Irina Bokova, Diplomat and former Director-General, UNESCO
Describe your career so far.
I was born in Bulgaria. I graduated from university speaking four languages, so a multicultural approach was very much embedded in my early years and my education. I actually wanted to become a journalist – to travel the world. And I wanted to become an archaeologist, so I could discover ancient civilizations.
I wound up becoming a diplomat. I have been an ambassador, a deputy minister of foreign affairs, and a member of parliament during the drafting of the first Bulgarian democratic constitution.
I was also the first woman to be elected Director-General of UNESCO. That was where I could combine all this thinking: about diversity, about different cultures, about education about education and science and heritage and communicating and how we embed this into technology.Currently I hold positions in civil society, in academia, working with global leaders to promote international cooperation in education, culture, the sciences, and, of course, gender equality and women's empowerment.
When did you first see yourself as a leader, and as a female leader, specifically?
It's an interesting question. We pursue careers, we believe in certain values, we believe we can change the world. I think this is when a leader becomes a true leader. For me, it was a journey that began with the national politics of working to transform my own country. Within UNESCO, I felt like a leader when I started going to schools and universities and young girls were looking at me and saying, “I want to be like you.” It’s a big responsibility, but also quite inspiring.
Did you feel an added responsibility, because you were the first female director general of UNESCO?
Yes, expectations were higher. Everybody said, “Oh, you're the first woman. So now you will do more than usual.” I felt a particular responsibility to promote women's empowerment. I always tried to look at the different activities and projects we were launching from the lens of, “How we can empower women?” I believe this is important for the world.
Can you talk more about moving from national to international diplomacy?
I have always been attached to the idea that nowadays, politics is not just being done in headquarters in high places. You have to know what are the concerns of the people. I traveled extensively when I was Director-General of UNESCO, and I had this thought that, “UNESCO is not in Paris, UNESCO is in a small school in Pakistan.” Going to Africa and seeing the challenges they confront there also helped me form this view.
You grew up in an Eastern Bloc country. Now we live in a multi-polar world. What was that transition like?
On a personal level, what stays with me is the example of my mother. She was a typical girl of her generation. She dropped out of primary school before the war. After the war, already married, she went to school in the evenings. She became a scientist. She studied medicine, radiology. This taught me the importance of education, especially girls’ education, and how it can change lives.
At the United Nations, I worked on issues related to women and human rights. I attended many of the big meetings of the United Nations, particularly the Beijing conference in 1995. It was a landmark conference that released a document that, to this day is the most progressive UN document on women, gender empowerment, and women's role in society. This really left a huge mark on my vision of world, the importance of the UN and international cooperation, and what we should do in our century.
Can you give us a little bit more context about this document?
The Beijing conference in 1995 represented the culmination of a decade of the UN’s work on women, peace and development. It was the fourth such conference, but was the biggest such gathering, with a lot of civil society and academia participating. This conference set the stage for many of today’s important policy decisions about women's political participation, women’s economic empowerment, women's peace and security, and policies related to stopping violence against women.
What was it like at UNESCO?
My time at UNESCO was wonderful. We launched big initiatives, like the Global Compact for Girls’ education. There were many such moments of, I would say, global significance. At the same time, one of the most cherished moments for me was when I visited girls’ schools in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Brazil, Central America, and also schools in Asia. These were probably the moments that impacted me most, and which convinced me of the power of connectivity, of the power of the sciences and culture.
I also had a wonderful visit to Jordan, in one of the World Heritage Sites, next to Petra. I visited a Community Center established by UNESCO for girls who had dropped out of school. It was touching to speak with the girls about why they had dropped out of school, what they wanted to become in the future, and whether they saw any merit in going back. One girl told me she dreamed of becoming something like the Director-General of UNESCO. And I told her that she could do this, if she continued to pursue an education and pursue her dreams.
You talked about how women are often perfectionists, and sometimes don't try for an opportunity because they are afraid to fail. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yes, women sometimes do not embrace opportunities or pursue certain careers because they lack confidence and because they are afraid of failing. Women should have confidence in themselves, and they should pursue the career paths they want. They should not be afraid of failing. You may fail, but does it mean that once and for all, it's a failure? Of course not.
How did you learn to deal with failure in your own career, or in your own life?
I have been in politics, and in politics, you don't always win. But what is most important, I think, is that you not look at failure as a negative, but instead just move on, and transform the failure into an opportunity. This is what I tried to do.
