Portraits of women (2/8) : Najat Mokhtar
Najat Mokhtar was appointed Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Applications at the IAEA on 1 January 2019. Prior to her appointment, she was Director of the Asia and the Pacific Division in the Department of Technical Cooperation. After a very rich academic career as a university professor, research director, and director of science and research at the Hassan II Academy of Science and Technology, she joined the International Atomic Energy Agency. She shared with us her views on gender equality and the need for women to take responsibility, not only as mothers, but also as full members of
1. What are the specificities of your career as a woman at the United Nations? What particular difficulties have you encountered as a woman?
I am a biologist by training, a specialist in nutrition and public health. I started at the Agency as a technical officer specialized in nutrition, on the advice of my husband who had seen the opportunity. At the time, I didn’t know the agency and I had 4-year-old twins. I was a university professor and director of a research laboratory in Morocco, but already concerned about keeping an international perspective. To my surprise, I was selected one year after I applied. This position was a real opportunity, which allowed me to progress in the field of science and technology but also a professional challenge, since I had to learn a lot outside my field of origin.
On a personal level, coming to Vienna with my children and my husband was also a challenge, but I wanted my family to come with me. Coming from an Arab-Muslim country, I particularly appreciated that my husband followed me and shared his time between Vienna and Morocco. Until my children’s pre-adolescence, I was able to manage his returns to Morocco as well as my work, but then I had to make a choice for family reasons. I went back to Morocco for four years. I took a position at the Moroccan Academy of Science and Technology, where I could fully grow in management and strategy missions. I have never regretted this decision, but I am aware that not all women have the chance to find such an interesting job when they make this type of decision. My children returned to their culture and their families. When the children graduated, I applied again to the Agency, which gave me a new chance. I became section head in charge of the nutrition and health environment program.
For women, the most important thing is to know how to find a balance. If you give everything to your career or family, it is not fine. We have to find a balance. Family support is also very important. I was also very fortunate: first to work in a field, scientific and technical, where merit plays an essential role; second, to benefit from the Agency’s policy on the promotion of women.
2. How can we promote women’s access to positions of responsibility? What have you carried out to achieve this within your organization?
To promote women’s access to positions of responsibility, it is very important to give them the opportunity to have access to information, and to encourage them to apply for these kinds of positions. Today, if a woman is of a very high technical level, she can be recruited without difficulty. However, since the Agency is a technical and scientific organization, it is not always easy for recruiters to find very high-level female profiles to fill positions of responsibility.
For this reason, the long-term strategies put in place within the Agency to promote women in these areas are essential to achieve an equal number of women and men in decision-making positions. For example, there are many outreach, awareness and information strategies to promote women in scientific careers. My colleagues in charge of human resources travel to countries to promote the Agency’s work and inform women, so that they can apply in greater numbers. There are also many technical cooperation programs to encourage young people to get involved in nuclear energy. However, this responsibility cannot be carried by the Agency alone: Member States must also promote and train women so that they reach a sufficient technical level to be recruited.
Changes in attitudes will also be necessary to ensure that women have the same access to positions of responsibility as men. While young people (boys and girls combined) rarely choose to engage in physical and nuclear science studies, this is even less the case for girls. Strategies must be put in place from an early age to encourage girls to pursue ambitious scientific training, while taking into account the difficulties of women who have to raise families. Personally, when I told my mother that I wanted to go to university, she advised me to become a nurse or school teacher, but not a doctor, because she knew that I wanted children and that it would be a long path. Today, things tend to change: even in remote agricultural settings, mothers who have not been to school encourage their children, including girls, to take up training.
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?
I think it is very important not to neglect one or the other. Unfortunately, women often carry the weight of family life, while working life is conceived as optional, as a bonus that may or may not be their choice. For women, this is the main challenge. This will continue to be the case if women’s social (and not just family) environment does not change.
Several measures can be envisaged, such as the possibility of teleworking, or the flexibility of working time, which are policies implemented by the Agency today. The granting of maternity or paternity leave can also provide a better balance between personal and professional life. Today, more should be done so that women don’t face their double or triple job alone any more, which harm their spirits and health. We have to create a working environment where women and mothers can fully grow and do not stop working while fathers continue to work.
Women also have a role to play: they should not decide to end their careers for their families, but should seek to strike a balance. As a woman, when I talk to women, I encourage them to see themselves as part of society and its development and not just as mothers. There is an innate dimension in women that leads them to be concerned about their children and to want to be responsible for the family. Women have a responsibility, not only as mothers, but also as members of a society whose development they must contribute. We must reject the "victim status", but be aware of our responsibilities, and fully accept them, regardless of the cost. I myself have a family, parental responsibilities, but I have never given up my role as a scientist. On the other hand, even if I am passionate, I have always found a way to come back when necessary, for my sons and family.
In the field of nuclear applications, and in particular in the health sector, there are many more women than men. On the other hand, when it comes to areas that require skills in physics and chemistry, there are more men: in the energy sector, for example, there are more men, as well as in the field of guarantees (which is also explained by the frequency of travel and the need to stay in the country for a long time). In general, the more we move towards the exact and pure sciences, the fewer women we have. In all these areas still dominated by men, women should be encouraged to acquire hard science skills.
From the outside, international organizations are often considered inaccessible. We need to provide more information to universities, schools, and to show to students what perspectives international organizations can offer.
WHO, UNICEF or FAO are organizations that everyone knows, but the IAEA is not known and people do not know how to apply. We need to explain more about the role of nuclear power, and of the Agency, especially since it is very noble, as it is about promoting science, technology and innovation for well-being and peace. Clear messages must be sent out that are likely to attract women (insisting on the role of the Agency for Well-being, Rural Areas, Access to Drinking Water, Environmental Protection). The IAEA, human resources and management are already going abroad to carry out this work, but Member States must take over and promote international organizations from primary school onwards. Working with governments is particularly necessary, through the organization of internships, youth visits, specific conferences, presentation competitions, for example.
The establishment of coaching networks for women can also be useful. The networks of women in nuclear ("Women in Nuclear") or young people in nuclear ("Youth in Nuclear") are excellent, and set up many activities that need to be encouraged.
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?
The Director General of the Agency is a "gender champion". Personally, I have never refused to attend an event without a woman, but when I am the only woman, I make the point that being the only woman does not mean that I am the only expert, there could be others. Boycotts can also be a solution. In general, when I organize a panel, I make sure that equality between men and women is respected. At the Agency level, equal representation of men and women is a particularly important commitment from the highest level of the hierarchy. In some panels, on subjects that are too specific, there are no women. It is then explicitly justified by saying that women should be trained in this field in the future.