#GenderAKtion: Children, Career and the UN-System — Interview with Sarah Douglas

#ItsYourUN > Allgemein > #GenderAKtion: Children, Career and the UN-System — Interview with Sarah Douglas

Lack of fema­le lea­ders in the inter­na­tio­nal rela­ti­ons? The working group on Gen­der Equa­li­ty of the Ger­man Asso­cia­ti­on for the United Nati­ons is pre­sen­ting one impres­sing sto­ry of women working inter­na­tio­nal­ly every month. Ther­e­by we are refer­ring to the this year’s topic of the UN Com­mis­si­on on the Sta­tus of Women: women’s eco­no­mic empower­ment in the chan­ging world of work. Read how Sarah Dou­glas is sha­ping her care­er in the UN sys­tem which is still limi­ting oppor­tu­nities for women with kids. For the first time, you can also lis­ten to the inter­view in a pod­cast.

 

 

  1. Plea­se intro­du­ce yours­elf and tell us about your cur­rent posi­ti­on. 

My name is Sarah Dou­glas and I am cur­r­ent­ly the gen­der advi­sor at the Peace­buil­ding Sup­port Office. It’s a very small office that works to imple­ment the Gene­ral Assem­bly and Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil reso­lu­ti­ons on peace­buil­ding and sustai­ning peace. We sup­port the Peace­buil­ding Com­mis­si­on, which is a group of mem­ber sta­tes, we mana­ge the Peace­buil­ding Fund, which gives appro­xi­mate­ly 100.000.000 dol­lar a year for sup­porting peace­buil­ding activi­ties and we do a lot of cut­ting edge poli­cy work and bring the UN sys­tem toge­ther around dif­fe­rent poli­cy issu­es.

 

  1. Could you brief­ly out­line your care­er path?

I have been with the UN for 14 and a half years. I did my under­gra­dua­te in Women’s Stu­dies and after working in a local NGO that was focu­sed on youth issu­es in my home­town Chi­ca­go for a year, I went on to do my mas­ters at the Lon­don School of Eco­no­mics in “Gen­der and Deve­lop­ment”. I focu­sed on com­plex emer­gen­ci­es, that focu­sed on con­flict, refu­gee cri­sis and peace­buil­ding. Right after my mas­ters I moved to New York and got an ent­ry level posi­ti­on with UNIFEM, the UN Deve­lop­ment Fund for Women. I worked as rese­arch assi­stant for a year and then beca­me a juni­or staff mem­ber. I worked for UNIFEM for four years. In 2006, I moved to Sudan, whe­re I worked wit­hin the UN Mis­si­on on the dis­ar­ma­ment, demo­bi­li­za­ti­on, and reinte­gra­ti­on (DDR) pro­gram­me. Then I moved to the DDR pro­gram­me but from the side of UNDP. I worked ano­t­her 2 and a half years for UNDP in Sudan. I was in Sudan for a total of four years and after that I moved back to New York to be a poli­cy spe­cia­list and pro­gram mana­ger in the peace and secu­ri­ty sec­tion of UN Women, right after UN Women was crea­ted. I did that for 5 and a half years. And now I just com­ple­ted my first year as Gen­der Advi­ser in the UN Secre­ta­ri­at. So basi­cal­ly I’ve been working for the UN my who­le car­ri­er but from dif­fe­rent angles and point of views: From the glo­bal level, coun­try level, insi­de peace­kee­ping mis­si­on, insi­de UNDP and then with spe­cia­li­sed agen­ci­es working on gen­der equa­li­ty.

 

  1. To what extent have you been con­fron­ted with any kind of gen­der-based discri­mi­na­ti­on in your pro­fes­sio­nal care­er?

Well, I think that gen­der-based discri­mi­na­ti­on is per­va­si­ve in every field.

In most fiel­ds today women and men are equal­ly rep­re­sen­ted at the ent­ry level. As you go up the chain the­re is an inver­se rela­ti­ons­hip bet­ween senio­ri­ty and women’s par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on. That is actual­ly very much the case in the UN sys­tem, whe­re at the ent­ry level over 50% are fema­le and it goes down and down and down to the top levels whe­re a quar­ter is fema­le. And if you break it down to dif­fe­rent depart­ments, agen­ci­es or mis­si­on it is even more striking. For examp­le in a lot of peace­kee­ping mis­si­ons the­re are very few women and that real­ly impe­des their care­er advan­ce­ment. If you don’t have women in tho­se top duties it is dif­fi­cult becau­se it is often that in pla­ces like Iraq or Soma­lia peop­le get pro­mo­ted.

I would say that I do feel lucky, becau­se even though I work on gen­der issu­es I never expe­ri­en­ced gen­der-based discri­mi­na­ti­on befo­re I had my child. I star­ted my care­er at UNIFEM. Of cour­se, UNIFEM had its flaws but it was a femi­nist base. The lea­dership was very femi­nist, so the poli­tics of UNIFEM were real­ly clear. In the ear­ly pha­se of my care­er I felt real­ly sup­por­ted. And when I was in Sudan I did not face any kind of gen­der-based discri­mi­na­ti­on, becau­se again I was working in a mul­ti­cul­tu­ral envi­ron­ment. My per­so­nal expe­ri­ence show­ed me that ever­yo­ne had a lot of respect for ever­yo­ne becau­se other­wi­se you can­not work in a place like Sudan with that type of government and the inter­pre­ta­ti­on of reli­gi­on without having a a lot of respect and defe­rence for all types of peop­le.

