Four shining stars of advice for getting on in the development world

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 Starting or building a career in international development can be a daunting task. Here, one of our mentors, Silla Ristimaki, shares her own experiences with four shining stars of advice for getting on in the development world. 


When I was asked to share some thoughts about getting on in the development world, I thought ‘oh dear, I’ve mostly stumbled along rather than scored home runs in this field; what have I got to say?!’

But reflecting on my journey, here are four shining stars that have guided me:

1. If you ask, people are generally willing to be supportive. 

I had heard this many times; I assumed it was linked to networking. But recently I’ve come to realise that two are not the same. So when someone offers their support, what does it mean? Maybe a willingness to review and provide comments to your CV; a discussion of potential questions in preparation for an interview; sharing of key background documents; even supporting with a mock interview. It can also be an offer to be your referee, sometimes even a willingness to be in touch with the recruitment agent to ensure that your application is not overlooked.

‘Why?’ you may ask. Good question. It can be for many reasons. On a personal level it is often about offering the same support to the younger generation as we’ve been given, support that has helped us get where we are today. It is always worth taking support offered – you feel more confident and prepared, and this will reflect on your application process. When asking for support though, be respectful of the expected time commitment!

2. Networking is also useful – though sometimes painful. 

But people need to know you are out there. Sometimes when I send out CVs and applications I feel it’s like sending messages into space in the hope that at some point somebody will respond. Yet even E.T. managed to phone home in the end, right!?

Once at the beginning of my career, I got advice from my father that I should email a senior official with my CV and ask for a meeting. I still remember how dismissive I was of this idea: that’s the great advice? Why on earth would a busy person read my email, let alone meet with me for a random chat? But I did it. We met and had a great chat. I asked her about her tips and recommendations for how to enter into the development world. One month later I got a phone call to ask if I was still seeking employment, and whether I would like a job working for the same woman. And so opened an amazing opportunity with an amazing mentor. I have always considered advice that I didn’t like a bit more carefully after that…

3. Build self-confidence and be gentle on yourself.

Nobody was born an expert. Recognise your strengths, but don’t make decisions too early about what you can do and don’t self-impose limitation of your skills-sets too early. Many skills can be learned. This is particularly important for women to reflect on. I have been told that men approach interviews with much more confidence and therefore also end up negotiating more senior positions and higher salaries (where the system allows this). I have also heard that men are more likely to apply for jobs where they feel they match about 50% of the job description; women tend to apply only if they feel they have a 75% match. This indicates that men are often more confident, they put themselves out there more, and therefore are more likely than women, even if just by the number of lottery tickets they buy, to get that new job or promotion.

Everyone requires the development of new skills upon taking up a new challenge – it’s more about the confidence of knowing the capacity to develop is there.

4. Know what you want and keep re-evaluating it. 

Use whatever means you have available to do so – yoga, a shrink or life coach, your spouse, friends, colleagues, online tests, astrologists, whatever works for you. Don’t assume that what you want cannot change over time. There will be difficult choices you may have to make during your career. You may need to choose how much time you want to take out due to family reasons. You may have to choose between two different jobs, weighing up issues such as job security, wages, location, duration and other benefits. You may be intimidated by the consequences of deciding to take time out, leaving a permanent position, going on extended maternity leave, etc. But you have to weigh those choices against what is most important to you. As the saying goes, in the end it is your life.

Since as far as I know, few people can really tell the future, you have to make the best choice based on what you know now. So make it knowing as much as you can, in terms of contractual details, in terms of its likely outcomes on your career – but also your social life. After you’ve made your choice, don’t dwell on it. If it wasn’t the right choice, reflect on why and use that knowledge to make the next choice accordingly.

My final thought is something I’ve had several women express to me: it’s a wish that women would be more supportive of other women. Don’t feel threatened by female colleagues, feel awesome together! Give them credit. Remember not to organise all-male panels – and risk Knight Rider calling you out! 😉



Silla Risimaki

Silla Risimaki


Silla is a Finnish woman working in development, peace-building and gender, constantly wondering what she wants to do when she grows up. She will soon be leaving her role as a Programme Specialist for the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office in Nepal and moving onto pastures new. 






If you’d like to share any experiences and wisdom with us, we’d love to hear from you. Please email us a blog at thewomidteam [at]

We’ve launched!

We've got a new logo. We hope you like it!

We’ve got a new logo. We hope you like it!


Over the last couple of weeks, 138 women have embarked on what we hope will be an exciting, empowering, and rewarding mentoring journey together. After calling for initial registrations of interest back in July and growing our membership, we have been working hard to develop the WOMID mentoring process and develop a reliable system for matching mentors and mentees.

