Women on the Move: Irina Bokova
"We need women to be part of our life, to be part of the solutions, part of the decisions."
Irina Bokova, born in 1952 in Sofia, Bulgaria, has been the Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) since November 2009. The first woman and the first Eastern European to lead the agency, she was successfully reelected for a second term in 2013. Bokova was also one of the final candidates in the 2016 United Nations Secretary-General selection.
Bokova was born in a time when many barriers were standing in the way of women, especially those who wished to pursue a career in diplomacy and international affairs. Although there is a long way to go to achieve gender parity, she said that Bulgaria has made considerable progress over the past 26 years and risen as one of the most successful countries in Eastern Europe in terms of advancing women’s political leadership.
The person who influenced Bokova the most was her mother. Growing up amid the turmoil of the 20s, her mother only completed primary education before having to drop out of school. After World War II, Bokova’s mother, then already married with two children, began to take evening classes, which later enabled her to enroll in university.
Sharing the burden of responsibilities, according to Bokova, is a crucial prerequisite for women like her mother to fulfill both professional and personal obligations. With her father’s support, Bokova’s mother eventually became a medical doctor, a scientist, and a researcher. Bokova still remembers days when she and her mother would sit down and conjointly do their homework as “an example of perseverance and trust for learning and for education.”
Bokova cites conviction and stamina among numerous qualities of a great leader. In her role as UNESCO Director-General, Bokova continuously supports other women, especially young women, to help them reach their fullest potential. Over the course of her career, however, Bokova has experienced first-hand the critics and skepticism that women leaders face. When they are considered for a role, people tend to question their strength and competence. “‘Is she strong enough? Is she competent?’ Very often these are not questions put in front of men candidates,” Bokova said. She believes that young women should not be let down by these stereotypes but instead keep moving forward.
In addition, Bokova highlighted the role of women leaders in making systemic change in public policy: “We change not just the stereotypes, but sometimes we change the culture, the perception of a certain job.” When she first came to UNESCO, only 20 to 25 percent women took up leadership roles in the organization. The number is now 44 percent.
Gender equality, said Bokova, is a cross-cutting priority at UNESCO. Through education and programming, the organization has been promoting women’s participation, particularly in male-dominating fields like science and politics. Within UNESCO, Bokova aims to achieve 50 percent representation of women in all leadership positions and therefore, actively engages more and more women in the decision-making process. “We need women to be part of our life, part of the solutions, part of the decisions.”