By Gavin Allen
Irina Bokova was the first female Secretary-General of UNESCO. The key was to not be the last.
“One of my success stories is that another woman was elected after me,” she told me proudly, for this Women in Leadership edition of Transform magazine.
And it went further than just a single baton handover. When Bokova was elected in 2009, only 23% of the senior posts, she says, were filled by women. When she left just eight years later, that figure had soared to 50%. In some of the very highest director-level and above positions, it was more than 60%.
“And you know, it really changes, it really physically changes,” she tells me. “It changes the overall way the work is being done, what kind of teams you put together. But you have to make a really deliberate effort to make that happen. It doesn't come naturally.”
It’s a mindset that underpins Huawei’s own Women in Tech initiative, now in its third year and driven by the goal of “Tech by Her, Tech for Her, Tech with Her.” The aim is to promote and invest in female leadership, skills and role models in all industries, especially science and technology.
And like Huawei, Bokova is impatient at the slow pace of progress towards greater gender equality and opportunity. But while she welcomes the benefits brought by the global interventions of companies such as Huawei and others, she’s clear it’s also about women helping themselves.
“There was a chance, which I just reached out. I grabbed it,” she says. “And I think many women do have opportunities, but they don't dare (to grab them).”
Another contributor to this edition, Teresa Gloria Cervero García, a lead research engineer at the Barcelona supercomputing center, agrees – but puts it slightly differently:
“Sometimes it’s not that the people around you don’t believe in you, it’s that they don’t believe in themselves… If you don’t make your own decisions, someone will decide for you.”
And that thread of agreement is what’s perhaps most striking across these Transform interviews. Despite the very broad range of expertise and experience – from a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and an ITU director, to an infectious disease professor and an academic painter and beyond – the same shared insights keep bubbling back to the surface.
First, digitalization offers new opportunities for girls and women: “Digital technology can help us visualize things that maybe we don't see around us. It gives us new options. It inspires us to really do what we want” (Arantxa Martinez, academic artist). And, “The Internet is democratic and opens up the world to you: it makes it possible for many people to disclose what they think” (Dr. Maria dos Remédios Freitas Carvalho Branco, infectious disease physician).
But digital needs to be managed too: “It’s important to make sure that men and women benefit equally from technology… Women are technology consumers, so we should express our demands” (Atsuko Okuda, International Telecommunication Union director). And, “Sometimes artificial intelligence and technologies may entrench stereotyping if you're not careful and sensitive about it. It's a critical moment now” (Bokova).
Connectivity for ALL is key: “Some areas, especially the poorest, do not have access to it at all. So, technology can actually end up increasing social inequality, especially in terms of information” (Branco). And “Digital transformation is driven by one formula: speed multiplied by intelligence. When we equate inclusion to connectivity, and everyone is connected, that's where the real amazing transformation will happen” (Okuda).
The road to success can be very bumpy: “You're going to find some moments where the path disappears under your feet, and you're going to feel difficulties, and doubt. But you can go back to your essence and conjure up more positive feelings” (Martinez). And, “Finding a way to balance your personal space with your kids, and then with your work, is not easy” (García).
Role models matter: “Inspirational colleagues and supervisors in my career… enriched my perspective and way of thinking” (Okuda). An, “Sometimes you do serve as a model for future women, too, so that pressure is always there” (García).
There is real progress: “More women use digital for business: 54%, compared to men at just 39%. This suggests that, given a proper understanding of digital utilization, they can carry it out” (Mira Tayyiba, Secretary-General of the Indonesian Ministry of Communications and Informatics). And, “I'm a glass half full person. I believe in being progressive and positive, and looking back at what has been afforded to both men and women in this country” (Mary Coughlan, former Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland).
But there’s still another half of the glass to fill: “I sometimes am resentful because (my) field has many women. Yet if you go to an infectious disease conference, you will see many men speaking” (Branco). And, “It is felt that women cannot do mathematics, so girls are encouraged to study literature or something. You wind up with a lot more men in technical fields” (Judith Yah Sunday épouse Achidi, CEO of Cameroon Telecommunications).
More laws may be required to force change: “You need to define the proportion of women who enter management. Regulation would help” (Branco). And, “The stick should be there. I'm sorry to say it, but if we just leave it, it will take hundreds of years” (Bokova).
Women are just uniquely stronger in certain qualities: “We are sensitive. We pay attention to details. Women know that they need to keep their word, and to work twice as hard to prove themselves” (Achidi). And “Women possess a number of advantages in the corporate world. They incline naturally toward teamwork and collaboration, and are usually eager to help others succeed” (Catherine Chen, Huawei Supervisory Board).
But keep perspective: “Work seriously, but also don't forget to enjoy the process” (Tayyiba). And, “You just have to try and believe in yourself and do your level best on your own behalf and on behalf of the people you represent” (Coughlan).
And all our interviewees tended to return to education as core. As a former minister for education, Coughlan identified it as “key to helping people have capacity.” It was seen as equally fundamental by Branco: “When you have schooling, you can have your own life.”
When Bokova was still leading UNESCO, she visited one of the organization’s community centers near Petra, in Jordan. A little girl there, when asked what she would like to become in the future, said she wanted to become Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO. And Bokova replied, “You can do this if you continue your education.”
From young girls to global leaders, from Jordan to Japan to Jamaica, education should have neither geographic nor age limits, because it can transform ambitions and lives continuously.
But “You can do this” is surely the magical ingredient that fires that education.
The crystallographer Ada Yonath could certainly do it, and did, dismissing the doubters along the way to win a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009. “Everybody laughed at me… I ignored them,” she says.
Her formula for life is a simple one. “The quality of your work, and your innate curiosity – those are the key determinants of success.”
Garcia is equally clear-minded about where responsibility lies: “The person who has to make your dreams come true is you.”
In short, it’s in your hands. You can do this.
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