Matching has been an interesting process: fascinating and frustrating in equal measures. On registration we asked everyone to fill in a form detailing their areas of work and interests, level of academic and practical experience within their field, and their hopes and expectations from WOMID and a mentoring relationship. It was so lovely to get to know they all from reading what they had written.

We spent weeks analysing and digesting this information in order to find the best possible match for each of our members. Some had requested to be matched with someone who worked in the same discipline, others in the same geographical region or in a specific professional sector like policy or advocacy. Everyone who registered has such a wealth of experience and something valuable to bring to WOMID. We wanted to do this justice by creating matches that would inspire and support everyone. In a few cases, a perfect match was immediately apparent. In others, we moved people around more times than we could count. We had post-it notes coming out of our ears, colour-coded spreadsheets of unbelievable proportions. But, with all the emails now sent out giving each of our members information on their matches and with great plans for building our community hub in the near future, it has all been totally worth it.

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And we hope to continue to grow!

We are now taking registrations on a rolling basis so if you are not already part of WOMID, please sign up and continue to spread the word. We’ll be connecting and matching people whenever a suitable match is available.

We have some fantastic plans for our blog with great stories, anecdotes, advice and experiences to be shared by our members, discussion spaces to conquer complex and controversial topics, and anything else our members want to see and explore. You can sign up to receive these directly to your inbox at the bottom of this page. We’ll also excitingly soon be launching our online community hub where members can participate in discussion forums, post and search for job or funding opportunities, and get involved in additional Peer to Peer mentoring. We can’t wait!

We are very excited to be part of such a great community of women and hope that it will provide everyone with the support and energy to grow and develop both personally and professionally. We are always open to suggestions, so if you have any ideas, please drop us a line.

You can also find us and stay up-to-date with all of WOMID’s activities on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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Introducing WOMID

(reblogged from LSE Impact Blog)

WOMID: A mentoring initiative for women working in international development aims to connect research and practice.

hands-600497_1920Balancing the early stages of a research career, while simultaneously keeping up to date with developments in the field generates some unique requirements for researchers in international development. WOMID is a new global mentoring initiative for women, facilitating mentorship between early career academics and practitioners. Alex Dorgan and Beth Harrison, who co-founded WOMID based on their own experiences of doing PhDs, explain what WOMID is all about and how you can get involved.

Women Mentoring in International Development (WOMID) is a new initiative for women (including all those who identify as women) which facilitates mentorship between early career academics and practitioners working in the international development space across the globe.


The idea is to:

  1. Support early career female academics – especially PhD and post-doctoral researchers – who want to move towards more practical and applied development work whether in academia or outside;
  2. Facilitate knowledge exchange on current practice in the field and front-line research as well as sharing life experiences of working in the international development sector;
  3. Contribute to the bridging between research, policy and practice, including potential collaboration; and
  4. Build a network of women in international development, facilitate a learning hub, and use these as a platform to provide support for members.

As of September, WOMID has had registrations from over 70 mentees and over 40 mentors across almost 30 countries including from institutions such as IIED, Womankind Worldwide, Oxfam, CAFODSave the Children, the National Centre for Technology Management (Nigeria), University of Colombo (Sri Lanka), Utrecht University (the Netherlands), and Stellenbosh University (South Africa) to name just a selection.


Image credit: James Stewart (CC-BY)


Where did the idea for WOMID come from?

Earlier this year, over a refreshing post-conference drink (or two), the two of us were discussing how great it had been to connect with some amazing and awe-inspiring women working in the development field. We had been fortunate enough to meet several genuinely lovely, approachable, supportive and inspiring women who were working on related areas of international development to our PhDs, but outside of academia.

Having undertaken both fieldwork in our case study countries (Tanzania and Zimbabwe), as well as a UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded Overseas Institutional Visit (in Kenya and South Africa), we have both had the opportunity to meet some amazing women working on development issues in these countries, and this was something that we both found highly valuable. Finally, through our social networks – and sometimes at more applied conferences – we met some incredibly supportive and approachable women working in international development based nearer to home. All these women provided us with advice, guidance, reassurance, and an invaluable perspective from outside academia – something that we found particularly helpful both personally, and professionally.

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WOMID’s co-founders, Beth and Alex; and WOMID planning in London.

One of the most rewarding things we’ve found about talking with these women, is not just that they are supportive, inspirational and lovely people, but also that they are genuinely interested in hearing about our research and can often offer a completely different perspective on it. And of course, it has been great for our career opportunities! We thought it was important that other early career academic women realised how much support is out there for them as well and thought of providing a structured means for this to happen.

We had both also been part of a conference organised by the Researchers in Development Network (RiDNet) at the University of Leeds earlier in the academic year. The conference focused on whether research makes a difference in development and how to bridge the gaps between research, policy, and practice. One of the solutions discussed was to increase the communication between researchers and practitioners/policy makers (read about the 5 recommendations to emerge from the conference as another of LSE Impact Blog’s posts here).

