To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, all this week MSFS has been highlighting women in our program’s community who strive to further gender equality and inclusion in their professional and personal lives.
In our final spotlight for the series, we interviewed two MSFS Practitioners in Residence, Kelly T. Clements and Elisa Massimino. The MSFS Practitioners in Residence initiative promotes interactions between MSFS students and leading practitioners in international affairs in order to advance students’ professional development. Every year, a group of MSFS Practitioners in Residence mentor students by hosting workshops, giving talks, and offering small-group advice sessions.
Kelly T. Clements is Deputy High Commissioner for UNHCR—the UN Refugee Agency. Elisa Massimino was, until recently, the CEO of Human Rights First, a human rights advocacy and action organization. She is a Senior Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. We talked to both of them about the people and ideas that have inspired and motivated them throughout their careers.
Kelly T. Clements
Kelly T. Clements joined UNHCR as Deputy High Commissioner on 6 July 2015. Before joining UNHCR, Clements was a member of the Senior Executive Service, serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) where she was responsible for humanitarian issues in Asia and the Middle East and global policy and budget. In 2014, she was Acting
Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. From 1993 to 1996, Clements served at the U.S. Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on a Foreign Service appointment. She was Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs in 1997-1998. Clements served as a Senior Emergency Officer for Europe, the Newly Independent States, and the Americas, and later as Balkans Assistance Coordinator; she was deployed to Albania in 1999. She worked for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangladesh in 1992.
Can you describe your experience as a woman in the field of humanitarian work? How has it changed, if at all, over time?
We are living in extraordinary times with unprecedented opportunities. While some survey results regarding sexual misconduct, abuse, and harassment may lead one to believe that there has never been a worse time to serve as a humanitarian aid worker, I would argue the opposite. The wake-up call which was recently addressed to organizations, governments, and the general public not only empowers women to speak up, it instills further confidence that those in positions of responsibility will respond to prevent further occurrences, take bold action when allegations are substantiated, and change cultures so that all voices are heard and people treat each other with respect. This can only improve the way we serve those of concern to us.
I have been fortunate over my career not to feel disempowered because I am a woman. If anything, ageism has been a more serious impediment at times in my professional life. However, I see opportunities now to tackle deep-rooted inequalities in ways we have never been able to do so before. The potential for stronger devotion to the mission and impact on the people we serve is boundless.
Can you give us examples of times you felt supported or empowered as a woman professionally?
There are really too many examples to mention. However, I will mention two particular experiences that perhaps changed the course of my career and life and both were supported by men.
The first was the opportunity to serve on a Foreign Service assignment early in my career and my marriage. Because moving overseas would have meant living apart for some three years from my husband, he was the first person I called when it was suggested that I might move to Geneva to work on post-Gulf War displacement issues and other humanitarian priorities in the mid-90s. Quite simply, he noted that he had never heard such excitement in my voice and that I couldn’t give up the opportunity and that although he could not move with me then, we would make it work. And we did. He continues to be the rock in my life, the calm voice when things are chaotic, and a ceaselessly supportive partner and father.
The second example followed the birth of our first child when I knew I needed to transform a life of non-stop work and field travel to a potentially less demanding job than the Balkans Assistance Coordinator position I had encumbered for several years. The new Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary didn’t know me, but unbeknownst to me, he took the time to look at my CV and advised strongly that I compete for a position that would challenge me but serve both future leadership of the Bureau well and my own professional development. He gave some of the best professional advice of my career: “You can shape the position and the direction for the portfolio. Don’t let others, their expectations and standards, pre-determine how you execute the job. You need this experience to round out your CV and with changes to how the job is performed, you can balance this and your life too.” He was right and I will always be grateful.
Could you share any stories of women working in your field, or women you have encountered in your work, who inspire you?
There are a million answers to this question! It is difficult to choose among the many inspiring people I have met, worked alongside, or admired from afar. I think first of the refugee and displaced women I have met in places like South Sudan, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Iraq, Greece, Nepal, and Lebanon. Without fail, they inspire me with their single-mindedness of purpose—to protect and make a better life for their families and themselves. Through the years, I’ve treasured most the opportunities to sit quietly with women and listen to their stories and hear their guidance for how we best support them. I’ll admit that in these safe places of conversation, discussion, and reflection, tears have come easily.
I have been privileged over my career to have worked with teams of inspiring women so I hesitate to single anyone out. That said, I have always valued the mentorship model provided by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She remains the gold standard for supporting not just promising female leaders, but always had a word of encouragement to anyone with whom she crossed paths, regardless of rank or background. I will never forget after I gave a particularly important interview for a panel on which she served, she followed-up with a telephone call. She said simply, “I want to be you when I grow up.” The call was unnecessary, but provided boundless inspiration and shored up confidence when I needed it most.
As an MSFS Practitioner in Residence, what advice do you have for women looking to pursue a career in your field (i.e. careers working in areas related to refugees, migration, displacement, etc.)?
Get as many diverse experiences in the field as early in your career as you can. There is nothing that will give you more credibility with peers, your team members, the public, policy-makers, and of course, the people you serve—refugees, forcibly displaced persons, and their host communities—than having lived and worked directly with them. It will allow you to understand better the complexity, the challenges, the opportunities, the strength, and resilience that displaced people bring with them and the extent to which they are able to exercise agency over their own futures if we involve them directly in framing interventions and decision-making.
After 27 years with Human Rights First—the last decade as President and CEO—Elisa Massimino recently stepped down from her post to join Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government as a Senior Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
Massimino has a distinguished record of human rights advocacy. She has testified before Congress dozens of times, writes frequently for mainstream publications and specialized journals, appears regularly in major media outlets, and speaks to audiences around the country. Since 2008, the influential Washington newspaper The Hill has consistently named her one of the most effective public advocates in the United States. Massimino serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, where she teaches human rights advocacy, and has taught international human rights law at the University of Virginia and refugee law at the George Washington University School of Law.
Can you describe what your experience has been as a woman in the field of human rights advocacy? How has it changed, if at all, over time?
When I first came to Washington in the late 1980s, I worked at a big law firm that had a reputation for being progressive. And yet, at that time, there were so few women partners that they could all fit in the Ladies room at one time. Today, that same law firm hosts a day-long conference for women partners and women clients that fills up a large hotel ballroom. The firm has come to understand that women partners are a huge asset, bringing diverse perspectives—and clients—to the firm.
The story was similar in the non-profit world—but with fewer resources. When I started at Human Rights First, you could count on one hand the number of people on staff—women and men—who had children. There was no family leave back then; if you wanted time off to have a baby, you had to piece together a combination of vacation time and disability leave. And I had to find someone to do my job while I was away! When I became CEO, I was intent on making sure that we could be as generous as possible on this, to encourage the development of family lives, if that’s what people wanted. Family is an important part of being a human being, and people who work in human rights should remember the “human” part of that work.
At the time I became CEO at Human Rights First, most of the major human rights organizations in the United States were led by men. That’s not true anymore. Being able to see mentors and leaders who are like you, who you can emulate, is an incredibly powerful thing. It’s inspiring other women who are coming up in the field to step forward and take on leadership roles.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Balance for Better”. The theme focuses on innovative ways to advance gender-balance in areas across economic and social spheres. How important is achieving gender-balance across areas of society?
That’s an interesting question. I tend to be wary of terms like “balance” when they are put forward without intentionality and a deep understanding of why they’re important. Balance sounds like something inherently good—who could be against balance? But the reasons matter. If the justification for gender balance is simply appearances, the cultural shift that’s necessary isn’t likely to happen. We have to understand and internalize what the data tells us: that without representation of women and other minorities in sufficient numbers, an organization’s decision-making process will be impoverished.
These are not soft issues. There’s a fair amount of research, for example, that shows that companies will make riskier investments if there is a lack of gender diversity on the board, and that peacebuilding efforts endure longer if women are involved in negotiations. As a society, we will be more prosperous and more peaceful when there is greater representation of women in leadership. We do not want balance for the sake of balance. We want it because it makes us better as a society.
As a human rights leader, how do you understand and approach women’s rights within the context of human rights?
We had many discussions about this over the years at my organization. We grappled explicitly over the question of whether to launch a separate program focused on women’s rights. In the end we decided against that approach; our goal was to integrate a gender perspective across all the areas of our work, and we didn’t want to create a silo where folks would assume that anything that implicated the rights of women would fall outside their areas and in the “women’s rights program.”
Instead, we looked for opportunities to address rights violations more broadly—like human trafficking—that would benefit from the application of our strengths as an organization but which also had disproportionate impacts on women and girls. Integrating women’s rights specifically in human rights work can be a tricky thing to do, and I didn’t see a lot of examples where people were getting it right. All of us have to continue to strive to bring the spotlight back on that issue and be persistent in asking ourselves whether we’re doing enough—and making sure we’re not just checking a box.
Can you describe any innovations in the field of human rights advocacy which you think could be a way forward in avoiding “a check-box mentality” when looking at issues related to women?
We have sound research and experience now about the importance of elevating women’s voices in peacemaking and how important women are for sustainability and moving past conflict. In many ways, the challenge now is to execute on principles that have become generally accepted in that field. I think efforts to increase economic access for women and to overcome structural issues that keep women from being independent economic actors are really promising. Economic access is a key that unlocks a lot of the issues that lead to violations of women’s rights.