Portraits of women (5/8) : Miwa Kato
Miwa Kato is Director of Operations in UNODC Headquarters, accepted to tell us more about the challenges and opportunities of bringing gender equality into UNODC’s work.
1. What are the specificities of your career as a woman at the United Nations? What particular difficulties have you encountered as a woman?
After working for the Japanese Foreign Service at the beginning of my career, I joined the UN Secretariat in 2003, first as UNODC’s HQ Desk Officer for Afghanistan, just as the international community was gearing up renewed support for “post-conflict” Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime following 9/11. Though the post was based in Vienna, I spent a lot of my time working in Afghanistan, very actively contributing to shaping UNODC’s response and I really enjoyed the work we did. I went on to expanding my professional capacity in various positions within UNODC, but few years after I became a mother in 2006, I started to notice that there are different reality facing a woman, from a man, aspiring for growing responsibility, especially when you become a mother. Even though I came from Japan (where gender inequality is a significant factor), being in international, cosmopolitan environment, until reaching motherhood and facing mid-career aspirations in my late 30s, I never thought that being a woman was a determining factor in professional life. Reality changed my views.
As I returned from maternity leave, even though I was working 200%, I was passed on promotion within the Section I worked in, and also special assignments on emerging priorities that would previously be assigned to me would be given to male colleagues who can fly out for mission with short notice. The fact that being a women and a mother was becoming a negative determining factor, holding me down, bothered me. As this goes against UN Charter’s spirit of equality and inclusion, I became determined to take on bold steps, to show it is possible for women to advance professionally as much as men of similar qualifications.
By the time my son was 4 years old, I decided to raise my hand for a posting in Kabul, a non-family duty situation, and got selected. This also brought me a promotion to the P5 level and an exciting managerial experience bringing together various strands of work UNODC did in 8 countries of the West and Central Asia region. Though it was interesting how different people’s reactions were this time compared to when I was single (“How can you leave your child and husband?!” “Your child will suffer and there’ll be negative consequences on your family…” etc.), I completed my assignment successfully and I was happy with my choices in life. When I was laterally reassigned by management back to HQ in 2013, people started to approach me to ask tips on how one can balance career and family responsibilities. I realized I became something of a role model, as a rare example of a young woman manager, with a family with a young child, diversifying career going between field and HQ assignments – and enjoying life! Little did I know at the time, that this was the beginning of my career expansion, as my work and existence became associated to the concept of gender equality.
Commitment to the promotion of gender equality, as well as my strong conviction that as UN staff we benefit from experiencing different roles in both HQ and the field so we should seek geographical rotation, made me open the next big door: experiencing work in different UN agencies. That door led me to the most rewarding experiences with UNWOMEN, first as its Country Director for Egypt, then reassigned by UNWOMEN management as its Regional Director for the Asia Pacific, covering 42 countries of the region based in Bangkok. These years with UNWOMEN, designing and providing innovative assistance and movement building for women’s empowerment on the ground where change is most needed, lead to the most gratifying experiences of my life.
Professionally, all was unfolding fantastically and I would have loved to continue to be the UNWOMEN AP Regional Director for many more years. But after over 3 years of living far away from my family, having a 24/7 work life, delivering few years’ worth outputs in each of those years, things were getting difficult to sustain in the family front with extended periods of separation. I started to think I have to move on to a position where I can live with my school-age son, if I wanted to maintain the closeness, as he was approaching teenage years. This timing coincided with new spirit of serious reform of the UN, under the strong leadership of the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, which include gender equality and field impact orientation at the core. Energizing commitment for bold changes to improve the UN coming from the top made me want to return to the Secretariat to be a part of shaping that change.
When I left UNODC for UNWOMEN, I never imagined I would come back! But the Universe works in mysterious ways and my former boss’ post became advertised, just as the Secretary-General rolled out system-wide Gender Parity Strategy in autumn 2017 which made me a strong candidate in an office with no woman represented at the Director level.