We realised that a mentoring scheme that directly connects a new generation of researchers to those working in development practice would be a start in creating these relationships, and could offer a relatively simple and effective way to provide networking and mentoring opportunities to other early career researchers. We did some brainstorming, and WOMID was born.

It was therefore our own experiences of developing valuable relationships with inspiring women working in development – but a lack of a more formal and structured pathways to do so – that prompted us to set up WOMID. The initial response we have received to WOMID since sharing it with our own networks has demonstrated a real demand for an initiative like this.

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Quotes from registered mentees on what they hope to get out of WOMID


What is WOMID trying to achieve?

WOMID consists of four key elements: mentoring, bridging, networking and sharing.


Mentoring has a widely varied interpretation depending on the situation and context. At WOMID, mentoring refers simply to a more experienced or knowledgeable person providing guidance and personal or professional development to a less experienced or knowledgeable person in an area of expertise.

In the case of WOMID, the ‘area of expertise’ is experience working in international development, whether in practice on the ground, through policy development, or research. More experienced professionals provide mentoring for early career academics such as PhDs and post-doctoral researchers (and eventually, early career practitioners too). The early stage of an academic career comes with the challenges related to immersion in academic debates surrounding specific international development topics, while often simultaneously working on the ground with development programmes and/or with people involved in development issues. Grappling between these two worlds generates some unique requirements, and we believe that learning from the life and professional experiences of those who have a higher vantage point in the development field can provide a grounding and supportive environment, and help meet these requirements.

The benefits of mentoring have been widely applauded (Beltman & Schaeben, 2012; Dziczkowski, 2013; Ghosh & Reio Jr, 2013). However, there are limited mentoring opportunities specifically targeted towards female early career academics, especially in the complex field of international development. In facilitating a mentoring relationship between early career academics and practitioners through WOMID, we anticipate the following benefits:

For mentees:

  • build confidence;
  • gain a wider and more applied perspective;
  • an enhanced understanding of the ‘applied’ relevance of their own research;
  • career advice; and
  • extensive networks.

For mentors:

  • access to cutting-edge research ;
  • benefitting through self-reflection and the opportunity to share experiences for the benefit of others;
  • forge strong links with academic scholars and institutions; and
  • build potential for future collaboration.

We also envisage that the mentor/mentee designation will evolve over time into a reciprocal learning relationship, and may in many cases become more ‘mentor-to-mentor’.


It is increasingly acknowledged that there is a gap in communication and information sharing between academia and international development practice, and that in order to create lasting and effective solutions to many of the world’s problems, the two areas need to align and work more closely together (for a more detailed discussion on this, see a previous LSE Impact Blog here). WOMID has been developed with this challenge in mind and hopes to help bridge this gap by linking academics and practitioners in order to learn and share from each other, and to build a hub through which this two way exchange can continue and grow beyond the formal mentoring process.

In addition, the international aspect of WOMID provides  south-south and south-north partnerships that are still, in our experience, relatively lacking in international development. We hope that WOMID will also help to bridge cross-cultural exchange, create transnational opportunities, and challenge perceived wisdoms on the direction of knowledge and power flows in international development.


A central online forum and both online and offline events will create a supportive and professional network for all involved in WOMID. The forum will be accessible to all members to use for discussions, questions, and the sharing of opportunities. Events will be organised for group discussions, regional hubs around sectors or geographical foci, as well as informal social events. These will provide opportunities for all WOMID members to get to know each other outside of the mentoring pairing and to build lasting relationships. We strongly believe that there is a real need for women working in international development to have a friendly space for networking and socialising opportunities, which will allow them to develop supportive and useful connections, boost self-confidence in professional contexts, and learn from each other.


Through a widely accessible and active blog, WOMID will provide a space for sharing research findings, professional experiences, and reflections on international development as well as the WOMID mentoring experience itself. There will be regular posts from mentors and mentees across the world active in all sectors of international development and all stages of their careers, along with more targeted pieces on topical international development issues, and more exploratory posts driven by WOMID member-submitted questions.

Through all of the above, WOMID will share experiences and reflections across sectors and cultures, experiences and networks. By sharing the publicly-accessible blog on social media outlets, WOMID will also be reaching non-members and others in the international development field.


Why women?

