"Yes, I can!"
Interview with Isabelle Durant, Deputy Secretary-General, UNCTAD
Ms. Isabelle Durant has been Deputy Secretary-General of UNCTAD since July 2017. She has previously served as Deputy Prime-Minister of Belgium, as Minister of Transport and Energy and as Senator of Belgium. She has also been Vice-President of the European Parliament. Born in Belgium in 1954, she holds a Masters of Science in Economic and Social Policy from Université Catholique de Louvain. She is married and has three children.
Gender is a cross-cutting topic in the 2030 Agenda and an issue close to the heart of the UN Secretary-General. What role is gender playing in your work at UNCTAD?
Gender is a very important topic for me, now as much as in the past, when I worked at the political level in Belgium and also in the European sphere. Gender really is a “second nature” and it has to be. When you speak about trade for development I am completely convinced that you have to work with women not because they will organize the economy or trade in a better way, but because by working with them you can change the community. You will not only change the immediate reality of one woman, but you will change the life of the people around her, in her family, in her enterprise, in the community as a whole. You have a multiplication of effects. By working through women at the smallest level you can change mentalities. That is not to say that we should only think small. Sometimes I get angry when women are only ever considered for micro-credits. Some of them may need macro-credits. Unfortunately, we observe that more often than not women work in the informal sector and as we move to formalizing work in some sectors, it often means that women will disappear and men take over. How can you change such dynamics? That for me is an important question.
Speaking about yourself, do you remember what you wanted to become when you were a child? Have you managed to realize your childhood dreams?
When I was a little girl, I wanted to become a singer, but I am really not a good singer! I was also a scout. I had the chance to grow up in a family that was special for that period. Both my parents were doctors and my mother was the first female doctor in Belgium. That is why in our family, there was no big difference between boys and girls. I was really stimulated, because I always saw my mother working and I saw her recognized by her patients. My mother was perceived as an important person. At home I learnt that it was not the most important thing to clean the house. In my school, all the other mothers did not work. So I felt a little bit different. That was in the 50s and 60s.
Because of that background, later, it was not so far-fetched for me to think that I could be a leader. And I was a leader, in my school, with the scouts, in my first job. Not a leader because I needed authority, but more in the sense of inspiring people. It is in my nature. I did not think at the time that I would one day be a Minister, in the European Parliament or with the UN. One thing led to the other, because of my past, my education, my character, and because of my will. It does not all just come like that. I had to assert myself in a government with many men. I was Minister of Transport and there are not many women in the railway sector or among the truck drivers. I discovered that if you know your sector very well, being a woman can be an advantage. It allows you to have more balanced discussions on the ground.
How did you go about crafting your career? How did you find what was the right fit for you, in terms of the work you wanted to do?
I was first trained as a nurse. I did not want to study that long and I did not want to be part of the “elite”. Those were the seventies. I was 18/19 years old and a little bit rebellious. I quickly discovered that being a nurse was not really for me, so I did a Masters and a PhD in social economy. During 15 years I was a teacher at school. Later, I started to be politically engaged in the ecologist movement, at the beginning of the movement in Belgium. One day I was asked to be Counsellor in the Brussel’s Parliament for the Green Group. Then the Green Group was looking for a Head of the Cabinet of Deputies. I accepted because I was interested in doing something in Parliament. One year later I was asked to be the woman at the head of the party, as the party leadership always consisted of a man and a woman. I accepted and one thing led to the next. Four years later we were in the Government for the first time and I became a Minister and Vice-Prime-Minister. Then I became part of the European Parliament.
Of course it was not always easy, I am also mother of three children. My husband was a great supporter. Yes, I made sacrifices, you can never have it all. But I was very well supported and I think that is very important. You have to make sure that the first circle of people around you supports you, especially when you start a difficult part of your career, with many commitments, being late in the office, working during the weekend. Even if they do not understand the content of your activity, they should have confidence in you and be there for you, whatever happens. That is my first lesson learnt. My second lesson: You have to keep the link with the people close to you, especially with your children, even if it may be less in quantity and more in quality. Otherwise you may come back four years later when your term is over and nobody is there anymore. For me, keeping that link was the way to survive and to live through difficult periods.
You already broached the subject of my next question: What were some of the roadblocks you encountered in your career? How did you overcome them?
