it is all we can manage right now and reinforcing that all contributions are valued can go a long way to subverting rather than reinforcing patriarchal attitudes towards women’s work.