“As a young lawyer in Australia I was really interested in the prohibition of sexual violence during war, so I did a lot of my studies on that. I started my career as a lawyer but very quickly realized I had a bigger passion for international humanitarian law.” Helen went on to do a PhD in New York and started to work with the Australian Red Cross in 1997 as the manager of International Humanitarian Law.
After several years at Australian Red Cross Helen worked as a Legal Advisor for the ICRC in the Pacific Region and Head of Office Australia. “When I had my second child I realized that while I deeply loved the ICRC and my job, I was not able to do the amount of travelling required in my role while raising my children. I decided to return to university and teach International Humanitarian Law (IHL) for a number of years, focusing on the protection of civilians and women's rights.”
As a woman in this field of work, Helen had to find ways to deal with assumptions that were made about her. “I experienced quite a few situations where my patience was tested. More than once I attended events where I was asked to make cups of tea when I was actually there to give the keynote speech. I had to find the humor in it because I think you can only use your energy so far in being frustrated about such a situation. I had to remind myself that the best "revenge" is to be damn good at what I do. We have many amazing women lawyers in the area of IHL now, both at the Australian Red Cross and at the ICRC, so thankfully there has been an extraordinary growth in that area.”
– Helen Durham, ICRC
“It is important to support women through times in their lives where they perhaps want to take time off to play other roles”
In 2014 Helen was appointed as Director of Law and Policy at ICRC and was able to take part in the decision to extend the ICRC’s maternity leave policy to resident staff. “I was very excited about this because I know from experience that these things can seem like small and technical measures, but they actually make a huge difference to people's lives. If we are looking for stronger women leadership within the Movement, we have to look at how to best support women during motherhood and other phases of their lives. When I had my first child in 2001, I was the first manager to take maternity leave in decades. This made me understand the importance of supporting women professionally through times in their lives where they perhaps want to take time off to play other roles. We have to be as humanitarian towards each other as we are towards the rest of the world ."
“Trying to balance work-life is challenging but it's important, for women in particular, to understand that career progression does not have to be linear. There were times where I felt that because I was working part time, I'd perhaps never reach a senior position in my career. Looking back, I can now appreciate that those decisions and the lessons I learnt along the way helped me become a better Director today. I was really committed and passionate about my job, but also had to acknowledge that I am more than my career.”
– Helen Durham, ICRC
“I like to see how we make an impact on people’s daily lives”
“For me the reward of my job is two-layered; one is witnessing the big normative challenges that I get to engage with my team on the global stage and the other is seeing IHL in action and making an impact on people's daily lives. Both those things really sparkle for me, and it has carried me through tougher times where I felt I wasn’t making a big enough difference.”
“It's important to remind oneself to stay humble and keep your feet on the ground after having worked in extraordinary and sometimes extreme contexts. I'll never forget the time I was in Hiroshima for a meeting on Nuclear Weapons and spend time with the Japanese Red Cross at hospitals to understand the horror it continues to cause. When I got home, immediately after getting off the plane, I picked up my child at primary school and had to adjust to dealing with the ‘drama’ at the school. Working in this field we get an extraordinary window into a reality that many people can't relate to. Therefore it is important to be able to find ways to deal with our surroundings in a holistic way.”
Globally, women hold just 24% of senior leadership positions. The U.S. lags behind the global average at 21%, compared to China where women hold 51% of senior leadership slots.