So, to sum it up, I would say that being a woman was not a factor at the beginning of my UN career, then it became a negative factor at times as I started to have a family and aspired towards mid-management positions, and later, an advantage. I am certain my track record of successful concrete achievements from past experiences and my personal competencies qualified me to be a strong contender for the current position but gender must have also been a key factor, given the Secretariat’s need to meet commitment towards gender parity and change in management culture. And so it should be, as by bringing in more diverse leadership perspective, UN will become stronger and more effective.
2. What would you suggest to improve the position of women in international organizations? How can we promote women’s access to positions of responsibility? What have you carried out to achieve this within your organization?
As seen in successful examples like French President Macron’s, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s and UN Secretary General Guterres’ appointment of 50/50 gender parity Cabinet/senior management team, top management’s action is most important in bringing about change. And then, we need to monitor that it trickles down to actual appointments in all levels, including mid-management positions which may not be directly appointed by the top. We also need to create a culture of empowerment and consciousness to value diversity and inclusion.
In organizations like UNODC where the long-standing culture reflects male-dominated and masculine style of management translating to command and control, hierarchical, formalistic work place culture as the traditional norm, we need to take proactive steps to communicate change in management culture. It is important to actively acknowledge and reward staff at various levels, men and women, that embody the desirable principles in their daily action through their work content and in team contexts. I am doing a lot of advocacy to send clear messages to staff that gender equality, empowerment and field orientation are top priorities for me as their manager. I also emphasize that this is a reflection of the organizational vision for change, not only my personal commitment. Reflecting these values, I have introduced many mechanisms to create space for open dialogue and information-sharing. These measures create overall ground temperature needed among all staff to encourage women to take on leadership role and for staff to accept diverse leadership.
On top of these measures, in order to enhance organizational readiness for a gender equal work place, I am making conscious and targeted outreach efforts individually and in group settings to women who could be applying to D1 and P5 level positions, to be able to appoint women in these positions, especially in the field. Even when we do not have any particular vacancy, I try to talk with women currently in P5 or P4 posts, to get to know them better, hear their life stories, aspirations and constraints. In my first 10 months on the job, I spoke in this manner to about 30 women (not just from my Division but across UNODC) individually and informally. Some of them may be aspiring for a field positing but feel afraid of uncertainties once you go to the field. Some of them maybe interested but do not have experience needed to be an attractive candidate to be selected and may benefit from some temporary assignments. Some may not be interested now but if they tell me they may be ready in 3 years when their child finishes high school, there’s a lot that management can do to keep that in mind and help them gain relevant experience and build an attractive CV for when they wish to apply down the road. To be sure, I also have similar conversations with many male staff too – it’s just that men tend to come forward without extra effort from managers, so I am emphasizing the women angle to make it a level playing field. At the UN, we have a transparent and competitive recruitment process, which is a good thing, but we also have to plan and build experiences to be qualified and attractive when vacancies come up. Women tends to lag behind in doing so and these little informal mentoring and monitoring from managers can help.
So far, I have appointed 2 D1 level positions and it has been 50/50, 1 woman and 1 man, but I do note the challenge of finding equal number of women who can apply as these types of measures have not been in place previously. With these informal outreaches, which I am encouraging all my managers to do at various levels, I hope we will see the results of 50/50 among managers of UNODC in a few years’ time.
Balanced experience in the field and HQ is critically important to perform higher management functions. Unlike in UNHCR, UNICEF and other agencies where rotation and career development has been long practiced, UNODC has some distance to go in this direction. So, in addition to targeted outreach, we try to create opportunities for stories of staff, especially women, who did it to share widely. We also need to make it safe for women to apply to positions of greater responsibility and especially to field positions, assuring them of organizational commitment to support their career path.
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?
To translate our aspiration for gender equality and inclusive workplace into reality, it is critical to have flexible work arrangements that match each staff’s circumstances at various stages of their lives. With Industrial Revolution 4.0 and the technical possibilities offered to us, today we have many ways to fulfil the requirement of the job, and excel in it, without being glued to the office desk for set hours per day. In fact, most creative and responsible staff will perform much better when trust is granted for delivery of results, and the staff administration system allows better reflection of their personal work style preferences. Beyond having work-life balance policies that are available to all but taken by a minority, UN is now trying to promote these new work style possibilities to all staff who wishes to do so, without the stigma as being applicable mainly to women with children or other care responsibilities.
