One week into her new job as the seventh director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment as head of the 26-year-old global trade body remains historic, especially for women worldwide who aspire to leave a positive mark on global trade history.
In an unprecedented leadership reshuffle, international trade is now spearheaded by three women from three different continents, as all of Geneva’s top trade organizations — the WTO, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the International Trade Center (ITC) — have become female-led over the past couple of months.
On Feb. 15, the WTO agreed by consensus to appoint Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala as its seventh director-general. The next day, Isabelle Durant of Belgium assumed her role as deputy secretary-general of the UNCTAD, a permanent body of the UN since 1964. Both women since then have joined a league of glass ceiling breakers in international trade organizations, after Pamela Coke-Hamilton, a Jamaican woman, began to serve as the ITC’s executive director in October.
“It is definitely a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come but still how much further we have to go,” Coke-Hamilton told Xinhua in a recent interview.
“When we think about our shared goals to overcome gender bias, break glass ceilings and reach gender parity within the international trade space and beyond, this moment is significant,” she added.
“This sends a signal to all women and girls around the world, especially women of color and women from developing countries, that it is possible. It also sends a signal to what has traditionally been a male dominated arena, that if we want inclusive trade we must be inclusive in how and who negotiates it,” she said.
Durant, a former vice prime minister and senator of Belgium as well as vice president of the European Parliament, has been a keen contributor to making international trade more inclusive and greener, and been an advocate for gender equality.
In a recent interview with Xinhua, she pledged to join forces with the other two chiefs. “The new constellation sends a strong signal regarding the capacity to break the glass ceiling and to show that three women can manage important organizations. But it’s not enough,” she said. “Frankly, I hope that in the future it will not be perceived as abnormal.
It has to become totally normal, and I hope that in the next generation this will be the case,” noted the leader of UNCTAD.”Thank you to my sisters Christine Lagarde, Kristalina Georgieva for your kind messages and support. Great to be in your company, Janet Yellen, Chrystia Freeland, Odile Renaud-Basso, among other wonderful women in finance,” the 66-year-old Okonjo-Iweala tweeted two days after her appointment.
But when it comes to performance and getting the job done, such accolades as gender could hardly help score brownie points.
“Women leaders generally face higher expectations for qualification and face more barriers in their careers moving up the executive chain,” Nicole Bivens Collinson, president of international trade and government relations at Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, a trade law firm, told Xinhua.
The trio’s leadership and skills will be under more strict scrutiny as global trade system is grappling with a myriad of challenges ranging from reform pressures to rising protectionism and a pandemic-induced recession.
In October 2020, the WTO forecast a 9.2-percent plunge in the volume of world merchandise trade for 2020, followed by a 7.2-percent rise this year. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that renewed waves and new variants of the novel coronavirus would continue to weigh on the global economy.
“We are assuming leadership during a health crisis, climate crisis and the worst economic recession in decades,” Coke-Hamilton said. Her organization, the ITC, is a joint agency of the WTO and the UN that aims to foster inclusive and sustainable economic development.
“The WTO, UNCTAD and ITC face the collective challenge of charting a path forward for global recovery. It will take an ‘all hands on deck’ approach as we seek to ensure that trade and development gains are not wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said, noting that “dialogue is always the first port of call.” “I absolutely do feel an additional burden.
I can’t lie about that,” Okonjo-Iweala told reporters during the first press conference in her new job.”The bottom line is that if I want to really make Africa and women proud, I have to produce results. And that is where my mind is at now. How do we work together with members to get results,” she added.