Q&A: The women leading Pact into the future of international development

March 3, 2021
Caroline Anstey, Zewud Debebe, Samantha Barbee and Maria Barton.

Despite progress, around the world, organizations from private companies to governments and large nonprofits continue to exclude women from top leadership roles. Among Fortune 500 companies, for example, just 8 percent of CEOs are women.

Pact bucks this norm, with all four of its C-Suite positions held by women. This includes Pact’s CEO, Caroline Anstey, who joined the organization in 2020 with more than 25 years of leadership experience in social and economic development in both the public and private sectors; Pact’s CFO, Samantha Barbee, who has spent two decades in nonprofit finance and operations leadership; Pact’s Chief Human Capital Officer, Zewud Debebe, previously CEO at a management consulting firm; and Maria Barton, Pact’s General Counsel and Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer, a former Assistant United States Attorney.

“We all need to work for a more equitable world, and that includes more equitable work,” Anstey says about the leadership gender gap. “Support others. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because some have been successful, all others can too.”

To mark International Women’s Day, Anstey, Barbee and Barton shared their thoughts on women in leadership, building gender equality, how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted women, and more.

Q: Why is it important for organizations such as Pact to have women in leadership roles?
Caroline Anstey: It’s important that Pact fully represent the people we serve. Equally important, we need to ensure that all viewpoints are heard, that we manage risk properly – without becoming risk averse – and that we look at long-term sustainability. A report by Credit Suisse after the global financial crisis showed that financial companies with women at the helm or with women as a majority on their boards weathered the crisis much better. As Christine Lagarde, former head of the IMF and now head of the European Central Bank, put it, “If it had been a Lehman Sisters, the outcome might have been very different.” 

Samantha Barbee: Organizations are always at their best when there is a diversity in perspective and experience in leadership. Gender diversity helps ensure this variety, as gender shapes the perspective and experiences that inform our leadership styles. At Pact, having women in leadership is particularly important given the significant number of women who we serve. 

Maria Barton: It shows that Pact is taking action to work on diversity in its senior leadership ranks. It also breaks through the barrier of having just token women at the senior levels, and it gives our younger employees an opportunity to see role models in action. 

How do you work to support one another, and how has this differed compared with other leadership teams you’ve been a part of, if it has? 
Anstey: The four of us are very different. Nevertheless, we have a lot of shared experiences. I think a lot goes unsaid because it doesn’t need to be said. There’s an understanding there. And we are not afraid of talking about the personal for fear it may make us look weak or unprofessional. We can be fully rounded people, which makes us better leaders and decision-makers.

Barton: We have frank and open discussions that allow us to address issues and exchange information. For me, a significant difference with this leadership team is that I am not concerned that smaller groups of men are meeting on an informal or social basis to have the key conversations. I am confident that we are all in the room when the important conversations are taking place. It’s an inclusive senior leadership environment.  

"Taking an interest in the careers of the women who I supervise is important to me. We need to help young women build their skills and experiences and manage their careers." –Maria Barton

How do you work to build gender equality across Pact?
Anstey: It’s important that leadership sets an example but we also have to remain vigilant – that though we have a lot of women, they aren’t just in traditional support roles; that we don’t perpetuate pay gaps; that women have a chance to build their careers; that we don’t, even unconsciously, foster bias. We need to apply that approach not just to women but across all genders, races and cultures.

Barbee: I don’t think I have done enough of this across the organization. In general, I try to always create space for young women to learn, grow, take on new work. I am a big believer in pushing staff to take on new responsibilities, even if out of their comfort zones, and have done this with several staff at Pact, all women.

Barton: Taking an interest in the careers of the women who I supervise is important to me. We need to always help young women build their skills and experiences and manage their careers. Some of us can be very focused on getting things done for the task at hand and lose sight of the longer trajectory of our careers.

Has your career been impacted by your gender? How so? 
Anstey: No question for both good and ill. More of the latter than the former, although over the last 30 years I have seen a lot of changes for the better. Are we there yet? No. The Boys’ Club still exerts a powerful hold. But I don’t want a Women’s Club to replace the Boys’ Club in terms of being exclusionary. We have to make sure we are all being inclusive. 

Barbee: I have been very fortunate to never have been in a professional situation where my gender has limited me. I have had supervisors, both men and women, who have encouraged me and given me the space to be myself and lead in the way that I felt best.

What advice do you have for women aspiring to hold leadership roles in international development, or any field? 
Barbee: Jump at new opportunities, especially if they are a stretch. Volunteer to take on new work, don’t wait to be asked. Be true to your values. Never try to be something that you’re not. Care about the people you are leading and allow them to shine. 

Barton: Manage your career from the get-go! Don’t assume that you will get lucky and someone will pluck you out of the masses. Plan to acquire the necessary skills and training. Network with former and present colleagues. Apply for managerial positions. Women are less likely than men to apply. If you don’t compete, you can’t win. When you are turned down, ask about your weaknesses and make sure that you’ve addressed them the next time you apply.

As organizations like Pact and our partners work to build a more equal future through the Covid-19 recovery, what will be most important? 
Anstey: Women have been hit especially hard by this pandemic across the world – leaving and losing jobs, suffering domestic violence, seeing even wider pay gaps. And yet we know that investing in women – through health, education, finance – is one of the best investments in development that societies across the globe can make. We need to redouble that effort.

Barbee: Covid-19 has hit many women doubly hard as they have had to balance child care and work.  Organizations like Pact should be leading the way in creating work environments where women can find the time and balance they need to be successful as mothers and professionals.