March 14, 2014

Continuing its annual tradition to mark International Women’s Day, the United Nations Studies Program (UNSP) hosted a conversation with Susana Malcorra, chief of staff of the UN secretary-general. Previous guest speakers on this occasion have included Michelle Bachelet, president-elect of Chile and former executive director of UN Women; Margot Wallström, former UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, and other women in leadership positions in the UN system.

The conversation on March 4, moderated by Professor Elisabeth Lindenmayer, director of UNSP, centered around Malcorra’s career as a woman in leadership. What stood out was Malcorra’s ability to recognize opportunities and rise to the occasion at given turning points.

Lindenmayer began by noting that Malcorra had an unusual start to her UN career, having been CEO of a large company in the private sector before joining the World Food Program (WFP) and launching her career as an international civil servant.

Recounting her beginnings, Malcorra said that she had been politically active as a university student in Argentina. However, the military dictatorship at the time moved her to refrain from politics because of the threat to her security. After finishing university, she went to work for IBM and then Telecom Argentina.

At the time that she was recruited for the WFP, there had been a search for Latin American women as there was a push for regional and gender balance in the international workforce. That was an opportunity Malcorra decided to engage after she had stepped down as CEO of Telecom Argentina during a financial crisis, and soon she was overseeing daily emergency and humanitarian operations in more than 80 countries as chief operating officer and deputy executive director of the WFP.

Asked how transferrable her corporate skills were to the United Nations, Malcorra said the UN System is “shocking” to anyone coming from the private sector, but she had been lucky to land first in the WFP, which she found to be agile and resourceful. The main challenge she faced was patience in achieving objectives.

Her success in leading the initial response to the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia during her first months in the job led her to other leadership roles within the United Nations, and in 2012 she was appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as his chief of staff.

At the end of the day, Malcorra said, “one shouldn’t be obsessed with planning a career or a life.” The main takeaway from her experiences was that it was important to be able to “surf opportunities” as they came. She stressed that women especially should not shy away from power when the opportunity for it came.

Lindenmayer agreed, saying that she learned through her own UN career that women tend to be more interested in the “contribution” aspect of a job rather than the prospect for power, but one also needs power to make her contribution. Lindenmayer had been deputy chief of staff under former secretary-general Kofi Annan and had an extensive career throughout the UN since 1977.

On being the first female chief of staff at the United Nations and breaking other ceilings in male-dominated environments, Malcorra said she always had the attitude that “the problem with the environment was their problem, not my problem.”

Malcorra said she deeply believed in women bringing different perspectives to the workplace. The United Nations has made some strides recently in terms of gender balance, according to Lindenmayer, and this promises to be an interesting space to watch as women bring varying approaches to issues on the UN agenda.

Doyeun Kim MIA ’14