Women in Leadership: Carmen Ferrer

By Aldis Brennan, Canadian Red Cross
In early November 2020, two major hurricanes struck Central America with such force that millions of people in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala lost access to food and water or had to flee their homes. The damage to sewage systems caused by the storms brought the risk of disease outbreaks, such as cholera, and provided breeding grounds for mosquitos carrying malaria or dengue. Many of the animals, crops and tools people used to make a living ceased to exist, swept away in the barrage of water.
It is Carmen Ferrer’s job to help meet the needs of these people who have lost so much in the wake of these hurricanes. As Head of Emergency Operations, she’s responsible for managing the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) regional response to Hurricanes Eta and Iota.
“I’m coordinating with the regional office in Panama and the country cluster support team office in Honduras and the three teams in the respective countries,” Carmen said. “So, it’s the overall operation. The management, raising funds, trying to set up the strategic operational vision. In general terms that means quite a bit of topics to touch.”

Becoming a leader

She never planned to be a leader. Her background is in architecture. So, when she started as a volunteer with the Spanish Red Cross in 2005, it was with a focus on shelters, and water and sanitation.
“Then little by little getting experience in the regional offices, more strategic positions, field positions, I think I gained the responsibility of getting more involved in management and coordination,” recalled Carmen. “So, accumulating experiences and lessons learned. Learning not only from myself, but also from others I really thought I could move a bit forward and push my edges. There were very few women in these important roles. So, I started to think beyond the shelter profile, and it became a leadership position.”
That journey began in 2015 with coordinating the Spanish Red Cross emergency response to the Nepal earthquake and then two years with IFRC in Ecuador leading the 2016 earthquake recovery operation. But it really took off when she was able to enrol in the IFRC Developing Head of Emergency Operations (DHeOps) program designed to build high-level strategic leadership skills in emergency response. Within a year of completing this training, Carmen was leading the hurricane response.
This is a success story for Carmen, but she recognizes that not every woman has had the opportunities she has.
“I’m a Spanish person, so I’ve grown up in Europe, became educated in Europe with a technical background and so on. I came from the construction field which is also very dominated by men. So, for me that was kind of just the same environment,” she said. “But it’s not only about me and where I am. It’s about others, even the ones who were also born in Spain but didn’t have the same opportunities that I had.”

Change is happening

However, she does see change happening. For example, while participants in the DHeOps program are always expected to be among the most skilled, there is also an increasing focus on gender parity. This is part of the ongoing Movement-wide commitment to recognize the value of having women in leadership positions, but it doesn’t end there.
“It’s not only the percentage of women in leadership positions, but also the true respect and belief that we are there because we must be,” Carmen said. “We must, to have higher diversity in opinions and visions, to reach every sphere that we’re working with. In that sense, I think the Movement is taking serious steps. But we also need to raise awareness of how long it might take to have a real and practical equity in these types of positions.”
Over half the world’s population are women and their productivity, intelligence and insight are lost at the highest levels of decision making. By having women in leadership positions, there will be improved gender considerations in programming and greater achievement of gender equality. Carmen feels the weight of responsibility to use her position to keep the momentum going and open up spaces for other women:

“It’s a matter of getting opportunities for women. Real opportunities. Practical opportunities and keeping in mind that we’re not starting from the same point. For women, my only recommendation would be just follow your dreams no matter what society might expect from you. Be persistent. Don’t pay attention to whoever tells you that this isn’t a path for a woman.”

The Canadian Red Cross supports the Developing Head of Emergency Operations program through funding and training opportunities and have a number of Canadian personnel who have joined the program.

The Canadian Red Cross is recruiting Operations Manager Delegates to support IFRC international operations. Click here for more information.

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