Program Director | American Academy of Arts and Science
What is your perspective of the mission of the InterNations Networking Group you are involved with, and why do you feel that it is an important resource, particularly for its female members?
The InterNations is a worldwide network of expatriates with offices across the world. We help international people who relocate to a new city to befriend like-minded people and begin to develop a thriving social life where they are. The life of expatriates can be lonely. You have no social network or relatives with you and it might be difficult to meet people outside of work. InterNations is a great vehicle to address some of these issues.
I became a member in February 2014, four months after relocating to Boston from San Francisco. In July of the same year, I established the InterNations Women Network group. It has two purposes: to invite women to socialize more, because in many big cities, women with successful careers are incredibly busy with their work and they tend to have disappointing social lives. The group offers opportunities to socialize by inviting members to art exhibitions, culinary experiences, discussions and professional development workshops.
The second goal is to create a support mechanism, a safe space for women, to come together and discuss issues. Many of the women are confronted with issues like dealing with a board that is male dominated, highly competitive work environments, etc. One recent discussion group was about women’s leadership in complex organizations. Another was about building your brand and networking. They’re organized as discussion groups where women can share their own experiences on these matters as a peer group.
Currently, the Boston women’s networking group has 335 members and representation from 78 different countries.
It’s interesting that you bring up how high achieving women often end up giving up a social life or not having as well rounded of a social life. How did you identify that there was a need for a social space like the one you have helped create in the InterNations for highly successful women?
My personal experience! When I was in San Francisco for my Master’s program and then teaching at UC Berkley for two years, I found it to be a very high paced city. On top of the high pace, as an expatriate, I struggled to build friendships. Americans tend to have their friendships already established from their high school and university experiences. People who come into the country later in their life don't have the same opportunity to build friendships.
I was having this great career in San Francisco teaching at a university, but then I rarely had companions to do stuff with. InterNations was a way to help women like me have some kind of network to socialize in.
How did you break into the United Nations Development Programme office and what was your experience like working for the United Nations?
I was hired as a junior political officer in 2002 to assist the UN Resident Coordinator in Beirut, Lebanon. The UN resident coordinator speaks on behalf of all the UN offices operating in a particular country. The office made sure that all UN agencies cooperated politically and operationally together, in a series of key priorities for the country. The Mission was a development mission, as we were mandated to understand identify the needs of Lebanon as a country, but it was also highly political.
Lebanon hosts four main political UN organizations:
- the long-standing UN peacekeeping operations UNIFIL,
- the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA)
- a Special Envoy of the Secretary General working on peace negotiations for South Lebanon
- several agencies working under the umbrella of the UN Resident Coordinator.
So there were a lot of different missions and mandates happening at the same time. My role was to deal politically with the peace process in Lebanon and to think through initiatives that could help bring society back together after twenty years of civil war.
There are two things I am very proud of with this experience. The first is that we created the UN-Lebanese summer school for conflict prevention and transformation with two main universities in Lebanon. It trains young people from different religious communities in nonviolent communication, conflict resolution, conflict transformation, so they can tackle conflicts within their own village or communities in a non-violent way. We were also preparing these people to become future diplomats within the Lebanese government.
The second experience was establishing a task force on peace and reconciliation. We brought agencies together to develop projects that were targeting specifically young people aged 18 – 25 and allow for stronger inter-religious dialogue in the country.
How did you get the junior political officer position?
There are two main tracks for junior people to start working for the UN. The first is the junior professional officer track, but the easiest way to get in these junior positions is through another program called the UN Volunteer Programme. The UNV is the first junior level position within the UN, it’s called ‘volunteer’ but they are paid. You get to serve for two years and if the UN likes your work, they might offer you a professional position. It’s much easier to get into the UN through the Volunteer Programme, but not many people know about it.
The work you had to do in this position sounds so daunting not just because of the logistics but also the mission of building a peace process. Was there a particular challenge you faced in this role that has helped you later in your professional career?
I was very idealistic when I joined the UN and I thought I would work in the field, directly in contact with the communities. I took home two fundamental lessons:
- Make sure you do your homework on the type of work that the organization you are joining does. The United Nations is a membership organization so it is constrained in its mandate and operations by the member-states’ interests. In addition, the UN is a giant bureaucracy and as a junior program officer, you become part of a huge machine that moves slowly. The majority of your time is spent drafting reports that nobody will read and discussing minutiae like word choice (because the diplomatic world is a world that functions through formalities).
- Make sure that you are proactive in every position you have. Don’t expect organizations to tell you what you have to do. Take responsibility and help the organization to be better than it was before you joined.
