What brought 17 top female international development leaders from Tanzania, India, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Russia, Indonesia, Serbia, Haiti, Argentina, and the US to Israel this week?
To borrow a phrase from Beyoncé (the ultimate woman’s woman who really may have it all) in her feminist pop hit Run The World (Girls) — it’s that “my persuasion can build a nation” — or women’s empowerment.
For five days this week, ahead of International Women’s Day, the diverse women shared personal stories about their careers with their peers, who included former commissioners at the World Health Organization, government cabinet members, and CEOs of organizations that work to promote HIV/AIDS treatment, employment programs for women, agricultural innovation, and other sectors of global development. This sisterhood of good-doers didn’t really come to learn how to become successful (they’ve already mastered that); they came for the camaraderie, the new ideas, and to talk about real-life things, like work-life balance, inspiration, and defeat.
All the good work the women do — such as rescuing people in disaster-stricken areas and building infrastructure for those who are poor — comes at a cost for these women, who not only lead organizations but also head families.
Hence, the workshop provided the participants with an opportunity to hear the personal experiences and advice of their cohorts, who are also leaders of social change in their own countries. “This sort of thing hasn’t really been done before,” said Judy Amit, global director of the international development program the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish humanitarian organization that spearheaded the seminar.
They explored, among other things, the topic made famous in last summer’s article in The Atlantic, “Why women still can’t have it all,” written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the US State Department’s first woman director of policy planning, who made the tough choice to step down from her prestigious post to spend more time with her kids.
One of the workshop attendees, for example, Lejla Somun-Krupalija, a soft-spoken human rights researcher at the University of Sarajevo in Bosnia, also has an autistic daughter, a disorder that can be daunting and time-consuming on its own, let alone while managing a career.
The seminar showed her that she wasn’t alone in the juggling act.
“It [the JDC workshop] has given me an opportunity to learn both about myself and about how influential powerful women around the world can be,” Somun-Krupalija told her peers. “It’s very motivating. In coming together, despite our differences in culture and background, we find that we face similar challenges in our work.”
But, even if women can’t have it all, these innovators found that baby steps and perseverance can get them pretty far.
Dr. Ellen Mkondya-Senkoro, a charismatic woman who is CEO of the Benjamin William Mkapa HIV/AIDS Foundation that provides healthcare in rural villages in Tanzania, put it this way: “Women can do whatever they desire to do. The secret is not to go against your culture or values, but to balance. Through balancing, one can make a series of small changes which would eventually add up to a great and healthy social change.”
After describing the small turn of events by which she landed her jobs at the UN and the Municipal Councils of Tanzania, and then as leader of her foundation, Mkondya-Senkoro said that the shift from workaholic to someone who embraces free time made all the difference in her life.
“Sisters, my family supported me in the beginning [of my endeavor at the foundation]. But my husband told me I had become a workaholic, and he was right! I worked all week long, sometimes without days off at all,” she told the group. “So I took his comment seriously and started to build the organization better and found people I can trust who work under me and I can delegate authorities to. Now I can have days off, to spend more time with my family or even quality time for myself. Furthermore, through that process we’ve actually bettered our organization’s work.”
Mkondya-Senkoro’s candid story resonated with the women; a few chimed in with similar experiences.
What struck the group was the universality of the themes they raised — of being women who worked in male-dominated environments, of taking care of children while chasing their career goals, of learning to take time off, of learning to balance it all.
As Judy Amit from the JDC put it: “As women from 13 different countries, we learned that our diversity was a cause for celebration and that our similarities were profound.”