First of all – have confidence! I am an intuitive person. If you feel, a move could be good for you, if you feel deeply, that something could be an opportunity, go for it. Look at the obstacles together with your family, try to solve the issues step by step. But if you feel that it is good for you, you have to do it! The circumstances will not wait for you. If you wait until your kids are adults or until your last one is at school, it will probably be too late. Of course, it is a fair decision to want to take time with your last child. All personal situations are different. It is just that many women are not confident enough. You have to tell yourself: ‘Yes I can, of course I can, I am not stupid, I have the competences, I have the will to do it’.
I have those discussions here in the context of my work. Women hesitate to take up opportunities because of their husbands, their children, etc. You can always negotiate some conditions that allow you to make a good experience that can be combined with your family situation. Negotiate, see how you can overcome the resistance of your husband, but if you feel that it is the right thing for you and you are motivated to do it, go for it!
How to combine your family and career would have been my next question. The issue already came up naturally.
…never for a man, never for a man! When you ask a male minister if he knows on which day his child will go to the swimming pool, he will never know. Every woman in a government will know the day and whom to remind to pick up the right bag.
In the beginning of our careers, my husband was teaching at the university and I was teaching at school. He was travelling a lot and it was a bit easier for me to be available for the children. Later it changed completely, I spent most of my time outside and he took care more of the daily activities of the children. Such dynamics change a couple. When you become more involved in your career, your partner will look at you in a different way. It is good to have some surprises in a couple of 20-30 years. You have to adapt yourself and accept the change, feel that it could be good for you, even for your children. Your children feel whether you are fulfilled and balanced. Of course, all depends on the age of the children or if they have special needs. If they have a disability it may be more difficult for you to be involved in a full career. But, you cannot say it is impossible because you have two or three children – even if you are always running and you are always frustrated that there is never enough time to give to each of your children. This was the experience I had with my mother. Of course, I was sometimes sad when I was younger, not to have so much time with her. But my image of her was so important. I realized this only afterwards, of course. And she was not completely absent, she knew all the small things that went on in our lives. Later, I tried to do the same. When I was Minister, I was doing the homework with my children on the phone. Or they sent it to me via e-mail and I looked at it between two meetings. As I said, you have to keep the link, otherwise you will regret. But you also have to make choices and accept that you will not be perfect.
Any advice you can give to women at the beginning or in the middle of their career in an international organization?
The context of international organizations is of course specific. You have a great diversity of women and men. You can meet men that are very traditional and patriarchal and you can meet Scandinavian or German men with a different way of working and managing their families. You do not have that diversity when you work in a national Ministry.
Within the UN, you now have the gender parity rules. That is a big opportunity for women. New York has set the goals to be achieved by 2021 and if you do not meet them, they will decide on your behalf. Some say, it is a bad period for men. But women have been the victims of the system for such a long time and it is not about getting to 100:0, it is about getting to 50:50. There is a fair chance for everybody.
Finally, I think we have to change the way we recruit. When writing a job description, of course, the professional competences have to be there, but we have to add some other competences on the management side as objective criteria to encourage women. If women have periods in their CVs where they took care of the children, how can we model that as an advantage? We have to avoid eliminating women right at the beginning of the selection process. Let us ask men about periods educating the children, such periods should improve and not hinder anyone’s future career prospects.
Any final message you wish to share on International Women’s Day?
Of course, it is important to have a symbolic day, but I would like to have 8 March every day. It is not about “celebrating women”, offering flowers to your wife or your secretary. It is the day to defend the rights of women. That brings us back to what I said in the beginning: Women are so important for the change in our daily lives. To have a good balance, women have to be able to have both, a family and a career. But for that we have to achieve better equality. It is a long way to go, even in developed countries like Germany, even at the UN. I meet a lot of young women with small children, colleagues here at the UN, who do not have their parents close by. You can feel really alone. Even if you have friends, you can never ask them for the same kind of support that you can ask your own parents. And there is also the challenge of taking care of your parents, accompanying them at the end of their lives, at a distance. This often falls upon the women. Women are very solicited at all ages. They need special support, they need to be protected and they need to be given rights.
I thank you!
Interview: Dr. Viviane Brunne, President, VDBIO
(published on March 5th 2018)