Liz Hughes is a Chief Executive at Map Action, based in Chinnor.
To mark International Women's Day 2021, the Disaster Risk Management Professional Practice Group (DRM PPG) asked Liz about her experiences of working in Disaster Risk Management (DRM), the challenges women working in this field face and what advice she would give to other female geographers.
It was an unplanned route. I mostly followed my passions and did a range of very different things: from teaching English as a foreign language in Sudan to working with commercial sex workers in Edinburgh. I did a professional qualification in Social Work which was a good foundation, with many transferable skills in interagency coordination and dealing with difficult situations which came into their own when the conflict in Kosovo started a little after a year of working there with Oxfam. I spent over 10 years working in generic management roles for Oxfam, and Save the Children overseas and in the UK, before joining the Red Cross in a headquarters job. I think grounded experience is really important as is learning from the context you work in, whatever that context is. I learnt a lot treading the streets of Edinburgh night after night as an outreach worker just as I did while working in Liberia just after the conflict. For geographers interested in DRM, it is worth focusing in on specific specialisms which add value and ground that professional knowledge in experience – geospatial analysis is one, but there are others around data science, statistics and climate change-related disciplines. Without good information, it is really hard to make informed decisions and there is a need to keep pushing the boundary on this all the time.
Courage, the right sort. It takes courage to lead through uncertainty. I like the idea of servant leadership - enabling personnel to be their best and believe we need to work in partnership together, rather than giving people instructions, if we are to achieve that. But sometimes it takes courage to do that, to take onboard an untested proposal from a team member and try it out or to flex with the discussion and take a different direction. It takes courage to fail transparently so others can learn but that builds trust too. And it takes courage and tenacity to promote a culture that is inclusive and calls out things that underpin gender inequality. We need to be really diligent and deliberate about that, and you can’t deal with one inequality and not another. We are talking about human rights here and these are indivisible for all.
The most glaring one we are looking at in our team right now, is the data gap on vulnerabilities and the lack of gender data. It seems so basic. We are nearly always struggling to find disaggregated data at a granular level, sufficient for operational decision making, in many of the emergencies we respond to. DRM requires earlier action – mitigation, anticipatory action, preparedness. This is the point where we can start to work towards addressing these issues, but we need more join up across different sectors to achieve that. Whenever we work with problems people face, gender is present – as is identity. These can be things we can work with recognising and trying to understand the issues and different perspectives they represent, or they can be things we work against when we ignore them and pretend they are not important.
Many things! I have several female colleagues who lead their organisations with such energy, vision, clarity and courage – it is so inspiring. I am inspired also by young women making their mark because they believe in something – Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai – it takes a great deal of courage to swim against the trend. One of the most influential people for me was a woman of 94, an ordinary Joanna Bloggs but inspiring because of her positive and curious outlook even at that great age. That takes courage too!
Trust and hone your compass north and don’t let anyone steer you off course because you are a woman.
* This interview was undertaken in 2021 and was correct at the time of publication. Please note that the featured individual may no longer be in this role, but the profile has been kept for career pathway and informational purposes.
Job title: Chief Executive
Organisation: Map Action
Location: Chinnor, UK
This group brings together risk-focused professionals from across disaster risk reduction, re/insurance, humanitarian, governmental and academic sectors, to promote best practice and uncover latent geographical knowledge, skills and practice they have in common.
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