Maria Neophytou


What do you do as Executive Director for The GREAT Initiative

I manage the team, the projects, the budget and our overall strategy. We are a small organisation so we don't have the luxury of IT support, a HR manager, a finance team and so on... I do a bit of everything. In job speak it's known as 'a challenge.' But a fun one.

Describe a “typical work day”.

There is no typical day but most days consist of time at my desk – never enough– time checking in with the team and time invariably spent dashing across London to external meetings. 

How did you get to your job? 

I think it was a case of the right role coming up at the right time for me and a good fit with what GREAT were looking for at the time also. I have a background in gender equality – my PhD was on gender in international peacebuilding – and I have always wanted to put that knowledge to good use.

You studied government at the LSE and then IR at Cambridge. How do you use it in what you do? 

Studying politics and international relations gives you a strong theoretical foundation to work in international policy, as well as a much-needed sense of historical and cultural context. It also gives you a sense of what's possible. I don't think any job I have done since has been as tough or as character forming as completing a PhD, they say the only thing harder is giving birth and having done both I'd say it's a close call! Both extremely rewarding too I should add.

Why did you choose to get a PhD? 

I've always been really academic and I never feel like I have learned enough – a PhD was the opportunity for three more years of books and ideas and no doubt highly pretentious intellectual discussions with friends in the student bar. But the more prosaic reason is simply that I got a scholarship and you don't turn down something like that.

You specialise in gender. How would foreign policy change if there were more women involved?

The first thing I would emphasise is that whether foreign policy changes significantly if more women are involved is not the point, women are half the population and equal representation in all forms of decision making is their right, full stop. Needless to say it is women who bear the brunt when foreign policy goes wrong which compounds the injustice of them being excluded or massively underrepresented when wars are declared, peace is negotiated, trade agreements signed, international laws made and so on. So for me, it's primarily a question of rights and justice; we shouldn't have to prove that we will somehow bring world peace in order to win our seat at the table – after all did men have to? Having said that, there is so much evidence now that you get better decision making when women are in the room; whether that room is a boardroom, a parliament, or an army camp. 

What did you learn by working for large organisations such as the European Parliament and the United Nations

I became a confirmed and committed multi-lateralist. We have to work to make our multi-lateral institutions better and stronger, they are our only bulwark against climate change, conflict, and a whole host of other threats. They are also one of the best means we have for spreading progressive values – whether its human rights, labour standards, food and consumer safety, climate and trade justice – these battles are being fought on an international stage, among international actors. And whatever the UN's shortcomings, can we begin to contemplate a world without one? If not, then we should be putting much more energy than we are into strengthening and reforming the UN system.

How was working for them different from working for the NGOs/charities you have spent a lot of your career in? 

Working for an EU or UN body, you are at the forefront of decision making. Working for an NGO, you work to influence that decision-making and in some ways have a lot more freedom in what you can say and do. I think its good to do both; you see the same issues from different perspectives, which invariably makes you a better campaigner.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your job? 

The most rewarding aspects are seeing our projects striking a chord and making a difference, and helping my team to develop and grow.

The least rewarding aspect is the disproportionate amount of admin involved in managing such a small organisation, like the days I spend battling IT and wondering why none of my devices will synch!

What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job? 

It has to come from the heart, but don't be led by that passion, use your head too. By that I mean, everyone knows the charity sector generally doesn't offer the same pay and benefits as the private sector, though you can end up working the same sort of hours! So if you're not personally invested in the issues it will be hard to find the motivation to persevere. But too much passion for an issue can also be detrimental, social change means bringing people with you and to do that you have to be able to see things from their perspective. You have to know when to compromise and where to draw your red lines; to make those decisions you need a cool head as well as a strong heart.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt? 

When you work in policy; that things are ultimately out of your hands. Even when you think your case is unassailable and you think you've won the argument, you don't always get the decisions you're expecting.

What is the mistake you wish you hadn’t done? 

You learn so much more from your mistakes than your successes and although I don't enjoy being wrong or making the wrong call, I don't wish those mistakes had never happened. 

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it? 

Even now I'm not quite sure how I got through my PhD but sheer perseverance, a great support network and blind faith all played their part.

What achievements are you most proud of? 

I've had the privilege of working on some great campaigns and projects, from equality policy, children's rights, and gender justice and I'm proud of the part I have played in those. GREAT recently supported a Private Members' Bill mandating the Government to consider gender equality in all decisions relating to how our overseas aid is spent and it was a proud day when Parliament brought that in to law. 

Do you have a role model and, if so, who and why?

I have many, some are people I know who've influenced me and others are people in public life I look up to. In terms of foreign policy, Samantha Power is the first name that springs to mind, her book Chasing the Flame is beautiful and she is an incredible presence on the Security Council. 

Maria Neophytou - Executive Director of The GREAT Initiative

14 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied: Bsc in Government at the London School of Economics(LSE); MPhil in International Relations at Cambridge University; PhD in International Relations at Cambridge University

Previously worked at: Absolute Return for KidsEquality and Human Rights CommissionLuther PendragonEuropean ParliamentInternational Institute for Mediation and Conflict ResolutionUnited Nations Mission In KosovoUnited Nations

Find her online


Get involved with The GREAT Initiative

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  In Zambia with ARK January 2012

In Zambia with ARK January 2012

  Great Trustees & Bill Cash Gender Act celebration May 2014

Great Trustees & Bill Cash Gender Act celebration May 2014

  With Sarah from Great in the Plan tent at PSVI Summit June 2014

With Sarah from Great in the Plan tent at PSVI Summit June 2014