In big bureaucracies like the UN, self-motivation is indispensable. It is your responsibility as a junior officer to think accurately on how you can improve the organization you work for. Don’t waste your time complaining about the bureaucracy or the internal dysfunctionalities. Think about solutions, offer them to your superiors and be ready to lead.
That’s good advice. It is easy to get lost in the bureaucracy of everything in an organization like that.
Self-awareness is very important to one's career, but rarely discussed. I didn’t know what was valuable to me at the time. I thrive by seeing the impact of my work. Others might have a different personality, they might like to support organizations growing and therefore doesn’t need to see that immediate impact and are more disposed to thriving in a bureaucracy. If you are a patient and detail oriented, meticulous person, who enjoys building coalitions and collective processes, big organizations and bureaucracies like the UN might be the right approach for you. But if you are an impatient person that is eager to leave a mark and use leadership skills and intellectual skills to drive something forward, then you need to really think hard about whether this is an organization you want to work for at least initially. Once you have your expertise, technical skills, and your network then getting to the top of those organizations will be a great step.
Do you think that people who decide not to, or can’t, get a job with large organisations (UN, State Department, Foreign Office, etc) and instead go into the private sector or NGOs, hurt their chances of being able to transition into government services when they decide to take that path?
If you had asked me this question 10 years ago I would have responded, ‘yes, definitely, you are hurting your chances’, because the UN and foreign policy work is a network you need to build. It is easier to then thrive within that network. However, if you look at the UN and international organizations today, many people have had private sector experiences.
Take Secretary-General Gutierrez's deputy Amina Mohammad. She was Minister of Energy in Nigeria. She worked for a consulting group for many years and has strong private sector experience. Increasingly, we see that if you begin your career in a bureaucracy and then you stay there, your value as an employee is reduced. But if you find ways to enter into these bureaucracies, work for a few years, go and acquire other skills in other sectors and then come back, you will move up the ladder much quicker. If you look at the Foreign Service, the ladder moves really slowly. The people who acquire new skills are the ones who are able to move up quickly.
The challenge today, particularly for young professionals, is to find ways to create bridges among sectors that aren’t too far off from what you’re looking to do. You want to find the synergies. I think organizations are becoming increasingly open to experiences from different sectors. Young people need to start thinking more about the type of skills they want to build and the type of job they want to do rather than a career within a certain organization.
Do you have any ideas or recommendations on how young professionals can bridge those divides among the sectors?
One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years, is being self-aware. Sometimes you need to step back and understand how you function within an organization. Do you thrive on being an expert or on working in general support and management? These are essentially two different career paths.
It is also indispensable to have strong analytical skills. When I joined the UN in the 1990s, the only requirement they had was a Bachelor’s degree. In the beginning of the 2000s, the minimum requirement became a Master’s. Now, all the top leaders within UN agencies all have PhDs because it has become increasingly clear that you need to not only have a subject area but also the ability to master other types of information and knowledge. You need to be both a scholar and a practitioner.
To remain relevant, you need to engage in both the policy and academic debates. You need to be able to talk about both the things that are current and relevant and at the same time, you need to understand the big ideas that are out there. The way I think you can best carve out a successful career today is to acquire the academic skills that allow you to engage theory and grand strategic thinking and at the same time knowing a specific subject area.
So essentially, giving yourself room to specialize but also keep the analytical and critical skills fresh.
While you continue to nurture your subject area, you should also seek out opportunities to learn something that is completely unrelated to your field. I work in the nuclear sphere, but I frequently go to meetings and events organized by private sector companies in the biotech, technology review, and pharma sectors because even though the subject area does not apply to me, the skills do. The ways you think about the problems and methodology is more or less similar. Engaging more broadly with key sectors, like technology, is key.
Another thing that the younger generation needs to do differently than us, is that nuclear experts only hang out with other nuclear experts. Yet you cannot generate new ideas when you always talk with the same people. Thinking about other industries that are geopolitically important and trying to build networks with these industries is key because understanding what is going on in other sectors allows you to think bigger. I think always remaining within the same specialization as you is a mistake.
How did you transition from your work in peacemaking within the UN to nuclear issues?
The future of interesting careers is going to rest in these grey areas where you have two issue areas that at first seem unrelated. I transitioned to nuclear when I started to work on my PhD and I decided I was going to change my field and retrain myself completely.
