In honor of Women’s History Month, Shattering the Ceiling is going to be profiling a series of women who we believe are making women’s history now. These are the women who we want our daughters, sisters, nieces (and selves) knowing about and being inspired by. And we imagine that when future generations are celebrating Women’s History, these are some of the women they’ll be honoring.
In January, I wrote about how climate change, environmental justice and feminism are all linked. One of the examples in that piece concerned how the way people cook meals in the developing world can have devastating effects on health and the environment. In response to this problem, things like clean cookstoves can generate significant improvements.
Luckily, we have an expert on the issue willing to talk more about it with us. In today’s Making Women’s History Now interview, I discuss international development, environmental justice and feminism and her perspectives on being a woman of color in the U.S. workforce, with Seema Patel, Senior Associate for Fuels for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
Am I right in saying that this isn’t just a climate issue — that this is also an environmental justice issue and a feminism issue? Is that a fair way to characterize the work you all do at the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves?
It is impossible to say that trying to bring clean cookstoves to the developing world is just a climate issue, or an international development issue, or a women’s issue. It is all of those things.
In most of the countries where we work, women are the primary cooks. So it is almost by default that this is a women’s issue. Of course, it is also a question of health and environment. The amount of time that women spend cooking and the concentration of pollutants that result from traditional cooking practices create a series of devastating health impacts that our organization works to displace. Household air pollution accounts for approximately 4 million premature deaths each year — more than malaria and tuberculosis. And that number doesn’t account for things like cataracts and blindness that result from frequent exposure to cookstove smoke. And of course those same emissions have negative implications for the environment at a local and global level. So it is more than just a women’s issue or health issue or environment issue. It’s a crisis.
At the same time, our organization is invested in empowering the women in these communities. So often, women are the primary cooks but are relegated to secondary status when it comes to making decisions – even though women are the ones who implement those decisions. We work to train women who want to be involved in businesses through something called the Empowered Entrepreneur Training, which builds their confidence and gives them the tools they need to speak up, get involved in business and to inspire change within their communities. And even more than the immediate health and environmental improvements that come from clean cookstoves, what we hear most about from the women we serve is that they want to have agency, not just in their own homes, but also in their communities. And our program inspires them to go out and advocate in their neighbors’ homes, to be business people who run companies in ways that contribute to cleaner air and many other social benefits provided by these products. And that in turn creates stronger communities, which is environmental justice at its best.
And how did you decide to focus on international women’s issues?
I didn’t actually get into this area with the specific intent of working on women’s issues. I have my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Environmental Studies/Policies, and my master’s has a specific focus on International Relations. So I was drawn to this because of the environmental aspects and because of the international development focus.
I hadn’t worked on environmental justice or women’s issues before. But working in this space has been a profound experience for me. Seeing the difference between the struggles of women in the U.S. and women in the rest of the world has had a powerful effect. We take for granted how much we have here. Doing something like cooking a meal doesn’t come with all of these attendant worries. But in the developing world, it’s so different. And it is really gratifying to do work that is meaningful on all of these levels.
Have there been any surprises for you in doing this work?
I never imagined the way that clean air would have such a wide-ranging effect on women’s lives. As I mentioned before, getting involved in clean cookstoves has inspired so many women to reshape aspects of their personal relationships and of their local communities. That’s been such a rewarding surprise.
I’ve also been unpleasantly surprised by how often we encounter this way of thinking about global development work that is based on a misperception about what people living below the poverty line in developing world want or need. There is this assumption that if people are really poor, really desperate, they won’t care about quality, that they will take anything that is better than what they currently have. Of course, the reality is that people – whether they are displaced people in humanitarian settings or just in communities that are very poor – all people have dreams and aspirations about what the future can be for themselves and their families. And they want quality. They don’t welcome basic forms of technology that aren’t going to work well or last or fit with the kind of cooking that their traditions call for. Having talked with women in communities around the world who might be the recipients of clean cookstoves or other technology-based improvements, this seems like it should be obvious. But it isn’t. There’s a prevailing model where people are just distributing cheaper products on the idea that anything will do. And it won’t.
Have you faced any challenges in your work, either here in the U.S. or when working with your partners overseas, that you think were either because you are a woman or were exacerbated because of your gender? What about the fact that you are a woman of color?
There are certainly fewer challenges in this role than in some of my prior roles. In this job, being a woman of color is an advantage. When I go out into the communities we serve, those women of color see me and assume some level of commonality, seem to assume that I’ll be able to understand their experiences and that I’m invested in them as human beings worthy of respect. This helps offset some of the distrust that is often there in the beginning of relationships between communities and international organizations. It can help suggest that perhaps our organization won’t fall into the common negative perception about international aid being nothing more than foreign entities coming in and telling them what to do.
For example, in Haiti, the race issue and the dynamics of race play out dramatically. There is a notion there that every international organization that has come into the country has failed them. There is a perception amongst some in the development community that Haiti is where international aid programs go to “experiment” or die. That perception – which may very well be based in actual experience – makes building meaningful partnerships difficult. The fact that I’m a woman of color certainly doesn’t fix all of that magically, because I am, after all, a foreigner coming with aninternationalorganization. But it does help.
I find it interesting that it doesn’t sound, from that answer, like you feel racism plays a significant role in your personal experiences in the professional setting. Is that right?
I certainly do find that, particularly in more formal settings like conferences, presentations, or roundtables where we are working with other professional organizations, then I have to push back against my perspective being discounted. In fact, my organization is predominantly made of women, and often talk about the common experience of our voices being talked over, dismissed, minimized. But my experience is that, in the international space thus far, that seems much more attributable to my being a woman and being youthful. Race hasn’t seemed to play as much of a role. Perhaps that is because, in international work, we are surrounded by diversity in a way that has never been true for me in my other roles in the U.S. that were domestic-oriented.
Let’s talk about that shift a bit more. Does working in your current organization feel appreciably different from previous experiences?
Absolutely. And I’m not sure what to attribute that to. But, in some of my previous experiences, I came up against a culture dominated by men who came from an era where workforce diversity did not exist as much and was not valued or prioritized. There seemed to be a notion that I was inherently less qualified to make decisions at senior levels. In certain situations, I found myself confronting a total disrespect for my expertise.
Honestly, there was a lot of discrimination; sometimes in big ways, sometimes small. For example, men would refer to female colleauges as “girls” rather than “women” and would speak to women in a tone that was unprofessional and disrespectful. And this is something you see in the cooking sector too, which is often dominated by male engineers and and/or business owners. We still have a lot of progress to make domestically and internationally.
But the level of respect that is a baseline in this job makes clear how little respect there was for women in many of roles I’ve filled previously. At the Global Alliance, the organization as a whole is a purposefully conscientious about respect and empowerment for women – the women we serve and the women with whom we work. It just makes such a difference.
Will experiencing that affect or change how you might evaluate future jobs?
Interesting. Potentially. Going from lack of respect to engrained respect has built my expectations about what I deserve and what I think about the work that I want to pursue. I can’t imagine going to any organization in the future where those values aren’t ingrained in their mission and organizational structure. At the same time, I’m more conscious about what is important versus what I was willing to sacrifice for the sake of experience in the past.
What we sacrifice or compromise for the sake of experience is, I believe, an important but difficult topic. I have personally chosen to sacrifice a lot of what I probably should have demanded for myself for the sake of experience and opportunity in the past, and I’m not sure whether that was the right call now that I know what I know. How do you think about the choices you’ve made, the compromises?
Maybe it’s best to think about it like prior, bad relationships? You need to go through it to learn how to say no, to know what a good circumstance looks like? And, like most bad relationships, not everything was bad. I learned valuable things.
But, like relationships, I probably stayed too long. The hard part is that it’s really hard to know when enough is enough. It’s tricky to see clearly when the cost-benefit analysis shifts and when it is time to call it. Especially because, by virtue of what you’re giving up for yourself, you’re probably already maxed out and not in a good place to think through those big picture questions. And you’re also too busy to think about or even try to address the gender stuff you’re dealing with on a daily basis. I was. But there is a point at which the culmination of those issues and the stress from that reaches a breaking point.
You made a switch, mid-career, from managing quite a few others to taking a role in a new organization where you do not manage others. What was that transition like? And do you have any advice for women thinking about making a similarly big-change mid-career?
First, the good. Going from domestic to international issues was very appealing and it has been gratifying to get back to my area of expertise and interest. But even more important to me was the allure of seeing tangible results within a reasonable timeframe. At Global Alliance, I’m more able to see the results of our work in real life; I’m able to talk to the communities where our projects being implemented. Seeing the fruits of my labor, having physical, measurable outcomes, is incredibly rewarding. Ultimately, I guess it is fair to say that I took a pay cut from my previous job to this job because I wanted to be able to see the difference my contributions were making.
Now, the caution. Women (especially ones who already have a number of years of professional experience under their belts) thinking about making similar career changes need to be prepared for changes they haven’t anticipated.
To be very clear, I do not regret making the change I did. But it is so much harder than I ever thought it would be. Taking what was effectively a demotion when it comes to management hierarchy has had far bigger impacts than I expected. It was humbling. Going from being a manager to being an associate was incredibly difficult. In my prior role I was overseeing ~20 people (a mix of direct and part time staff). So having to be a direct contributor again and having adapt to a new management style and system is a big deal. It is reminding me we all have to always be teachable. And I’m having to be autonomous and self-sufficient; not having a team to fill in my gaps has also pushed me to grow.
And I guess that’s the silver lining of those challenges. I’ve realized that I really love management, specifically cultivating talent and helping build and guide other people’s careers. I know now that it is important for that to be a part of my career. I’ve realized that’s what I really have passion for.
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