Howe­ver, in all types of envi­ron­ment the­re is a level of harass­ment and I would sepa­ra­te that: When I hear harass­ment I think of it in the work­place and I never expe­ri­en­ced that, but what I saw­was harass­ment in the soci­al sphe­re. And that was a uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ence in Sudan. The­re was a lot of older men and youn­ger women and men in posi­ti­ons of aut­ho­ri­ty and in dif­fe­rent walks of life. That was not cul­tu­ral by any means, I would say that the big­gest defen­ders were nort­hern men, the Euro­pean men, becau­se they took a licen­se that men from the south would not take. I think that this kind of harass­ment was com­mon. Not from the Suda­ne­se but from the inter­na­tio­nal. It was inte­res­ting becau­se, I just visi­ted Libe­ria for a mis­si­on and the­re during the a secu­ri­ty brief the women who was giving the brief went to gre­at length exp­lai­ning how Libe­ri­an women were a key secu­ri­ty risk to inter­na­tio­nal men becau­se they were hoo­king up with them and while men were slee­ping they were ste­aling all their stuff and the men would just wake up and see that all their stuff was sto­len. And she went on about it and told them ‘Even if you think she likes you, she is just going to ste­al your stuff!’. After she was done I said to her: ‘You know what is fun­ny, when I was in a peace­kee­ping mis­si­on my big­gest thre­at was from the seni­or manage­ment, becau­se they were going to par­ties and soci­al situa­ti­ons and be aggres­si­ve and come on to youn­ger women all the time.’ In my per­so­nal expe­ri­ence that never esca­la­ted, so I am lucky but cer­tain­ly I know peop­le who did expe­ri­ence that. And also for me it never ent­e­red the work­place. You would see peop­le that were in posi­ti­on of aut­ho­ri­ty in a soci­al set­ting that might be a litt­le over­ly flir­ta­tious and inap­pro­pria­te, for me it never went in my work­place, alt­hough it hap­pen­ed some of my fri­ends.

But when I had my child, I real­ly star­ted to under­stand the dif­fi­cul­ty and the limi­ta­ti­on for women with kids enhan­cing their care­er in the UN sys­tem. It’s very hard to advan­ce your care­er and that’s the real root of the discri­mi­na­ti­on and the lack of women at the seni­or level. Women without kids have time to net­work. Women without kids can spend their who­le day having cof­fee and then do their work at the night and the UN sys­tem is build on rela­ti­ons­hips you see how that can real­ly dama­ge you. Besi­de, I still have been tra­ve­ling qui­te a bit but of cour­se not as much as I used to. It would be impos­si­ble for me to to take an assign­ment to go to Iraq for three month befo­re I would just jump on that -no pro­blem. I am lucky that my hus­band is not from the US, we met at the field in Sudan and he very much wants to go back soon. But a lot of women have a hard time moving with their hus­bands around. Whe­re it is much har­der for women to have their hus­bands to fol­low them — it hap­pens, and I am per­so­nal­ly hoping my hus­band is even­tual­ly is going to agree to that too, but it is a lot har­der. I felt like it is very hard for women in our cul­tu­re to lea­ve their kids, a lot of men lea­ve their kids at home and go to Soma­lia for a year but that is not some­thing I would be wil­ling to do. And I think that even cul­tu­ral­ly when you see how a lot of women at the top do have kids are from the glo­bal south that could be becau­se they have a dif­fe­rent fami­ly struc­tu­re, whe­re exten­ded fami­lies play a big­ger role so it is more nor­mal for them to lea­ve their kids with their mothers or aunts. Whe­re­as in wes­tern coun­tries you just have the struc­tu­re of mum, dad and the kids. You do not see grand­par­ents, aunts and uncles necessa­ri­ly play­ing such a big role. I would never lea­ve my son for going on a mis­si­on for a year whe­re­as I think it is more soci­al­ly accep­ted for men to do so.

Is the­re some kin­der­gar­ten or ser­vices at the Head­quar­ter in New York?

The­re is a day­ca­re that has a long wai­ting list. It is right by the UN which is gre­at for some peop­le who live near the­re but only few can afford to do so. And it is still not free, only sub­si­di­zed. I live in Queens which is a litt­le che­a­per, so my day­ca­re is che­a­per that the sub­si­di­zed pri­ce at the UN day­ca­re would be. The UN offers an edu­ca­ti­on grant that is real­ly discri­mi­na­to­ry becau­se it only star­ted when the kids are five years old, so when school starts. So it assu­mes that you have a wife at home taking care for the kids until they go to school.

 

  1. Do you have any advice for young women in the pro­fes­sio­nal world, par­ti­cu­lar­ly in an inter­na­tio­nal con­text?

Defi­ni­te­ly! If you are inte­rested in an inter­na­tio­nal care­er you should go to the field ASAP! Becau­se the­re is not­hing com­pa­red to the field expe­ri­ence and also it is good to get it done when you are youn­ger and you do not have kids. And as soon as you have that expe­ri­ence you will always know how it is to work in the coun­try­si­de. You will under­stand that peop­le are direct­ly bene­fit­ting from us sit­ting in Ber­lin or New York and tal­king about it.

My second advice is that the­re are so many things that make it hard to do “both” but by doing both you are still bla­zing a trail for women and gene­ra­ti­ons after us. So my advi­se is to belie­ve that you can do it and do not feel like you are com­pro­mi­sing one for the other, for examp­le your care­er for your fami­ly, becau­se both are enri­ching each other. If that makes sen­se.

 

This inter­view was con­duc­ted by Shi­la Block.

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