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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.