In this podcast, the IGC Secretariat talks to Grete Faremo, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNOPS, about successfully reaching her personal IGC commitments for 2021. To meet the targets set by the Secretary-General’s UN System-Wide Strategy on Gender Parity and to achieve equal representation of men and women irrespective of contract type or levels. Listen to learn about her success story and gain inspiration for how you can achieve this goal.
IGC Mini Podcast – Transcript
Grete Faremo, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)
Hello and welcome to this International Gender Champions podcast. I am Pauline Mukanza from the IGC Secretariat in Geneva.
Today I have the great pleasure of talking to Ms. Grete Faremo, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Office for Project Services, also known as UNOPS, about her personal IGC commitments.
The personal commitments being: Firstly, to lead UNOPS to meet the targets set by the Secretary-General’s UN System-Wide Strategy on Gender Parity and secondly to achieve the equal representation of men and women across our workforce, irrespective of contract type or levels – by the end of 2021.
Ms. Faremo, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Three years ago, women represented 38% of the UNOPS workforce. As of August 2021, you achieved your IGC commitments and delivered on the target of the UN Gender Parity Strategy: the entire organisation is now made up of 50% women and 50% men. This is a considerable achievement during a pandemic for an organisation that employs more than 5,000 people. Congratulations!
No, thank you so much. And thank you for the invitation to join you. And I would be very happy to tell a bit about the background. And as you said, this year UNOPS reached gender parity in its more than 5000 workforce. And it was following a rigorous three years campaign to improve the representation of women across all levels in our organization. And this is, to me, a significant milestone in our ambition to become a diverse and inclusive employer. I probably have to say that it was no easy feat. As you said, we started our journey back in 18, when women constituted only 38% of our workforce, and only about 30% of leadership roles. It was unacceptable. And I made gender parity one of our very few corporate priorities. There were several challenges. Our gender parity journey was made more difficult because of the sectors we operate in. UNOPS provides infrastructure, procurement and project management services to governments and other UN agencies for a more sustainable world. And these industries are as you know, traditionally still dominated by men. For example, within the population are many engineers, specialists in, I can mention, mine clearance operations, and a range of historically male dominated fields. Another layer of complexity came from the fact that the majority of UNOPS’s delivery across 80 plus countries is in fragile and conflict affected states. So the global pandemic made this job also even harder. But despite the obstacles, we always said failure was not and is not an option. Because we were reminded by the Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s words: achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is the unfinished business of our time, and the greatest human rights challenge in our world. So we decided we wanted to, and we had to rise to the challenge and committed to action. So of course, first, we launched our gender parity strategy to be a more sustainable organization, and also to better represent the people we serve, and to ensure women at all levels see a future for themselves in the organization. And I have to say a big thank you to everyone, particularly senior leaders and hiring managers across our teams globally, and the determination of our senior leadership team. Because we delivered together we delivered by August this year (2021) 50-50% men and women in the organization. And also, women at leadership levels now account for more than 45%. And having women involved higher in levels of decision making will have a positive impact on many fronts, for example, how infrastructure is designed, making it work better for both women and men. And also, I think we reached gender parity in places where a few years ago, we would not have thought it would be possible to do so. I can mention we've reached parity in offices like Cambodia, Nicaragua, South Sudan, Somalia, and in a number of locations, where the obstacles to reaching gender equality are even more considerable. I would also add that reaching parity in many functions that have traditionally been male dominated, such as our teams of engineers at our headquarters in Europe, who advise on activities across the world was important. So while we have achieved this, we won't get complacent. Because we know this is not enough, it's so important to guard this achievement and ensure that we keep up the momentum. And we will continue our journey for equality and make sure that the changes we have made so far continue, and are sustainable. So we will strengthen and build on our organizational culture that supports gender equality.
Thank you, Miss Faremo, for sharing how you rose to the challenge and reaching gender parity across 80 plus countries. And in many fragile countries that you mentioned, such as South Sudan, Somalia, and other challenging places where in sectors that can be traditionally male dominated in Cambodia and Nicaragua. And so I was just wondering if you can share with our listeners how is it going today, and how you got there to meet this 50-50 of men and women in including in leadership leadership roles.
