Media report on WTO’s first female head ‘sexist and racist’ – African UN leaders


While hailing the selection of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first African and woman president of the World Trade Organization, senior African leaders at the UN have criticised the “sexist and racist” language used by the media in the coverage of her appointment.

Members of the UN senior African group (Unsag) said that the language used in some media to describe her appointment was “offensive, sexist and racist in a world where both public and private sector leadership is dominated by ageing Caucasian men”.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of UN Women, Winnie Byanyima, who leads UNAids, and Vera Songwe, the executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, in a letter said that previous leaders of the WTO were “revered for the experience and skills they bring and have never been characterised by their lineage and offspring”.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, a graduate of Harvard University, is a global finance expert and an economist and international development professional with over 30 years of experience working in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.

Currently, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is Chair of the Board of Gavi, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation.

She previously served twice as Nigeria’s Finance Minister and briefly Foreign Minister in 2006, the first woman to hold both positions.

She spent a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the number two position of Managing Director, Operations.

Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka, co-chair of Unsag, told the Guardian: “There is a lot of prejudice against women in leadership that is just refusing to go away. We see it when it comes to female politicians or at grassroots level.”

One headline in the Swiss daily newspaper Luzerner Zeitung originally read: “This grandmother will become the boss of the WTO.” The headline was later changed.

“When men ascend [to power]at a later age, we celebrate their experience and accomplishments,” said Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka. “No one talks about them as a grandfathers, it’s not a relevant talking point.”

She said UN Women was pushing hard to address the harassment female leaders face, “which in some cases discourages women from coming up and taking on leadership positions because they don’t need this nonsense.

“We really need to talk about this so next time we have a similar situation, newspapers think twice before they write anything like that.”

Her comments came as UN Women gears up for two major international meetings this year to advance gender equality, including women’s role in politics.

Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka said the Generation Equality forums, which will be held next month in Mexico and in France in June, will bring together government leaders, civil society, young people and the private sector to agree a costed set of proposals to achieve gender justice in policy areas – including equal pay, violence, healthcare and decision-making.

The forums were postponed last year because of the pandemic.

Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka said women have been shouldering the responsibility alone for too long and called on men to stop being bystanders and join the fight for equality.

Men’s failure to act “enables violence and violations to thrive”, she said. “They are not taking the steps to join the side of women, and we are saying being bystanders really is not an option.

“As [Nelson] Mandela said, when good men do nothing, that is a conspiracy against women,” added the former South African deputy president. (Source: The Guardian)