While we appreciate that many of the challenges that WOMID aims to address are also relevant to men researching and working in international development, there are several reasons why WOMID has been established as a women’s initiative:

  • International development is still a male dominated field especially in positions of leadership and power, and especially in developing countries. We are not aware of any comprehensive studies that assess this for the international development sector specifically (if anyone knows of any, please do link them in the comments below), so we looked into basic employment gender statistics for some high-profile international development organisations: incl. DFID, Oxfam, UNDP. Broadly, while the overall share of employment appears to be fairly evenly spread, the middle-management and senior positions tended to be male-dominated (see e.g. UNDP Gender Equality Strategy p.19 and DFID Diversity and Inclusion p.20), and issues such as sexual discrimination and harassment are often reported. See for example this case. WOMID is committed to supporting women in changing this status quo By demonstrating that the disadvantages women face across the globe are not inevitable, WOMID’s women-to-women network rejects the status quo; WOMID responds to the challenges encountered by female early career academics and practitioners trying to work in development, and offers a way in which these challenges can be overcome.
  • Women face a significantly higher number of considerations when working in international development, especially when working abroad in different cultures (Desai and Potter, 2006). These include (but are in no way limited to): safety, familial responsibilities, cultural sensitivities towards dress sense, the role of women in local societies, and other restrictions within patriarchal societies. We believe that having a platform to discuss these issues amongst other women facing them will be a valuable addition to the community.
  • From speaking to many female colleagues, confidence issues are highly prevalent amongst women in international development and especially in early career academics. This affects a number of professional attributes and activities including, crucially, networking and ‘leaning in’. This is exacerbated by activities such as the perception of networking as unfeminine and frequently dominated by more powerful and confident men (see Sheryl Sandberg’s TEDx talk for further detail on this topic).
  • Given the unique challenges and considerations that women face, we believe learning from other women’s personal and professional experiences in these areas is a brilliant current strategy for addressing these issues.

We appreciate that men could equally benefit from a similar initiative. As WOMID is a young organisation, we are open to suggestions and collaborations on how this could be taken forward, including the possibility of expanding beyond the initial plan outlined here. Any male PhD students or post-doctoral researchers reading this who think they would benefit from a similar initiative, please get in touch! We do not intended to be a closed organisation and are actively looking at ways to ensure we feed our discussions back into the wider international development community.


What are our hopes for WOMID in the future?

  • We’re launching in November!
  • Women from all over the world have signed up – but we’d like more! Sign up here.
  • We’re planning an online launch event or ‘hangout’ for everyone to meet, as well as more networking opportunities in the near future.
  • We are applying to become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation with the UK Charity Commission and once established will be looking into funding sources for our growth and to further support our members.
  • Eventually, we’d love to be able to have regional and sectoral “hubs” connecting practitioners and early career academics working on similar topics or regions, as well as a continued global presence.
  • Evolve to provide support for ‘early career women working in development’ (both ‘practitioners’ and academics) from more experienced ones.


Want to get involved?

Interested in becoming a mentor or mentee? You can find out more about what this involves on our website. Please register your interest by October 30th.

Any questions, you can contact us through our website, email us at, find us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram. We are also open to suggestions and advice on how we could improve our current approach so if you have any thoughts, please do share via any of the contact options above…We look forward to embarking on this journey together with you!

We are grateful to Padmini Iyer who was immensely helpful in developing and writing the discussion around ‘why women?’, and is generally a brilliant source of support and wisdom. Thank you also to all those who kindly reviewed the post.


Useful resources

Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)

AWID’s companion sites 

The Guardian’s Global Development Professionals Network

The Aspire Foundation


This blog was written by WOMID co-founders Alex Dorgan and Beth Harrison, and was first published on 15/10/15 on the LSE Social Science Impact Blog. It was re-blogged here by the authors, with permission from LSE.


About the Authors

Alex Dorgan is a final-year PhD researcher at the School of Geography, University of Sheffield and the University of York, where she works on climate compatible development in East Africa. Alex’s thesis examines the impacts of private-sector investment in carbon forestry and agriculture in Tanzania on local communities’ livelihoods, ecosystem services, and environmental knowledges. Alex tweets @alexdorgan about all things climate & development, feminism, politics, and things that make her smile.

Beth Harrison is a final year PhD student at the Sustainability Research Institute, University of Leeds and is researching the multi-level governance complexities of community-based natural resource management in Zimbabwe with a central focus on the role of local stakeholders in the management and conservation of key natural resources. Elizabeth’s thesis aims to ultimately shed light on the wider institutional processes affecting natural resource management impacts and in doing so provide recommendations for the design and implementation of new community-based natural resource management type projects in sub-Saharan Africa. Elizabeth tweets @EPHarrison and blogs here.

Coming Soon!


The WOMID blog will provide a space for sharing research findings, professional experiences, and reflections on international development as well as the WOMID mentoring experience itself. There will be regular posts from mentors and mentees across the world active in all sectors of international development and all stages of their careers, along with more targeted pieces on topical international development issues, and more exploratory posts driven by WOMID member-submitted questions.

Check back here soon or sign up to receive any new post directly to your inbox.