It should also be underlined that embracing more flexible work arrangements and inclusive work place culture are supported by many male staff as well. In a world where we can be connected 24/7 with work (if we allow it!), we all benefit from reaching a better balance between work and personal life. I have learned extensively during my days at UNWOMEN, that many of the traditional male-centric value system that discriminate women with expectation for fixed gender-roles, are in fact also discriminatory towards men. Because men are expected to take on less care-giving roles, those who chose to do so fear facing negative consequences professionally. This and many other gender stereotypes prevent many men from having a thriving life as well.
I remember vividly a conversation I had with my husband as I was returning back to life living with my family in Vienna last year after 3 years which he took on the role of being the “lead parent” next to a full-time job. I thanked him for all that he did while I was away. To that, he said that while the initial adjustment was not easy, he feels that he is the one to thank me and my work for creating space for him to be much more involved as a parent. Adding that that the intimate relationship he developed with our son by being such an involved farther was the most rewarding and enriching experience of his life. From this and many other experiences I have talking with men and women about topic discussed under the banner of “work life balance”, I feel encouraged that we can make these transformations in the UN. It’s really about all of us having more choices in life, being responsible and multi-dimensional in our thinking. Having room to grow and feel good about it. It’s about well-being and empowerment, as much as rights and responsibilities.
It is important to apply the gender lens in all fields of UN’s work, as we seek to check if we are doing all we can to translate the principles of the UN Charter into reality, and doing so while being reflective of the diversity of the people and identities we represent. In UNODC’s mandate areas, this is of particular importance as law enforcement and criminal justice institutions in many countries tend to be male-centric, with heavy reliance on command and control modus operandi, which often create concern for women and minorities or those with differing opinions.
It is important to recognize that bringing in gender-dimension to the work of UNODC is an essential requirement for effective implementation of our mandates. We need to have much more inclusive, tolerant and diverse models in ensuring justice and security, that would in turn raise the trust and effectiveness of these institutions. It is essential that we promote having more women professionals working for these institutions, including in critical leadership positions, not just as a token but also addressing the male-chauvinistic culture of the institutions. Just as it became well recognized in the context of “Women, Peace and Security” in the Security Council debate that advanced over the past two decades, we need to be gearing up discussion on “Women in Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice” if we are to talk of comprehensive change on the ground to improve people’s lives. I hope UNODC can do much more to promote this agenda and it will be one of my priority focuses in my second year on this post.
5. 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?
With all the recent efforts of sending the message including by the “Gender Champions”, I still often find myself to be the only woman sitting on the podium or being on a panel (consisting of 4-5 members), even when the topic is on issues like Gender Justice or Women, Peace and Security! It is important that we recognize the irony and inappropriateness of such state of affairs in the United Nations setting and I do raise my voice about it. I wish more male collogues would have the same sense of urgency in changing this, as it tends to be women managers who express concern.
The reaction of some male managers and staff when faced with these situations also concerns me. The problem is that some still see the emphasis on gender dimension as some kind of a fad, supported by only certain managers and some Member States. We need to clearly recognize we are not doing this as a favor for women, but it is an organizational imperative, as it is a way to increase our effectiveness in delivering on our mandates. We all need to reinforce this message, having men and women of all standings as champions of this cause. I also find it important to make this point unapologetically but also non-aggressively, ideally with humor that highlights the ridiculousness of the present situation, especially if you are a woman in management position. It is important to frame it not just as “women’s issue” advocated by women but about advancement of diversity and inclusion - a relatable and universal vision to be shared by all, rather than a struggle of a certain group. I think starting from the Secretary-General himself, the top echelon of UN management today does this very well and we need to make it trickle down among all who work with and for the UN. I am optimistic about the changes UN can make with targeted goals and open prioritization to be authentic to its Charter.