Interview with Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director, Telecommunication Development Bureau at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
Doreen Bogdan-Martin was elected Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT) in November 2018 and took office on 1 January 2019. This made her the first woman to hold an elected office at ITU. In addition to serving as BDT Director, she also leads ITU’s contribution to the EQUALS Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age1 and serves as Executive Director of the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. Previously, from 2008-2018, she headed the Strategic Planning & Membership Department of ITU and served as Coordinator of United Nations affairs. She holds a Master’s degree in International Communications Policy from the American University in Washington, DC.
Gender is a cross-cutting issue in the 2030 Agenda. Which role does gender play in your work?
The information and communication technology sector which I work in is largely male dominated, so gender is an important topic. In our own workforce here at ITU women continue to be a minority. I have therefore created a gender task force a number of years ago. It has helped us to ensure that we have at least two women on a short list for any open position. We looked at how we could get the job descriptions out to women. We looked at our working conditions, to make sure that they were favourable to women. The task force also helped us to incorporate gender in our policies and programmes. We worked with our Member States to increase the share of women in delegations. We started counting women in delegations and congratulated countries when they achieved gender balance. We also started paying attention to the allocation of our fellowships to make sure we had a balance. A couple of years ago we started tracking speaking time which was something that Caitlin [Kraft-Buchman] of the Gender Champions Initiative was also getting into. It’s a really exciting project where we can track the number of times women actually speak in meetings and also what topics they are speaking on which is very telling. We have been doing it manually before and then adapted a machine learning programme. Now Member States cannot bring women on their delegations and limit their roles to getting the coffee and taking the notes. We can now hold them accountable. Women now need to lean in and actually take the microphone which is, I think, really important in terms of balancing the tables.
In our sector, we have a big gender gap, as women are not having the necessary digital skills to take advantage of technology and we also don’t have enough women in the technology space actually creating technologies. A couple of years ago we created Equals, a global partnership to bridge the digital gender gap. We brought together Arancha González, who was at ITC, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka from UN Women, Mats Granryd from GSMA2, Dr Malone from UN University and of course ITU and we created this partnership which now has more than a hundred collaborators and which aims to reduce the divide between men and women having access to the internet. We offer programmes to empower women with digital skills and we try to motivate women and girls to take up studies in the ICT field and to actually stay in the field. Finally, we also have an International Day, the Girls and ICT Day. This year it was on 23 of April in a virtual form. We always celebrate it in Geneva, and it is about encouraging young girls to take an interest in the ICT space, in the hopes that in the end they will enter the field or do something linked to the field. The numbers are really imbalanced. Less than 20% in the ICT work force and less than 20% of the students are women. So, overall, there are many interlinkages between gender and our work.
In terms of career opportunities, should we encourage our female members to apply at ITU?
Absolutely, we have many positions open. We have hired two women this year at the D-level. We only had one woman at the D-level, now we have four. We would definitely welcome having more women in our workforce.
Speaking about yourself, do you remember what you wanted to be when you were a child?
And did you manage to realize that dream?
No. I always wanted to be a doctor. My father was a paediatrician. From a young age I worked in my father’s office every weekend and I loved it. My brother is a surgeon, his wife is a doctor, my aunt is a biologist. I grew up in a very science-focused family and loved science. In high school, I took a maximum of science classes. I went to university as a chemistry major but after two years I was miserable because there was no human contact. It was very scientific, focussing on number crunching and testing hypothesis to figure out unknown elements. The laboratory was several levels below ground, and I was one of very few women in the programme. So, I decided to drop chemistry and took liberal arts classes from criminal sciences and psychology to sociology and international relations. I graduated with a very general degree and then took a year off to teach English in Spain. Spanish was a passion, starting in elementary school and continuing through high school and university. Coming back from Spain I decided that I wanted to do something international and I went to graduate school in international communications in Washington. I had several amazing professors and one encouraged me to do an internship. This internship opened the door for me to the field that I am currently in.
How did you then go about crafting your career and finding the place that was the best fit for you?
I think it was through experimentation, trying out different things to find out what I really liked. In my graduate programme, I took different courses linked to communications. The ones I liked the most were technology-focused, at the time largely satellite-focused. My professor then introduced me to the head of an agency in the Department of Commerce and she offered me this internship possibility which was really the opening to my understanding of the information and communication technology field and I just loved it. I was able to sync up communication and technology in my Master’s thesis on international satellite communications policy when the United States was reviewing their satellite policy. I was part of that task force while I was writing my Master’s thesis. So, I was very lucky. As a next step I explored moving to Latin America working for a private sector operator and I had also had some interactions with the ITU. I then managed to have a secondment from the Government to the ITU for a couple of months and that was the opening for my career at the ITU.
Did you encounter any roadblocks in your career related to being a woman? How did you manage?
I think there are always roadblocks. Personally, I have always been determined and when I face a roadblock, whether it’s a person block in me or something external, I take a step back, reflect and try to figure out a work-around to proceed forward. Sometimes I have to change my plans entirely and sometimes I just have to adapt. Roadblocks are always a challenge, but I just stay determined.
Did you have any mentors or role models?
Yes, men and women. Again, going back to these specific professors in university and my first boss when I was an intern. She was the Assistant Secretary at the Commerce Department and she was a real inspiration - young, bright, very vocal, very assertive. She was a good listener and gave incredible feedback. She took the time with all of her staff. I learnt so much from her, in terms of her management style and other practices, and I am still able to use a lot of that today. She was important and continues to be an important person in my career development. When I came to the ITU, there was a delegate from Syria who guided me about different negotiation techniques and that helped me tremendously. Those are just two examples. There are many people, men and women, who have been really helpful as colleagues, as friends, as mentors and as role models.
How did you go about combining career and family?
