The sooner you start to speak up, attend board meetings and senior official gatherings, the better it is. Photograph: Niranjan Shrestha/AP
Ayse Cihan Sultanoglu, UN assistant secretary-general, New York, US. @csultanoglu To get to the top, don't be afraid of starting at the bottom: Experience of living and working in developing countries is essential to building a career in development. Sometimes this means you must be willing to do something that you had never really considered. Young women shouldn't be afraid of starting at the bottom.
The problem is not at the top, but at middle management level: The challenge is not having women in top positions (in the UN 40% of country offices are headed by women), and attracting women at entry levels also does not seem to be too difficult either. The problem is the lagging numbers of women in middle-management positions.
Make sure you are adaptable: In any field, you need to renew yourself constantly, maybe more so in development. It is diverse, dynamic and constantly evolving because of its very nature so there is always room for innovation, learning and sharing.
Jackie Asiimwe, country manager, Wellspring Advisers, Uganda. @asiimwe4justice Emotions make a leader authentic: I come from a culture where women are branded 'too emotional' — as though emotions are a bad thing. In my own leadership journey, I have decided I will embrace my emotions because they are part of what makes me human and woman. Emotions are part of being an authentic leader. We cannot be clinical about leadership.
Rushanara Ali, shadow minister for international development, London, UK. @rushanaraali We need anti-discrimination laws that are properly enforced: In any society, it is crucial to have strong anti-discrimination laws to protect women in the labour market and public institutions. Those laws then need to be properly enforced otherwise too often women have to rely on the goodwill, patronage and whims of men to have fair chance to make a contribution to the economy and the society they live in.
Programmes to develop leadership skills are key: If we want to see more women in parliaments around the world, we must invest in leadership development, building strong networks and providing mentoring opportunities and resources to help women get plugged into the power structures.
Liz Bowen, HR manager (field staffing), Médecins Sans Frontières, London, UK
global development professionals
Women working in the field face a separate challenge: I have heard from female field staff that in countries where women have a more subservient role they are actually viewed as a kind of 'separate' gender. For example: they won't be treated like the male expats they are working with nor like the local females. They are put into a separate category by the local men to make it possible for them to communicate and the project to work.
Success is not just about getting to the 'top': I chose not to climb the executive ladder and instead work in a role which allows me to make a significant contribution to the humanitarian sector while still being able to spend time with my young daughter. For me this is a significant achievement.
Organisational cultures need to be challenged from within: We must work on shifting the accepted norms and push our organisations to open their minds about creative working patterns for women in leadership roles.
Adele Nandan, director of international education, Opportunity International, Chicago, US. @OpportunityIntl Mentoring: Mentorship is critical but there needs to be a greater emphasis placed on mentoring not only western women in the global development field but also women from the countries in which we're working.
Mary Woodgate, senior manager of global programmes, Accenture Development Partnerships, London, UK. @MaryWoodgate What does leaning in look like in development?: Speaking up, asking questions, innovating, networking, accepting responsibility and accountability — all with passion and personal investment for your (and your organisation's) development goals.
It is important to communicate vision in a human way: I think there's a real role for female creative thinkers who can tell a compelling narrative, or describe a future vision in order to get people mobilised around an idea and able to leave some of their institutional 'baggage' behind and cut through the potential barriers — especially in impactful partnerships.
Resource: Women in development can learn from these tips from the article 'Women need to realise work isn't school'.
Laure Blanchard-Brunac, principal banker, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, London, UK Find your voice while you are young: The younger you are when starting to speak up, attend board meetings, senior official gatherings where women are under-represented, the better it is: with time you get used to it and the men get used to it too, most of them will remain focus on your added value and will see you, if not as an equal, at least as a trusted partner.
Women need stronger support networks: Power networks are still male networks in the development community. Getting support from mentors, people more senior than you in the organisation you work in — male or female — is tremendously important. As a woman, when climbing the ladder you will be more isolated than your male counterparts so you need stronger support.
Marinke van Riet, international director, Publish What You Pay, London, UK. @Marinkekarianne Whether to 'lean in' or 'lean back' depends on context: Sometimes you need to lean in and take an unpopular decision. Other times simply your silent presence can be enough for people to reach consensus. Even the term leadership can be interpreted differently depending on the process of decision making: for example very different styles are needed in implementing organisations rather than in coalitions.
Being spontaneous and intuitive can lead to success: I didn't plan my career very carefully. All I know is that I have been ambitious right from the start, never said no to things I was secretly scared to do, and have not been afraid to make mistakes or ask 'stupid' questions.
Jeni Klugman, director of gender and development, World Bank, Washington, DC, US Without a supportive partner, success is almost impossible: Having a supportive partner is key — without that, I think a successful career in development is pretty much impossible. You need the flexibility to travel, to live abroad for extended periods of time, and a family that is happy to join in on the journey.