UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka meets with Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi on 14 March 2016 during the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to co-sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the African Development Bank. (Photo/UN Women/Ryan Brown).

Building a Career Despite the Odds: Powerful and Moving Story From a Woman Who Refused to Settle

WHEN I look back on a career of 50 years striving to expand choices for women, one of the proudest accomplishments I share with other feminists of my generation is that while young women of today face challenges, they are very different from the barriers we confronted. While there is still much to do, we have come a long way.

Fifty-five years ago, I was expected to do well in school, and choose a career like nursing or teaching so I could be at home with the children after school. I was told that I should be careful how much I participated in class so as not to scare off the boys, since graduating from college with the coveted Mrs. was as important as getting a BA.

Subsequently, it was assumed I would meekly follow my husband when he was assigned to Zambia in 1973, even though there was no job for me. Once there, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – my husband’s employer – blocked most opportunities as a “conflict of interest” and instead told me to bring cookies to the Women’s Club.

There were only two of us out of several hundred UNDP wives who were employed professionally, so they mockingly asked me to write an article on “Whether UN Wives Should Work.”

While my marriage failed for many reasons, the straw which broke the camel’s back was my husband’s refusal to honour his promise that on the next round I would make a first choice of our assignment.

The Pan African Women of Faith Siritual Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace begins with a panel meeting on Capitol Hill in the Rayburn office building. Hosted by Representative Andre Carson-Indianapolis, Indiana. Joseph Molieri / Bread for the World

Instead, he accepted a Francophone tour knowing I did not speak French, and was therefore unlikely to find a job. Mortified that everyone would look askance at me as a woman who could not keep her man, I struggled to regain my dignity by finishing my dissertation and in the face of latent opposition even from the Dean’s Secretary, became one of the first women PhD holders from Korbel School at the University of Denver.

Subsequently, my own low expectations led me to accept a job at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a rank and pay far below that of my male colleagues. Refusing to recognise the difference in status, I performed at par with or better than the males, and was eventually awarded the same title, although never a commensurate salary.

With the support of mentors and feminist colleagues, I proceeded to build an exciting and fulfilling career in economic development in Africa, which spanned the continent, and included a dozen employers.

Now at age 70, I continue to teach graduate seminars in hope that my students will avoid the mistakes of my generation and find creative ways to contribute to the efforts of their African counterparts. During my disparate career I have developed several principles:

Identify Your Passion and Follow It: My PhD adviser codified this when he told me to find a topic which was manageable but also one I could live with over time. During my career I worked everywhere from the grassroots level to CEO, for organizations as diverse as the Peace Corps and the US State Department; for three different governments, as well as private sector and academia. But what motivated me was and is a passion for African development. Time and again I was drawn back to do what I loved best, working in and for Africa.

Do the Next Best Thing (Not the Second Best): Waiting for the perfect job to pop up is the best path to perpetual unemployment. Instead, identify and choose the best available option and turn it into a path toward a better one. Remember, you do not have to accomplish all goals in one job. My résumé could be presented as a well mapped-out plan, but that would be a lie. In fact it is closer to a zig-zag pattern of the best opportunities available at the time.

Unfair as it may seem, the disadvantaged must work harder: Whether we are women, minorities or ethnic groups out of favour, we must work harder to prove our worth. My most important mentors, at the Senate, in the Foreign Service and at Peace Corps, all knew I would do whatever it took to get the job done and they in turn would also look good. One of my biggest challenges was sorting out an inherited administrative mess as Country Director of Peace Corps Cameroon when I had no previous management experience or training. The staff pulled together and we eventually figured it all out; we just had to try harder.

Humour is better than anger: In the early days, when it was assumed I was a man because I had a Dr. in front of my name, or that I was secretary or lover to the colleague with whom I was travelling, I got mad. But I soon learned, especially for men who were prejudiced by training rather than will, that if I could gently laugh at and eventually with them, the desired change was much more palatable. And we had more fun.

Have a Ball but Pay Your Bills: This was the theme of the Secondary School commencement address my father gave for my graduating class in 1963. It is vital to love the core of what you are doing for this will see you through the hard bits. But it is also essential to “pay your bills” in terms of money, credentials and loyalty to those who support you. Being CEO of the Regional Office of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) brought this all together for me as it was both the best and the hardest job I ever had.

Many women today face difficult challenges of choice. Unlike in my generation, a plethora of options, professional and personal, are open to them. But no one can do everything at the same time. The principles above may help, but more than anything else, do what you love and know that you do not have to do it all now; you can take it in stages. Thank goodness, there is always another hill to climb and a new vista to enjoy.

Dr. Constance Freeman is a former Regional Director, International Development Research Centre (IDRC), in the Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa.

-From the African Development Bank

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