Portraits of women (3/8) : Anna Joubin-Bret
Ms Anna Joubin-Bret is Secretary of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law, and Director of the International Trade Law Division of the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs since November 2017. During her career, Anna Joubin-Bret has held a wide range of positions, including private sector lawyer, legal adviser to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, lawyer, judge of trade courts and lawyers, and regional adviser to the Rhône-Alpes region. She met with us to share her vision of contemporary issues of gender equality and the concrete implications of current transformations for women, whose careers must be considered over the long term.
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 started my career in the private sector, in the Pomagalski Company, specialized in cable transport, where I have worked for 13 years. I then joined the United Nations to work as a consultant and then as a staff member of UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) in Geneva for fifteen years. After a 10-year interruption at the Barreau de Paris (Bar of Paris), I have returned to the United Nations in November 2017 as Executive Secretary of UNCITRAL (United Nations Commission on International Trade Law).
During my career, I have never considered that being a woman was a specificity or a difference compared to my male colleagues. I did not feel any particular discrimination, except perhaps in certain specific contexts, for example when I was working in export, with some foreign partners, but it was almost 30 years ago and society has changed a lot since then. Overall, I was fortunate to have chiefs and colleagues who trusted my skills.
The main difference came when I had children: I found myself on the front line of the family, having to manage their activities, schooling and daily life. At that time, I felt the need to have a more flexible professional structure, which is why I joined the United Nations as a consultant. I started by working on the legal content of UNCTAD’s World Investment Report. This allowed me to organize my schedule in a relatively free way, as long as I delivered the expected contributions at the right time and attended follow-up meetings. Then, when I was hired by the United Nations, I got one day of working from home (i.e. teleworking) per week thanks to a great chief who was committed to help me reconciliating my life as a mother with my career.
While I was able to observe much more complex situations for women and especially for mothers, for example in law firms between 2011 and 2017, it turns out that the United Nations system was particularly flexible (notably because it is a large structure), and therefore adapted to my needs.
2. How can we promote women’s access to positions of responsibility? What have you carried out to achieve this within your organization?
For me, being a woman is less decisive in accessing to positions of responsibility than being a mother, regardless of the good will and support of the spouse. Personally, I was fortunate to have had my children at a very young age, which allowed me to devote myself to my career when the children were older.
The important thing is to understand that one’s career is a long one (40 years is long), and to know how to "press the accelerator" and seize the right opportunities when you are most available. Women do not leave the game when they have children, they can always come back and get involved later when they are more available, at least in the United Nations. Careers must therefore be considered in the long term rather than trying to promote women as quickly as possible, at any cost, while they are more or less available depending on the period.
The organization itself can contribute to bringing women into positions of responsibility by gender balanced recruitment. In fact, the recruitment of women at the D1-D2 level is often made difficult by the absence of women at the P5 level. We must try to achieve parity from the lowest to the highest level.
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?
Within the United Nations, women enjoy great flexibility in the organization of working time (possibility of taking days off to care for a sick child, to work from home), and this does not lead to specific abuses, as women who work from home are most of the time particularly conscientious. In addition, recruitment does not take into account the personal situation of candidates (women are not asked whether they are married, mothers or single). Interviews are standardized so that everyone is in the same situation. This can also pose problems for managers, who cannot adapt the assignment of a person to fit their personal situation.
To promote a better balance, two elements are therefore essential: the facilitating side of the organization on the one hand; and the respect for the specificity of women’s careers on the other. But women must also understand that they cannot get everything in the short term, and that they should consider their career in the longer term. Anne Marie Slaughter’s famous "you can’t have it all" is more like "you can’t have it all at the same time".
In general, the legal professions are becoming more feminized, particularly the judiciary. The legal profession is also feminized, but less in business firms. Within UNCITRAL, the balance between men and women is completely reversed: there are 75% women at UNCITRAL (7 men out of 28 people). In the Korea office near Seoul, there are even only women. This is not due to positive discrimination, since candidates are recruited on their competence. This can be explained by the fact that the United Nations is a place that respects women’s lives and family life, unlike the alternative careers available to women in the field of international law, particularly in law firms, where I have observed much more difficult working conditions.
The high feminization of UNCITRAL has concrete management consequences: parental leave, recruitment, flexible working hours and working from home, maternity leave have to be managed in a fluid manner.
The implementation of intergenerational coaching could be particularly useful, and would allow women to have referents at certain times in their careers to talk to and ask questions, particularly about the balance between personal and professional life. Up to now, there are no sponsorship or coaching networks within the United Nations. Personally, I supported my young colleagues a lot, especially at UNCTAD, where I was sometimes nicknamed the "Public Complaint Bureau" because my colleagues came to talk to me about their difficulties and seek advice.
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?
At UNCITRAL, the gender champion is the legal adviser to the United Nations Legal Service, since UNCITRAL is an administrative division of that service.
The problem with this initiative is that it can sometimes be excessive and ideological, whereas it is an effort that can be made consciously. But it has the advantage of raising awareness among actors who would otherwise not necessarily pay attention. We must find a balance, be aware without becoming an ideologist.
In recent years, things have improved a lot on this subject. I have very often been the only woman in an all-male panel (although I have also recently participated in an all-female panel), and I do not refuse it because it is often beyond the control of the participants. It never really disturbed me, since I knew that people didn’t come to hear what I had to say as a woman, but as an expert.