When I was at the UN, I felt the international community was not thinking very well on the linkages between three issues: development, security, and geopolitics. These three communities don’t often combine in a proper way. When I was in the UN, development was marginalized by security issues and security is driven by geopolitics. When I joined Oxford, I wanted to research an issue that lay between development and security, something I call an ‘ambivalent problem’. So if you think about nuclear, you have the security aspect but you also have the development aspect when you think about nuclear as the energy market. I saw it as an interesting problem because it brought both worlds I operated in, development and security.
You did your Master’s at UC Berkeley and your PhD at Oxford, is there a reason you chose to do your Master’s in the U.S. and then your PhD in the UK?
I got a scholarship through the Rotary World Peace Fellowship Program that I used to help fund my Master’s. Rotary has seven peace centers around the world and if you apply and receive the scholarship, they will pay for a two year Master’s program including full board, accommodation, and travel expenses. I got into the UC Berkeley program and then I decided I wanted to continue and do my PhD, but I didn’t want to become an academic. I have been always clear with myself on that. I have great respect for academia and for scholars but I can't thrive in a purely academic environment. What interests me the most is the policy aspect of problems. The UK D.Phil was shorter than the US PhD and didn’t come with the expectations of going into an academic job market.
Do you feel there’s a misperception about what kind of work can be done in academia, like the policy work you mention?
Oh absolutely. Scott Sagan taught me you can be a great academic and a solid thinker and at the same time be well-respected in the policy community by not rushing to address the policy issue of the moment. That was a lesson I took out of my post doc. If you are a serious thinker, you don’t need to rush and pretend to be an expert on North Korea right now. Remain true to yourself, continue to do good work, and find ways to remain relevant to the policy community without having to be on CNN without having to address the issue of the day. Scott and others have been very successful at this.
What was it like to work with Scott Sagan, who has such a standing within the policy community? How do you approach someone like that with confidence?
My experience coming from Oxford to Stanford was terrifying. Stanford is the leading university in the world and many of the world nuclear experts are based there. What you do in situations like this, instead of pretending – because everyone knows that you are afraid, of course – is to just admit what you don’t know. Very early on in my post doc, I went to see Scott and I told him that I hadn’t had very rigorous training on nuclear history and fundamentals of nuclear doctrine. He responded by saying, that’s good to know and what we’re going to do is make a nuclear reading group. So once a month the post docs got together and we read the fundamental literature on nuclear thinking. He taught me to be very honest intellectually and to seek out the knowledge in my peers and in the broader academic community.
Fake it until you make it is not always the best approach!
I don’t think so. These ‘big giants’ out there in the academic and policy communities want to mentor people. Pretending won’t gain you anything, but openness to what you don’t know is refreshing that has a lot of benefits associated with it.
Having done the MacArthur Postdoctoral Fellowship, do you have any advice for PhD students who might be interested in applying on ways they can make themselves a strong candidate for such a program?
The MacArthur Fellowship is not really based on what you have done in the past but more about what you’re researching now and the probabilities you will produce and publish something out of it. The novelty of your idea of your dissertation will help you get to that post doc. It's important that your argument be well crafted, because your application will stand on that.
A lot of these places and mentors are pretty open if you send a chapter of your dissertation and ask for a peer review. They are often willing to work with you even if you’re not a student, especially if you have a letter from your advisor that accompanies the request. This is a way for them to start to get to know your ideas in your dissertation.
For the centers in the U.S. it’s important to do a presentation tour on your research and to make sure you have a policy piece, like an op-ed, white paper, policy briefing, or something on a current subject so they can see that you are also able to engage with the policy community.
Turning back to your current work on the Global Nuclear Future Initiative and the projects that you have in partnership with a lot of these countries that have conservative views on women, do those views affect your working relationship with these partners and how do you cope with that?
My experience has been mixed and nuanced and mirrors the ambivalent relation that these countries entertain with gender equality. For example, when we did a workshop in Vietnam, virtually every single partner was a man. 85% of the speakers were male. In situations like this, my responsibility is to understand and respect the cultural barriers and make sure that the work is done anyway. If this means for me to be sitting in the background, that might be frustrating but effective for our end goal, which is to foster trust and open dialogue with these nuclear newcomers.
I have had other experiences that were mind blowing, in the United Arab Emirates for instance. The UAE has a new nuclear energy program and the best partners I had were Emirati women nuclear physicists who were absolute kickass in their job. My counterparts in the UAE were Ambassador Hamad Alkaabi from Vienna and Maryam Al- Mahmoud, who is a wonderful and very successful nuclear expert in charge of the capacity building training for the Emirates for their nuclear energy program. She wore twelve-inch stilettos and Gucci, and topped it with her hijab, and she was amazing. It was fantastic to see and very uplifting. Gender relations in these countries are in continuous evolution like in our countries so we just have to be respectful and aware
It’s funny you talk about what she was wearing because as women we often feel like we need to dress down in order to be taken seriously.
