Portraits of women (1/8) : Margarete Sobral
Discover the first portrait of our summer series : Ms Margarete Sobral, Human resources Director of the Comprehensive nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), and her career into the United Nations.
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Margarete Sobral has been working for more than 20 years in the United Nations, in various locations, mainly in the field of human resources. She has been the Director of Human Resources for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) since March 2017. She accepted to share her precious experience as a human resources expert and manager to highlight the main stakes of gender equality between men and women (all women, and not only those with children), as well as the commitment of the UN and of the CTBTO, its sister organization, to promote a more balanced working environment for all.
1. What are the specificities of your career as a woman at the United Nations? What particular difficulties have you encountered as a woman?
My career of over 20 years in the UN has been in the field of Human Resources Management. Coincidentally, at all levels, this function is primarily performed by women (only two men are currently working for me). The nature of the function is complex and the main challenge is to attract, recruit, manage, develop and retain the right talent to the Organization. Sometimes the fact that you are a woman can add to this complexity because the specific requirements of this function call for the application of rather strict rules to which we are bound, while exercising human flexibility and being cognizant of the staff needs. This is particularly relevant when working in a multi-cultural, international environment
The work of the UN is unique in its essence as it requires candidates who are able to demonstrate both hard and soft skills, high levels of specialization, ability to adapt quickly to new situations, ability to work in multi-disciplinary and multicultural teams, often in hardship locations. The challenges that I have encountered are not related to my gender as such : they are common to all colleagues as we are constantly managing the complexity and the special dynamics of a multicultural organization. I would say that the UN offered me a safe space to grow. I felt that life circumstances, the place where I came from or the generation which I belonged to did not matter any longer : what mattered was the contribution I was able to give.
2. How can we promote women’s access to positions of responsibility? What have you carried out to achieve this within your organization?
The UN has been encouraging women to apply for positions in the Organization. There are a number of initiatives specifically dedicated to attract and retain women at all levels. Across the board, the UN system conducts various outreach initiatives to encourage women to apply for vacancies. In 1999, when my office was moving to another building, I was very touched when I found my name on a list of highly eligible female applicants who had been identified as potentially strong candidates to be considered for positions in the Organization. This only confirms that the Organization has been trying for a long time to attract more females to its cadre. The challenging situation is that, to this day, out of 4 applications, only 1 is postulated by a woman, regardless of the field: there is an issue with the pool of women applicants.
During the past years, the UN has further developed dedicated and more targeted gender strategies, and has been increasingly conducting outreach activities to attract female candidates as well as providing training specifically designed for women, such as « Women in Leadership » (for P3-P4) and many other initiatives. There has to be a leadership commitment to provide women with mentoring and coaching programs, job-shadowing and job swapping opportunities and providing them with visibility within their organizations. Personally, I take a number of initiatives to help young women grow, for instance by inviting them to observe senior level meetings, to deliver presentations, to go to the field, to be in charge of projects and other initiatives that do not necessarily involve a promotion, but that foster the culture of inclusiveness and recognition. I give them exposure. I help women to take stock of their experience, recognize their transferable skills and coach them on how to present their portfolios. Acquired skills can be used in various professional contexts (teamwork, negotiations, presentations, coordination, planning) and knowing how to present these skills during a selection process makes a candidate more competitive. Senior leaders should also ensure that women think through their own career and plan their career paths taking in consideration their personal aptitudes and the organizational needs. .
Regarding the access to positions of responsibility, the rules and the processes are the same for men and women in the UN. Mobility (functional and geographical) is one of the elements that support advancement to higher levels in a staff member’s career. it is an added challenge for the advancement of women. I have seen women who became « stuck » in one duty station either because of young children, aging parents or other family imperatives. The mobility policy of the UN is, by many aspects, an added challenge for women.
In my particular case, I have a track record of mobility. In 22 years in the UN, I have geographically moved from duty stations 7 times, to 4 different continents, including 2 peacekeeping operations. Additionally, I have moved to offices performing different HR functions within the same duty station. I have also taken every training course relevant to my field and made continuous learning an integral part of my professional goals. I believe that the most important is to have perseverance, passion, willingness to take risks and putting yourself out there.
3. What are the issues involved in combining personal and professional life in your organization? How can a better balance be encouraged on this point?
