Portraits of women (4/8) : Aruni Wijewardane
Aruni Wijewardane became Scretary of the Policy-Making Organs of the IAEA six years ago after a successful career as a Sri Lankan diplomat. She shared with us her vision of gender equality, and the added value that women can represent in a scientific and technological field such as nuclear, when their working environment gives them the opportunity to grow and make it to the top.
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 joined the IAEA about 6 years ago – before that for over 25 years I was a Sri Lankan diplomat. The IAEA is a technical organization which deals with nuclear technology, and therefore my own professional background as a diplomat and Ambassador reflects the diversity of women professionals in the IAEA. In the past the nuclear field has been considered – from both a security and technical perspective - as a very male dominated subject. Today this is changing including in the IAEA, I see this encouraging trend in all parts of the Secretariat and at all levels. I am the first woman to hold my current post as the Secretary to the Policy making Organs of the IAEA. In my current capacity, I perform an important role as the interface between the Secretariat on the one hand; and the Member States on the other.
I grew up in Sri Lanka, where women have a very respected role in society and professional life, so coming from that background I am able to assume my functions with a lot of confidence. However, it is clear that women face numerous challenges in rising to the top of their professional lives in the United Nations – as an internationally recruited senior professional woman who had to relocate in Vienna, the main challenge for myself was to ensure that our family was able to follow their own professional and life paths while moving along with me in my career. I think many senior women professionals with international careers share this challenge.
2. How can we promote women’s access to positions of responsibility? What have you carried out to achieve this within your organization?
It is important that women hold positions at decision-making level in order to influence outcomes, so it is not merely about numbers, but also where women are within the organization and what they do. We need to demonstrate accountability in this regard – in the IAEA for example, the % of professional women rose from 22 % to 30 % in the last 10 years. The Director General has pledged to achieve gender parity at the most senior level in the Secretariat by 2021.
We need to ensure a supportive gender – sensitive work environment and specific measures so that women have the real option to remain and rise in their careers. We need to have an accurate understanding of the issue through gender-related data, put in place concrete administrative measures and qualitative steps such as influencing people’s perceptions and opinions on gender. In the IAEA, we senior professional women meet regularly in order to discuss these issues. In my own office women are in a majority in professional grades.
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?
For the most part the IAEA is a scientific and technical organization, which does important work in many countries worldwide. Consequently highly qualified internationally recruited professional women from various backgrounds work together in fields such as physics, medicine, chemistry and law for example. Most move internationally for a period of time from their current careers with spouse and children, leaving behind aged parents and other close family. Frequent work-related travels also pose challenges for family life. These challenges are unavoidable and we need to create a supportive work environment. Flexible working hours, work from home options availability of in-house primary care, maternity and paternity leave are all conducive to a good work – life balance. Opportunities for employment of spouses are also relevant. We are privileged that the IAEA is located in a safe and secure city with many options for leisure, services and education which is a supportive living environment for professional women.
In the IAEA there is an emphasis on the great contribution women scientists from all over the world make in the nuclear field. Various current initiatives such as the “Nuclear Young Generation” the “International Day of Women and Girls in Science” and “Daughters’ Day” and “Women in Nuclear” provide a welcoming environment for young women regarding the array of opportunities in nuclear . I think women view global challenges differently from men, therefore women in the scientific field have a critical place in the achievement of social and human development goals and in the achievement of the SDG’s.
In my own background in diplomacy as well we recognize today the valuable contribution women can make in building consensus and peaceful resolution of disputes.
We need to be accountable to targets and objectives on gender, to create a conducive work environment to attract the best qualified women, to enhance understanding of harmful practices against women including sexual harassment and increase awareness about gender equality. It is important that Member States discuss gender-related issues in Policy – making organs of international organizations and include gender perspectives in resolutions.
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 past I recall, I have been the only woman in professional interactions in various contexts including public and media interactions. It is encouraging that today this is less visible than 10- 15 years ago! Equal representation of men and women on panels is the accurate reflection of society itself and therefore the only fair means of reflecting the diversity of views that exist in society. I think this is particularly relevant in the scientific and security fields such as nuclear, which have been traditionally male-dominated. Women’s voices and opinions can contribute to consensual and beneficial outputs such as ensuring that nuclear technology is used for peaceful purposes.