It was and continues to be a challenge. I had my first child back in 2000. I was a P4 at the time, managing our regulatory work in the Bureau that I currently lead. I took 9 months maternity leave and then I came back 80% for the first year. I was very comfortable with that choice. We had a nanny at home who stayed with us for 20 years, she was wonderful. For child number 1 – I don’t want to say it was easy, but I found a very workable balance. Shortly after I came back to work, I was pregnant again and I was pregnant with triplets. I had just been given a role of acting as a P5 and I was a little bit nervous about how the reaction would be. We had a very big event which we successfully completed. I informed all my colleagues that I was having triplets, which was a huge shock. When my doctor finally forced me to stop working, I was at about 29 weeks and then they came at 33 weeks and 6 days and I had used already 5 weeks of my maternity leave. They were premature so they stayed in the clinic for 4 weeks. By the time I got them home it was time for me to come back to work. I had premature babies at home and my daughter was 22 months - it was physically impossible. I had asked for extended maternity leave and it was denied. I went through a very difficult time. It was very very hard to manage so many little babies and try to deal with the office. When I came back, it was difficult for some colleagues to take me seriously. Some were making jokes. I was told I had to go on mission immediately. It was very challenging when they were small.
Overall, it’s difficult to balance work and family. It’s possible if you have a good home support system and you need to have a good support system at work. I had a couple of colleagues that had my back, but very few. I have a very supportive husband and we were fortunate to have my husband’s parents close by, they helped a lot. And I had a lot of good friends, in the end their children were friends with my children, and they always had my back when the kids were sick or I needed to travel. It’s not easy because there are certain priorities in your kid’s life which you can’t sacrifice for your work because you can’t take them back. I always had a firm rule that I would be there for important events like sports day. There were certain things I would never miss. I have no regrets for that. Sometimes I had to say, I can’t go on that trip, or I can’t go to that meeting. Often women find it difficult to draw the line, but we have to because if we don’t, we regret it afterwards.
We hear a lot from people who struggle to find the right moment to form a family, especially when they have short-term contracts and there never seems to be the right moment…
When the triplets were born, we didn’t have some of the policies we have today. Now we have parental leave, so that spouses are also entitled to leave. We have a breastfeeding policy where you can work 80% and be paid 100% your first year, we didn’t have that at the time. When I asked for extended maternity leave, the head of HR called me and said: ‘I have really good news for you, you can take one hour off per day to breastfeed’. And I said: ‘I’m sorry, I live on the other side of the lake, it takes me an hour to drive home’. My nanny couldn’t bring all three of them. It takes about an hour to breastfeed triplets. It was so challenging, but I was determined to do the breastfeeding for their health. At the time the organization did not offer me support. I think we are better today, but I think we can do even more, especially when colleagues have multiples.
We are often asked about geographical mobility. Some agencies have mandatory mobility policies, has this ever been a concern at ITU?
We don’t have mobility so much as an issue at the ITU, but our missions can be a challenge for staff with families. Every four years we have world conferences. The biggest one is our plenipotentiary conference, requiring staff members to be away from their families for five weeks.
Any advice to families how to manage?
I think we need to talk to each other more and support each other. My organization has always been very male dominated and sometimes I would come into the office and there wasn’t anyone I could share my feelings with. You have to find a balance and draw the limits of what you are comfortable with. If you have to compromise, you have to be ok with your decision. Sometimes it’s not so easy to make those choices. In a good organization, we also have to put in place the necessary structures.
The international work environment is changing, staff in the UN and other international organizations is confronted with many unknowns. Any advice to mid-career women and men how they should go about planning their careers and their lives in today’s world?
We live in interesting times. I think all of us need to think about the future and the skills we may need. I myself try to continue learning as much as I can, through podcasts, webinars or articles. I’m constantly reading. I always tell my staff: ‘It has to come from you. Don’t wait! Look for opportunities!’. There are so many opportunities to continue learning, we just need to seize the moment. Skill development and reskilling are important, especially for mid-level career professionals.
Any final message to our members?
Just be determined and be the change you want to see in the world. It’s as Gandhi once said, if you want change, be the change yourself and don’t wait. Things don’t come to us. We have to make them happen.
Thank you so much for your time!
Interview: Dr. Viviane Brunne, President, VDBIO
(published in June 2020)
The EQUALS Global Partnership was born in 2016, with a purpose and goals shaped by ITU, UN Women, GSMA, International Trade Centre, and United Nations University. The partnership, it was agreed, would be most effective focusing on three areas:
- Increasing access to digital tools, the internet, and mobile communications for women and girls
- Improving opportunities for women and girls to get digital skills, tech education and training needed to succeed in the world today
- Finding ways to break down leadership barriers faced by women in the tech sector, such as glass ceilings, lack of venture funding, and barriers to gaining insider knowledge
The first official EQUALS partners’ meeting took place in autumn 2016, and at that meeting, participants started using a meaningful gesture in photos to show their commitment to gender digital equality. By making an equals sign with their arms, partners—and now, anyone—can demonstrate their commitment to closing the gender gap in digital technology.
Girls in ICT Day
Another successful effort is the International Girls in ICT Day, held on the fourth Thursday of April each year. On this day every year, ITU and thousands of partners and supporters around the world get together to show girls and young women the vast potential that ICTs have to offer, and the exciting career opportunities that can be achieved in the technology sector. This year, through the power of technology and despite the current situations many partners from government, the private sector, academia, civil society and international organizations, engaged through activities like hackathons and workshops on coding, robotics and mobile applications. Since 2011, more than 360,000 girls and young women have taken part in more than 11,000 celebrations in over 170 countries worldwide. This year alone, over 50,000 girls in 62 countries took part in virtual Girls in ICT Day celebrations.
2The GSMA is an industry organization that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide.