Celebrating Women Leaders at NCSC

On April 1, 2014, the President of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), Mary McQueen, convened a conference call with three women leaders of NCSC programs around the world in celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8). On the call were Sharmeen Farouk, Deputy Chief of Party of the Bangladesh Justice for All (JFA) Program (www.justice-bd.org); Elizabeth Peña, Country Director for NCSC in Colombia; and Jennifer Ober, Chief of Party of the Supporting Access to Justice, Fostering Equity and Peace (SAFE) Program in Uganda (www.safeprogram.ug).

After a brief discussion of their backgrounds, Mary invited the three women to speak about some of the challenges and opportunities they had encountered in their careers, and how they had risen to positions of leadership in the management of Rule of Law and Access to Justice programs.

Answering first, Sharmeen noted that she had faced many challenges in Bangladesh. Growing up, her family encouraged her to study and pursue her ambition to become an attorney. Once qualified, however, she found the legal environment not yet fully supportive of women legal professionals. When she had the opportunity to work with a bilateral project to provide seating and bathroom facilities for women at a district court, she discovered her passion for working with marginalized groups, and earned the respect of many of her colleagues, both men and women. Seeing the positive impact of her work on children and other vulnerable groups within society, her peers and her family became her most ardent supporters. Sharmeen said that she learned from these experiences that through commitment and hard work she could earn the respect of both men and women in her society.

Elizabeth added to Sharmeen’s observation by commenting on the influences of class on a woman’s success in Colombia. Growing up in the capital of Bogota, Elizabeth was able to pursue her dreams, supported and encouraged by her family. She excelled academically and ultimately went on to qualify as a lawyer. While she benefited from an urban environment, however, she noted that women in rural areas often face serious discrimination.

Elizabeth also spoke about her decision to take time away from her career to raise her son. "Sometimes I would be in my house with my baby, and I would compare myself to my friends who were working and wonder if I made the right decision. But I know now that the time I spent with my child was priceless. "

In reflecting on the evolution of her own vision of women’s advancement, Elizabeth noted that when she first began her career, she wanted to “take the world in her hands” and was determined to prove to her male colleagues that she was as good, or better, than they were. She realized over time, however, that this was not the best way to affect meaningful change. "It is not a race against men; it is a race with men to create a better world."

Echoing the observations of both Sharmeen and Elizabeth, Jennifer stressed the importance of working constructively with men in the workplace. While she didn’t face the same kinds of challenges that others have faced, Jennifer noted that she had faced barriers as a young woman lawyer working in international development contexts, and often felt that she had to prove herself to her male colleagues over and over again. Women, said Jennifer, should not let such behavior undermine their confidence; rather, they should use it as an opportunity to demonstrate what they can bring to the table. Her staff members often face similar challenges and Jennifer encourages them to take pride in the fact that they were working for long-term change. Like Sharmeen and Elizabeth, throughout Jennifer’s education and career, family encouragement has been essential. The confidence and support from family was especially important to Jennifer as she has taken an uncharted career path.

Mary concluded the call by highlighting a number of common themes that appeared to have contributed to the success of all four women. First, she noted what an important role supportive family played in her professional and personal life and in the lives of the other three women. Second, she commented on the importance of making deliberate choices and deciding how one intends to make a difference. Finally, she emphasized the importance of women working together and exchanging experiences to overcome shared challenges. At the end of the call, all four women expressed how much they had enjoyed sharing their perspectives and learning from each other. This is hoped to be the first of many conversations to demonstrate our shared commitment to gender equality and women’s legal empowerment at home and abroad.