Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: A female leader in a Man’s World

Two days ago, we celebrated international women’s day and to be honest we still have a long way to go in order to see our rights truly recognised, but today I don’t want to talk about that. Today I would like to focus on how far we have come so far. 

I would like to use my voice to celebrate women, by sharing with you all the story of one of my female role models.  Today I would like to use this space to introduce you to a woman, that is an example for the next generation of female leaders and an example for me, especially! Her name is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and since March the 1st of this year, she has been chosen as Director-General of the World Trade Organisation which makes her the first woman and also the first African to hold the office.

She was born in Nigeria in 1954. She is a Harvard graduate and earned her PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and she has been a hard-working female leader ever since.

Before becoming Director-General of the WTO, she previously worked for the World Bank for 25 years as a development economist and then worked up to become the Managing Director in 2007. During her work experience there, she fostered several initiatives to assist countries with a low income, which achieved great results and continue to do so. Today, she also sits on the boards of Twitter, Standard Chartered Bank and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI).

Among her many successes, if you ask her what she is most proud of, she would answer that she takes great pride in her reform agenda in Nigeria. She served twice as the Finance Minister of Nigeria; The first time being between 2003-2006, where she was also named the global Finance Minister of the year in 2005 by Euromoney. She served in the position again from the year 2011 to 2015. During her mandate, she was able to make Nigeria obtain its first ever sovereign debt rating.

She was the first female Finance Minister of Nigeria; affirming that when she was appointed as minister the financial situation of the state at the time was a disaster, and she believes that it was the reason why she, a female, was chosen to hold the office.

Her work as finance minister was countered, in particular because of anti-corruptions reforms implemented in the fuel sector. In that sector, a group of importers (called marketers) claimed an immense amount of money in subsidies for fuel that they did not actually sell. Her fight against this corrupted system resulted in the kidnapping of her mother, Kamene Okonjo who was kidnapped in 2012 at the age of 82. The kidnappers demanded that she resign and asked for a ransom. She did not back down and her mother was released after 5 days in still unclear circumstances.  

Regarding this episode, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala affirmed “I knew that the largest vested interest that I had recently offended in my anti-corruption work was an unscrupulous subset of the country’s oil marketers”. 

She is very invested in the fight for equality and encourages young women to follow their passions and pursue success with strength and pride. In an interview with the Independent, she said “Women tend to be more honest, more straightforward, more focused on the job, and bring less ego to it. I don’t know if it’s a feminine instinct but running an economy is sometimes akin to running a household”. She is willing to fight for women rights also as the head of the WTO. In her job application, she stated that “It should also be responsive to the challenge of facilitating the greater participation of women in international trade, particularly in developing countries, where greater efforts should be made to include women owned enterprises in the formal sector”. 

She also gave a Ted Talk along with the Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, in which the two female leaders reflected on their experiences as women, in positions of power and proceeded to share six lessons on how to  deal with stereotypes and gender biases and how to lead while being proud of being women. I highly suggest everyone to listen to this Ted Talk. In a world where women must fight every day in order to be heard, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala uses her voice to show the world how capable, talented and gifted women are. Thanks to the work of women like her, despite the difficulties, us women are capable of incredible things, we have a chance and we have hope. Let’s take a moment to appreciate that, and let’s also take responsibility for all the things that we still have to achieve.


Arianna Maviglia 

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