The Organization has put in place a number of policies that support and encourage improved work-life balance for the staff. Alternative ways of working such as teleworking, compressed work week, part-time employment, very generous maternity and paternity leave are a few of the policies that support such balance. Teleworking was just implemented at CTBTO at the beginning of the year 2019. Staff can benefit from these policies and the UN continuously enforces practices to ensure staff well-being. Most recently, the UN has broadened the work-life balance approach to a « duty of care » approach, which includes support to staff member that deal with difficult professional and personal situations. The presence of a full time Staff Counselor and a very active Medical service contribute to this support.
I also recognize that achieving such a balance is harder for our female colleagues, either for those who have small children or the childless ones. For the first group, the challenges are well known, regardless of where one works. For the second group, there is very little information or studies available. There seems to be a general perception that a woman without children is expected to work longer hours and be always available or, only go on vacation during the off-season, as they « have no children », regardless of their professional schedules or personal preferences. Personally, having no children, I never took any leave during the second part of year to accommodate those with children and, while I felt that it was the right thing to do, somehow, it was also implicitly “expected” of me. So, in this respect, the stereotypes are true for both ends of the scale. For this reason, I strongly believe that a lot still needs to be done in terms of policies and initiatives that will support all women, regardless of their marital status, or family circumstances.
4. How do you see the evolution of the place of women in your scientific fields ?
The latest developments are encouraging. Universities have never graduated as many women, including technical fields, as today. Professional women are out there, and every time I conducted an outreach campaign, including those in developing countries, the majority of those attending the information sessions were women. The issue however is that many women have never heard of the work of the UN, nor that we recruits staff in a wide range of professional fields, nor that the salaries, benefits and entitlements are the same for men and women, nor that their experience and skills are sought after.
In spite of this development, there are still a relative small number of women working in technical fields globally. Women who have the expertise that we need and who possess the hard and soft skills and a combination of foreign languages, are already in very good positions. It is very hard to motivate these professionals to leave their current jobs to apply to an international organization, which often offers contracts of limited duration after a highly complex and often lengthy selection process. Another challenge is that women generally apply for positions for which they feel they absolutely fulfill all requirements. That means that highly prescriptive vacancy announcements listing specific male-related abilities and managerial styles are not likely to attract them because the words used can somehow be seen as not inclusive. There is a need to review the language used in our vacancy announcements to ensure that potentially biased messages are avoided.
I would invest in a very robust retention and career development program that includes training, coaching and mentoring and job shadowing for young professionals to groom them to perform in higher level positions, map out their careers and support them in making career decisions, giving them more visibility by encouraging their participation in international meetings, inter-agency projects and, in general, providing a forum for professional growth. I would involve them in targeted talent acquisition initiatives allowing them to be the voice of the organization to other potential female candidates. We can also think of mechanisms that allow them to reach out to other women and tell their stories and experience on what it means to work for the UN and the professional and personal opportunities it has offered them.
6. The United Nations has launched the "gender champions" initiative, whose representatives have committed not to participate in exclusively male panels. Have you ever refused to attend a panel composed exclusively of men, or been the only woman on a panel?
In the United Nations, all panels are composed of at least 2 women and the trend is growing. In panels, I have either chaired or served as a member, this has always been the case.. As Director in CTBTO, I have participated in panels for highly technical senior functions that were composed of three female and two male panelists, for instance. The issue is not only the composition of the panel, but the final selection decision and the way women are assessed during the interview process. I personally have never participated in an exclusively male panel as a candidate, nor have I ever been the only woman on a panel. The practice has been consistently to have a 50/50 gender representation in interview panels for all functions in CTBTO.
I truly believe that the “Gender Champion” initiative is very positive and long overdue. In my current Organization, the CTBTO, our Executive Secretary is a Gender Champion and his committed leadership to promote and select women is very well demonstrated in his tireless outreach visits. There are 3 female and 3 male Directors and two of the female Directors head the two largest technical divisions in the Organization. Since I joined the CTBTO in 2017, the trend has been that the selection of women is proportionately higher than the percentage of women applying for positions. Alone in 2018, 65% of all applications received were postulated by males and 35% by females, but 1,14% of male applicants are selected versus 1.19% of female applicants.
As a conclusion, after almost 22 years of service, I still consider that working for the UN and currently for its sister organization the CTBTO is an honor, a privilege, and a mission. That this opportunity was available to a woman from Rio de Janeiro born to a middle-class family in 1955 and who attended schools in the public system, will always be a very thrilling sensation.