So thank you again, and our gender parity strategy had three goals: to meet the targets set by the Secretary General's UN system wide strategy on gender parity; it was also to achieve the equal representation of men and women across our workforce, irrespective of levels by 2020; and it was thirdly to increase the representation of women at senior and decision making levels. Importantly, we wanted to go over and above the UN targets by making our approach irrespective of contract types, meaning that our gender parity push applied also to those who work with us as consultants, and contractors, not only staff. There is no one magic solution, or easy fix to reach gender parity. Our strategy did not provide the expected results the first year. I therefore challenged my senior leaders and asked for their personal commitment. We discussed and agreed changes along the employee lifecycle from leadership and accountability, through outreach and recruitment, retention, professional development, and more. I call for what I could call innovative solutions that fit our business model, such as senior leaders, personal outreach, recruitment targets for hiring managers –also, we looked into how to remove barriers to recruitment, for example, in the way some of our vacancy announcements were written, I would say they were previously written for men. It was about the composition of short lists and the composition of hiring panels, how to widen our talent pools, and also creating new junior talent programs. We had to change our culture and tackle some of our unconscious biases; and the support and focus of my senior leadership team during this process has been crucial to our success.
Thank you very much for that insightful answer and how you really worked through your agenda parity strategy. And I quote, to be a more sustainable organization to better represent the people that we serve, and to ensure women at all levels see a future for themselves in the organization. We see and we hear that UNOPS is committed to continuing this journey towards inclusiveness beyond gender equality, to consider LGBTQI+ plus identities, disability, ethnicity, and race, economic status, youth, and many more, and many others. What message, Ms. Faremo, would you like to share with other Gender Champions working towards the same goal?
First of all, you're so right. We know that gender parity is only a first step towards true inclusiveness. And we are looking now to widen our approach to diversity and inclusion to add on other forms of diversity, such as ethnicity, race, age, disabilities, sexual orientation, and gender identity among others, so that we ensure that everyone at UNOPS feels included. And to this end, we are now working on our upcoming gender diversity and inclusion in our workforce strategy. It sets out, UNOPS’s aspiration to be a more inclusive place to work with a diverse workforce in which everyone feels like they belong. It will be everyone's responsibility to make this change happen. And our aim is for this strategy to cover the coming four-year period. But let me go back to the quote by the Secretary General that I shared earlier: “achieving gender equality is the unfinished business of our time.” And to get there requires, in my mind, personal commitment at the highest levels in the organization. And as I mentioned, I engaged with the members of the senior leadership team on the goals, we solved the obstacles together, and agreed when difficult decisions had to be made. For example, one question was, are we willing to hire on potential at certain levels instead of requiring a rigid number of years of experience? Another question was, are we willing to set performance objectives for our leaders and hold everyone accountable? The answers to these questions are not simple. And certainly these did generate some very interesting and honest discussions in our organization. And I would also like to mention that I announced at our global leadership meeting, that this goal of gender parity was a non-negotiable that we do all it takes to achieve gender parity together. And I'm proud of what we have achieved in such a short span of time. So as I mentioned, the next stage of our journey to becoming a more equal organization, is arguably even harder. In many cases, as I just mentioned, on gender identity, race, ethnicity, or disability inclusion, we are at the very beginning of our journey. I guess, and I think, and I'm sure we have a long way to go to learn and adapt our strategies to be a truly inclusive organization with a diverse workforce, where everyone feels like they belong. But one thing is for sure, and the experience of the past three years has been a case in point in UNOPS, when we put our hearts and minds to something, we deliver. So we will build on the lessons learned and success of our gender parity strategy. And we will continue to ask the difficult questions to make the innovative choices and learn also from mistakes, and adapt so we can become a more diverse and inclusive organization for all.
Thank you very much for that powerful message there and also important questions for fellow Champions to take with them as they go on a journey to reach gender parity. Congratulations on reaching your two personal commitments and getting your colleagues to join and set commitments themselves. We also see and commend the fact that you're moving from gender parity and broadening your journey towards diversity and inclusion.
Thank you so much.
Ms. Faremo, thank you very much for speaking with us today, and we look forward to following your journey.