What is “cultural diplomacy”?
Diplomacy requires a lot of knowledge. It requires understanding historical and cultural sensitivities. It sometimes requires putting yourself in the shoes of someone else, looking at them not as an enemy but as a partner, even as you defend the national interests of your own country. The goal is to find common things that unite us.
I'm teaching a course on cultural diplomacy at the Paris School of International Affairs. We need to look beyond our own concerns at the things that unite us. This year, we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. This is a perfect example of diplomacy beyond national borders: having more than 1,000 sites on the World Heritage List. We need more of this type of cultural diplomacy.
Why is it important to encourage girls to be courageous and brave when they think about their careers?
It's important to treat boys and girls equally when it comes to encouragement for their studies or future careers. It is important that girls are encouraged to be courageous, to take up studies or disciplines that still are not, unfortunately, thought of as being for girls and women.
I have three granddaughters. I remember the eldest, who’s 16 now, telling me, “I'm so interested in astronomy, I'm looking at the sky and I don't want to play only with dolls.” It is very important to tell the girls that, from that point of view, they're no different than boys, and that their future lives and careers can be very interesting, very challenging, and can include discovering the skies, or the sciences, or anything else.
Can you talk about challenges related to equal representation of women and men – both in politics and in private enterprise?
The issue of equal representation of women, and the empowerment of women in politics, the economy, and the private sector, is a huge issue.
We have made progress, but the changes are too slow. The World Economic Forum (WEF) projects that, at the current pace of change, we will achieve women's equality in two centuries. I don't believe this is acceptable. The challenge is how to accelerate progress.
We need to analyze what works and what doesn't. And I think from that point of view, in political participation, quotas for women definitely help a lot.
When I was younger, I thought quotas were not acceptable. But the pace of change is so slow that I now endorse them as a temporary measure. I think requiring diversity, having women on boards, or in high positions, would have a positive impact on the private sector. Diverse companies tend to be successful in all of their activities. Also, I believe the overall economic empowerment of women increases the economic growth of countries and makes societies prosperous, not to mention more inclusive.
What would you encourage a company like Huawei to do?
Technology companies have a huge responsibility to promote gender equality and women's empowerment. I could talk about this for a long time, but let me just focus on a few issues. First, technology nowadays is all around us. It helped us overcome the challenges of COVID. So it is about our health, and education. It is about the quality of our work, and about the environment. It's about truly everything.
Technology companies should promote connectivity, first and foremost. I had been working with Huawei, when we established, more than 10 years ago, the broadband commission for development with the International Telecommunication Union and UNESCO. We were promoting connectivity, education and technology. We should not forget that the digital divide in the world is huge: billions of people still are not connected to the Internet.
Also, the gender Digital Divide is growing [The Gender Digital Divide refers to the gap between women’s and men’s ability to use technology, including the Internet.] Technology companies have to look at why this is happening, and to give women the opportunity to get access –and to have the skills needed to be part of the digital economy.
Can you talk about gender bias in AI?
In 2020 UNESCO published a report on this topic. Artificial intelligence, of course, is based on the data that has been accumulated. Unfortunately, we're seeing that this tends to embed gender bias inside AI. We can’t allow this to happen.
What we see is quite worrying. In response, some technology companies have stopped using AI for recruitment. For example, Amazon recently abandoned work on an AI program it was developing to evaluate resumes. The company realized, after a while, that the AI was comparing candidates’ resumes against patterns it found in resumes submitted over a 10-year period, most of which came from men. Resumes from women were often downgraded as a result. We have to work hard so that AI does not entrench gender inequality in the future.
Can you talk about equality with respect to sustainable development?
Gender equality and sustainable development agenda are closely linked. SDG #5 is about equality, empowerment, political representation, and eliminating violence against women.
But most of the 17 SDGs contain a gender lens, whether it relates to education, equal opportunities for boys and girls, health, access to drinking water, sanitation, or some other issue. This is not just to pay lip service to the gender equality agenda. It is because women have a particular role to play, or they're affected more than men. For example, only 38% of countries have gender parity in secondary education, meaning girls are less likely to continue their studies in those countries.
Or we know that women have specific needs in terms of health, motherhood and, child mortality and other factors. So this specificity is all across the Agenda for Sustainable Development, not least because women make up half the world’s population. When it comes to the implementation of sustainable development, we cannot ignore half of the world.
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