What is this whole thing with these ggraysuits and feeling like we need to wear them to be taken seriously? It’s bull. If you stand on your own technical competence and are respectful of the institution and are not dressed inappropriately…where culture allows you, you need to take advantage of this and set your own style.
So in some of these circumstances, women still need to lead from behind. For me in this work it was an adjustment at first to have to adopt that. I thought, ‘what the hell I am doing all this work and I don’t even get to be acknowledged.’ You just have to remind yourself you’re working for a bigger goal.
When did you realise that it was okay for you to step back in these circumstances or when did you have the realisation that when working towards a bigger goal this might be necessary?
It depends on the circumstance, there are still meetings when I get really deeply upset. Like in Japan for an example, this happened to a colleague of mine, there was an instance where we were in a nuclear workshop and my female colleague raised her hand. The chair, a male, said, ‘okay well if there are no further questions in the room then I think we need to move to another issue’, not even acknowledging her hand was up. Sometimes I still feel like taking a step back, leading from behind, it almost devalues your own integrity. So I go back and forth with that. I think we need to keep pushing for this and to have more women at the table, but at the same time we have to recognise that it can be damaging to the project. It’s not an easy process.
It seems like a lot of times, it’s about picking and choosing your battles and deciding when it’s appropriate to push back.
Absolutely. But it’s so personally difficult, like ‘why am I not taking the credit for this?’
I would really like to hear what it is like for you as a U.S. immigrant that works very closely with high-level officials within the U.S. government on U.S. foreign policy matters. What’s that experience like for you?
One aspect that is often poorly discussed but has important repercussions is the “logistics of being an immigrant working on security issues”. This is difficult for both my counterparts and myself… and it takes some creativity on both sides for good cooperation to flourish. For example, I had scheduled a few briefings in DC in May but because I am not a native U.S. resident my government counterpart told me that it would have been better not to meet in the actual government building because of security clearance issues which for foreigners can take up to a month. The officials are not able to disclose a lot of information to you because you are a foreigner, so you are cut off from quite critical discussions.
The second issue is a personal issue of legitimacy that I face and continue to face with myself. In meetings where we talk about the U.S. nuclear posture, the U.S. doctrine, a question I ask myself often is: Why would an American listen to me?
But with this question also comes a deep sense of gratitude for what this country has offered to me both personally and professionally. Every time I sit down with US officials and nuclear experts I always feel part of the “family”. I am welcomed in these discussions and people interact with me with an open mind despite the logistics and obstacles and so forth because they are deeply interested in getting to a solution. They want to hear a different perspective about issues. This is the best part of the American Dream. I am very proud of working here.
A lot of strategic thinking has been dominated by an American perspective, do you feel like your differing world view within that has been helpful to you?
That has a lot to do with why I got my post doc fellowship. For an American, it is very difficult to understand what it’s like to be from a country that is not a global power. Because the U.S. is the ultimate global power, it is very difficult to enter the mentality of a small country that counts for almost nothing in the international system and has no points of leverage. I see this with my students all the time, why should the U.S. listen to Burundi? I come from a country that is not small, but it counts for very little in foreign policy. How does it feel coming from a country like this to interact with a global power? How do small countries like mine see these issues? Many Americans do appreciate this different perspective, the idea of listening to regional powers and small powers. Americans know a lot about how big powers like Russia think, but they still don’t understand how regional powers think. So the fact that I have that perspective still provides some interesting points to the discussion.
Are there any parting thoughts you have for our readers?
One of I keep telling my students that many years ago, we thought that unless you wanted to become an academic you didn't need a PhD. I now think that if you want to be at the top of organizations, you need to have strong thinking and strong knowledge of strategies. Thinking and doing are indispensable. So don’t think about just strengthening your academic resume means you only want to become an academic. Education can serve many purposes in life.
Also, I think women don’t spend enough time branding themselves. For example if you look at many of our nuclear colleagues, they use LinkedIn very effectively, but we [women] don’t do the same. We are not making ourselves visible and saying ‘we are doing similar interesting things.’ We suffer from this ‘imposter syndrom’ where we think we don’t know enough to be visible. I have a lot of male colleagues who know very little and they still get away with posting it. Even if we are not perfect or top experts, we need to be more visible and promote ourselves.