Hannah Wright

GENDER, PEACE AND SECURITY ADVISER | SAFERWORLD

You advise Saferworld on gender, peace and security. What does that entail?

I’m a member of Saferworld’s policy team, based in our headquarters in London. I do research and analysis looking at the relationships between gender and conflict in the various countries where Saferworld works. I then use those findings to influence policymakers in governments and multilateral organisations like the United Nations in order to shape their approaches to building peace and security. I also advise my colleagues at Saferworld on how to include a gender perspective in their work – that is, I help them to think through how to take into account the different needs, interests and experiences of women, men, boys and girls and promote gender equality.

What does Saferworld do?

Saferworld is an international non-governmental organisation (INGO) working to prevent violent conflict and build safer lives. We have programmes in around 20 countries and territories across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In those programmes we work together with local organisations and activists to address the underlying causes of conflict and violence, including trying to address injustices that lead to conflict, make decision-making processes more inclusive, and challenge gender norms that can fuel violence. We also conduct research, and use it to influence decision-makers at the national and international levels to try and ensure that their policies have positive impacts rather than negative ones. So we look at things like the sale of arms to authoritarian regimes, and the often-negative impacts of current approaches to counter-terrorism and stabilisation.

What is a 'typical day' like?

There isn’t really a typical day in my job, as the role is so varied. I spend about a quarter of my time travelling – either to conflict-affected countries where Saferworld runs programmes, or to centres of policymaking like Brussels, New York or Washington DC. Sometimes I’m doing research, other times I might be attending a conference or running a training workshop on gender and conflict issues. When I’m back in the London office, I’m often writing briefings and reports, or providing comments and advice on funding proposals or donors reports. I spend a lot of time in meetings, often on Skype with colleagues in our other offices around the world.

You do a lot of writing in your job. Why is it important and how did you get good at it?

Writing well is incredibly important for communicating your ideas to different audiences, particularly if your goal is to influence people to do things differently. Gender, peace and security is quite a complex topic and often the ideas and concepts I’m communicating to people are relatively new to them. So it’s very important to be able to put those ideas into words in a way that’s accessible for the intended audience. I’ve got better at it through practice, and asking other people to comment on my work before I publish it has helped me to learn good habits.

Before working at Saferworld, you spent two years working in Parliament. What did you do there and why did you decide to leave?

I was a Parliamentary Researcher for an MP, but the job is much more wide-ranging than it sounds. As well as research, I was writing speeches for my boss to deliver in Parliament, issuing press releases and talking to journalists, and overseeing the day to day running of my MP’s Westminster office. I was working for the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, but – as is inevitable in politics – there was a reshuffle and she was given a different portfolio. As a member of an MP’s staff, when your MP’s role changes yours always changes with it. I knew that I wanted to continue working in foreign affairs – particularly on conflict and security – so at that point I decided it was time to move on.

Gender has been a recurrent theme in you career, including when you worked in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Why this choice?

I’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I started thinking about what gender means for foreign policy. I had already applied to do a Masters in International Relations (IR), but after I started reading about feminist perspectives on IR, I got more and more interested and started to think that I should switch my application to the Gender and IR course that Bristol University also offered. At the time I was concerned about being forever pigeonholed as a gender specialist even though I was interested in lots of other aspects of IR as well. I talked to the head of the department, who advised me that, as a feminist, I would probably get pigeonholed anyway so I may as well study whatever I was most interested in. I took her advice and switched to the Gender and IR course.

I then applied to work for a women’s rights organisation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories while I was writing my Masters dissertation. It combined my long-standing interests in gender and the Middle East, and allowed me to get some experience working overseas for an NGO. I was also able to do field research for my dissertation, conducting interviews with some brilliant and inspiring Palestinian women’s rights activists.

What is the place of gender in foreign policy?

Gender is, among other things, a way that we impose meanings on the world, by constructing ideas of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ and then applying them to everything. People, professions, even abstract concepts – everything can be ‘coded’ as masculine or feminine if a society or community chooses to see it that way. These ideas have a powerful influence over how we all live our lives – what jobs we choose, how we relate to our families, what expectations we have of others. In our patriarchal societies, we tend to value masculinity over femininity, which means that things which are seen as masculine are usually viewed as more important and taken more seriously.

All of this has real significance for foreign policy in lots of different ways – it affects who gets to make decisions; whose needs and interests are seen as important and whose are marginalised; who gets sent to fight wars and who gets rewarded for using violence; who is seen as a legitimate target for violence and what kind of violence is used. My most recent piece of research was looking at different versions of masculinity and what role they play in conflicts and in peace building.

How could foreign policy be different if more women were involved?

This is a difficult question because we don’t have very much evidence (yet!) to help us answer it. I think we need to be careful about making assumptions that women are necessarily peacemakers or have a particular set of priorities compared to men, as it is often not the case. We also can’t assume that women in power in will always make decisions that will advance women’s rights, although they sometimes do. In the masculine world of politics, many women have found it necessary to act ‘more manly than the men’ in order to be taken seriously, which means they haven’t always been great feminists – or great peacemakers.

That said, I do think we have a better chance of having a foreign policy that reflects women’s needs and interests if we have a critical mass of women in decision-making positions. It depends on who those women are, what they believe in, and how connected they are to broader feminist movements. I also think that involving more women is part of the solution to challenging masculine cultures which tend to exist within foreign policy-making institutions, which could in turn change the way we approach foreign policy for the better. In the year 2000, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325, which called for women to have full and equal participation in decision-making on matters of peace and security. We’re still a long way from achieving that.

You studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford and Gender and International Relations (IR) at Bristol University. How do you use your degrees in your professional life?

Studying PPE at Oxford, I had to research and write two essays a week on topics I often had little previous knowledge of, and then set out and defend my arguments in my tutorials. It taught me to process information very quickly and set out a clearly structured argument, which I still do a lot when I’m writing research reports, advocacy briefings or comment pieces. It also forced me to interrogate the reasons why I believe many of the things I do, and to have the courage to argue for those beliefs, even if there were smart people who took a different view.

My MSc in Gender and IR was much closer in subject to matter to what I do for a living now. I learned about how feminists have analysed international security, which is often not thought of as a ‘gender issue’. We sometimes refer to this as ‘applying a gender lens’ to peace and security, which is something I do on a daily basis in my current role.

What would you recommend to a woman who would like to follow a similar career?

Getting some experience working overseas is definitely important, whether it’s volunteering or paid work. Unfortunately, graduates are increasingly expected to do at least one internship – usually unpaid – before getting a permanent job, but there are some organisations (like Saferworld) which offer paid internships.

Learning a second language can also be a huge help, particularly if you choose one that’s widely spoken or in high demand. I’ve been learning Arabic for several years, and although I’m not fluent, it has helped me with my work.

What was your first job and what did you learn doing it you still use nowadays?

I did washing up in a pub kitchen at the weekends when I was still at school. I learned that you sometimes have to do things you don’t particularly enjoy doing in order to get to the things you do really enjoy! Sadly I didn’t really learn how to cook.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?

The most rewarding has been all the places I’ve been able to travel, and all of the smart, creative, committed people I’ve met along the way. Meeting people who are working hard to make their societies more just, more equal and more peaceful is what spurs me on.

The least rewarding part of my career has probably been a feeling of being generalist, as in most jobs it’s quite difficult to specialise in one specific area. My current job is very specialist in some ways as gender, peace and security is quite a niche topic. But I still work on lots of different countries rather than focusing on a few, and I still do a wide range of things including research, analysis, advocacy, fundraising, training, monitoring and evaluation, admin and so on. In some ways that’s a really good thing as it keeps the job varied, but sometimes it would be nice to be able to spend more time just learning about one specific country or region, for example.

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

Aside from writing, public speaking is a really important one, as I give a lot of presentations and speak on a lot of panels. It’s not something that came naturally to me and I used to get very nervous about speaking in front of an audience. Because I knew I needed to get comfortable with it, I decided to take every opportunity I was offered, in order to get some practice. It now doesn’t really faze me anymore – in fact I often enjoy it.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

The toughest lesson has probably been learning to say no to interesting pieces of work when I have too much on my plate already. When you’re passionate about your work it can be easy to try and do more and more of it, especially when there are exciting opportunities coming your way. But that brings with it a real potential for burnout, especially when you’re doing a lot of travelling as well. Learning when to turn down an opportunity is very tough if you’re someone who always wants to achieve more.

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?

Career-wise, getting to a position where I could work full time on gender and conflict issues was a challenge, as there aren’t very many jobs in this area. When I finished my Masters I knew I wanted to work on gender, peace and security, but it took a few years before I got into a full-time, permanent role doing that. I approached it by first doing a few different jobs where I would get to do some work on gender and conflict, and then taking every opportunity to work on those issues that I could. Eventually I actually lobbied for my current role to be created, then once it was advertised I applied for it and got it.

What achievements are you most proud of?

Some of the most rewarding achievements are the changes I see in individual people and the way they think. It’s great when people have a ‘lightbulb moment’ where they start to see things differently. People’s ideas about gender are often so ingrained that we don’t even question a lot of the assumptions that we make. When people really ask questions about the ideas they’ve grown up with and taken for granted, they can start to see the world quite differently, and I like it when I’m able to contribute to that in some way. Sometimes it might be through delivering a presentation, or having someone read my research, and other times it might be working through with someone over a period of years. Either way, it’s always interesting to watch those changes unfold.

Do you have a role model and if so who and why?

There are lots of people I look up to and admire, so it’s difficult to narrow it down to just one. But if I had to, I’d say Cynthia Enloe. She was one of the first academics to really start asking questions about the relationship between gender and IR, and she also taught me during my Masters. Feminist perspectives on international security are still fairly marginal, but back in the 1980s when Cynthia was writing books like Bananas, Beaches and Bases and Does Khaki Become You? they weren’t even on the radar. It takes a lot of courage to keep putting your ideas out there when other people in your field think they’re trivial or irrelevant to what they do. Cynthia is also a great teacher and a very engaging person. 

Hannah Wright | Gender, Peace and Security Adviser | Saferworld

Nine years' experience

CV in brief

Studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford | Gender and International Relations (MSc) at the University of Bristol

Previously worked at the UK Parliament

Find her online @hannahlwright | Saferworld profile

Career opportunities at Saferworld

  Panel event on gender and peacebuilding at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, London, 2014

Panel event on gender and peacebuilding at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, London, 2014

  Giving a presentation at USAID on masculinities and peacebuilding, Washington DC, 2014

Giving a presentation at USAID on masculinities and peacebuilding, Washington DC, 2014

  With staff from BRAC, working on a project on community security in Gopalganj, Bangladesh, 2013

With staff from BRAC, working on a project on community security in Gopalganj, Bangladesh, 2013