In many areas of the world, women’s labor is not recognized for it’s full value, not viewed as “real work,” and simply taken for granted.
For a foreign firm operating in Liberia, it is both an ethical imperative and a practical necessity that women’s labor be deliberately incorporated into operations, and explicitly recognized for its key role in furthering the mission. In our operations, we strive to shape the gender environment through our core principles, key of which being the inclusion of skilled women labor, explicit recognition of women’s contributions, and fostering a deliberate environment of respect for all workers regardless of gender.
In our recent project to construct a United States Agency for International Aid (USAID)-funded bioenergy plant in the rural village of Kwendin, our woman CEO gave clear guidance to all personnel that women be hired for skilled labor positions whenever practical, leading to an initial construction team where, of fifteen laborers, we employed two woman masons and a woman carpenter, in addition to three women in the more conventional position of cooks.
Our expat management team was made up of a woman Chief of Party with an MBA and construction experience, a former military male Deputy, and a former Peace Corps woman Contract Manager (CM), which gave our workers a view of a male expat manager and male Liberian Lead Engineer taking direction from a woman leader.
Our Chief actively worked to show that the women laborers were equal partners in the works. Their input was actively solicited at morning and afternoon meetings, and our masons and carpenter seized the opportunity to state their opinions, concerns, and ideas on site.
A key teaching moment was one afternoon where the lead woman mason, Beatriz, raised an objection to how we were back-filling a foundation hole with crushed masonry, arguing it would not settle properly.
Our Chief heard out her concerns and courteously rebutted them, but some three hours later it became obvious that the backfill was indeed not stabilizing properly and would have to be replaced with a gravel seat for the foundation. Our Chief called the whole crew to assemble, saying, “Beatriz, you were right and I was wrong, the crushed masonry won’t serve, and we need to use the gravel like you advised. I thank you for showing me the correct way.” That moment left a strong impression on our crew, and Beatriz’s confidence in her work increased tremendously.
Sometimes our job required clear correction of poor gender values, which our Chief and Contract Manager (CM) leapt on as each emerged. In one case, a male cement technician came to eat at the lunch circle, took off his muddy boots, and threw them to our woman carpenter, saying, “go clean these.” Our CM firmly called him out in front of the crew, telling him that the carpenter was not his mother who should clean up a mess, but a skilled worker whose responsibility is to frame wood for construction.
She explained that expecting a woman to do additional work simply based on her gender was disrespectful to her professional skills, and that the young man must either wash his own boots, or politely pay a villager for the work of cleaning them so that everyone’s labor is properly valued.
Similarly, after seeing the Lead Engineer only task the women employees for picking up litter and sweeping on the worksite, the CM made it known that cleaning tasks must be evenly divided between crew members regardless of gender.
With our cooks, where it was too easy for the crew to take them for granted in a “traditional women’s job,” we ensured that the crew was to thank them each time they were served.
The head cook would hold her meetings with the CM publicly.
By holding the meetings that way, the crew could see that a cook team lead must report to the CM to receive her supply funds and submit her receipts in the same way that the masonry and carpentry crews report-in.
Gender change is accomplished over generations, not simply over one project, so while we worked to shift attitudes little-by-little in Kwendin, we were keenly aware of the endemic problems of spousal and child abuse, dangerous domestic working conditions, particularly due to cooking over smoky open fires, lack of woman-focused medical support, and a simple lack of inter-gender empathy and respect.
Despite knowing that our efforts could only scratch the surface of the gender issue even within just one village, every step forward is an accomplishment, and we hope that as we leave Kwendin the small lessons we taught, and the examples that our women managers and laborers set, will find a resonance that strengthens the community in its ongoing press towards a more ethical, just, and even effective working environment for women.
As leaders in our organizations, it is imperative that we are active in our quest to balance our workforce by providing equal pay for skills shared by women and men; maintaining a no-tolerance policy towards gendered bullying, in and out of the workplace; and educating our staff and communities on the benefits of male-female camaraderie.