Julian Braithwaite

Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN and other international organisations in Geneva

Part of UK in Switzerland

2nd November 2015 Geneva, Switzerland

What can the United Nations learn from the women who’ve made it?

Last week was the Week of Women in Britain. A British news magazine went as far as running a front page saying that the battle for feminism had been won, and it it was time to move on.

But has it, really?

I was good at biology at school. But I kept on coming second in tests to my chief rival. She’s now a GP and runs her own clinic. At university, some of the most impressive people I knew – about half, really – were women. Twenty five years later, they have become Cabinet Ministers, editors of national newspapers, chief executives of FTSE 100 companies, Peers of the Realm, leaders of political parties, ambassadors, international lawyers, and top officials in Downing Street.

I only started thinking seriously about the extra obstacles that they had to overcome to get to the top when I started a family of my own, and saw the pressures this put on my wife’s career. Seeing the world through the eyes of two increasingly aware daughters has helped too. Just when their careers are taking off, women have to take time off if they want to have kids. And until recently most organisations, even in the UK, did little to help mothers back onto their career trajectory when they returned. Fewer still contemplated the possibility that someone could remain on the fast-track to the top while working part-time.

So how did my wife and friends make it, and what can we and women around the world learn from them? While different in many ways, this group of women had much in common. They’re highly educated and academically successful. They’re determined, ambitious, organised, and resilient. They come from family and social environments that supported their struggle to make a success of both their careers and their families. Parents who encouraged their dreams. Spouses who wanted a partnership of equals. They were also part of a rapidly liberalising society, which went from forcing women to resign from jobs when they got married, to legalising gay marriage, all in their lifetimes. And flowing from that, political and legislative pressure, first to end overt discrimination and now to reduce less visible inequalities, such as the gender pay gap.

At one level this group represents a tiny minority, whose experiences and success even in their own country are exceptional. Compared to the world that most women across this one live in, theirs’ is another planet.

And yet they have much to teach us. That women have the potential to succeed in every walk of life. That the human race has up to 50% more human capital than still too many societies realise. That the main thing holding women back are social attitudes and a lack of awareness. And most of all, that women’s place in society is not written in tablets of stone, and can be changed beyond recognition in a generation.

I hope historians will look back on this generation in Europe and say that was the time when women finally achieved something approaching equality.

There are few if any more important challenges for the organisation that represents the world’s nations, the United Nations, than to help all societies, all around the world, undertake a similar transformation. It is the explicit mission of UN Women, and every other UN agency has this as part of their agenda.

It is also why I have supported an initiative launched by my US colleague in Geneva called Gender Champions. Along with dozens of colleagues heading missions or international agencies here, we have all made a number of pledges. Mine are to seek to embed the issues around women, peace and security in the Human Rights Council; to seek gender parity in all panel discussions and seminars in the UN here (and not to participate if there are no women involved); and to encourage others in the UK’s global networks to promote gender equality through the work they do, whether it is in development, or through political and economic relations.

There’s a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the chief executive gazing out of her office over the sculpted skycrapers of modern London, and the mother hiding her daughter in the bush to escape sexual violence in South Sudan.

But just as that chief executive’s grandmother could never have imagined running a global company, so too the granddaughter of that Sudanese woman can have possibilities that her grandmother can’t even imagine today.

We must all support the UN in helping to make that happen.

You can find out more about the Gender Champions initiative here: genevagenderchampions.net.

About Julian Braithwaite

Julian Braithwaite was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in April 2015. Julian was born in Rome, and has…

Julian Braithwaite was appointed Her Majesty’s
Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in April 2015.

Julian was born in Rome, and has degrees from Cambridge and Harvard universities, where he studied biochemistry, history and international relations.

He is married to Biljana Braithwaite and they have
two daughters, Anya (born 2000) and Katya (born 2004). He spent much of his career dealing with the crises in the former Yugoslavia and goes to Montenegro every summer.

Julian posts on the United Nations and the issues around globalisation, including human rights, the internet, global health, humanitarian crises and arms control.