Sara Ferrer Olivella took up her role as the UNDP country director for Jordan at the start of 2017. The UN official was the regional advisor for the UNDP in New York prior to moving to the Kingdom.
She says she joined the mission due to its focus on achieving sustainable human development, ending poverty, and reducing gender inequalities. Having served in a number of developing countries throughout her time in service, she hopes she can contribute to alleviating some of the pressure Jordan has been placed under with the latest influx of refugees.
What have you sacrificed at each stage of your career to reach where you are today?
What I sacrificed the most in this journey has been time for myself. Because family comes first and then the professional life and so within that, I found it was difficult to carve out some time to think and do things better. It’s not just as a woman, but also as a UN diplomat. I have lived in many countries so I sacrificed family and friends on many occasions. This is something much larger that has to do with international careers.
Do you believe female mentorship is important and are you a mentor?
Mentorship is always important, whether by women or by men. I have always tried to learn from my female mentors; how do they manage to balance family and work? What are the considerations when starting a family and what is the right time? So in that sense, you learn from them. Not so much what it takes in the workplace but more on how you actually see yourself in this world, making your contribution to society. It’s not just your position, you have a much broader role as a director, mother, and community leader. I am a mentor, formally and informally. I have always worked with very young interns and I have to say that almost all of them were women who were concerned about wanting to grow in their careers and wanting to start a family but they didn’t know where to seek counsel. I followed them over the years.
Have you dealt with conscious or unconscious bias in the workplace?
Of course. In the places I’ve served I have encountered bias for being a woman and for being young. But you just have to keep going and contributing. What should drive you is the mission you have to fulfill. And my mission is to serve communities, and of course, in communities there are different cultural norms. The UNDP is very diverse and it values different races and religions. But the countries we serve are not as sensitive to this; whether it is the pacific, Cambodia or other places. When I see women suffering from bias, I think what advice can I offer that could empower them as women and help them to deal with bias? You have to develop the inner force to break those barriers. Take small steps and have the confidence that you are going in the right direction. I had to meet mayors, ministers and members of parliament, the mission I had to fulfill was not defined by my age or my gender but my role. What I’m saying is that you have a role to fulfill, even if you enter a room full of men in gray, dark suits, if you don’t let that get to you I think you can go far.
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
For me it’s two things, one is cultural norms. But it’s up to you and how you come out of your shell to defy those norms depending on where you live. The other thing is the fear that you won’t have time for your family and to be a good mother. I think you can have both and I get a lot of my strength from my family. So I think by overcoming that fear, you will manage to realize you can actually do both.
Who are the women who inspire you?
The women who inspire me are the women I meet when I visit refugee camps and rural communities in the middle of deserts or tropical forests in the jungle. The mother who is trying to keep the family happy in the direst of circumstances and make her children’s childhood as normal as possible. Where do they get the strength to not only care for the children but also make sure they are happy and healthy kids who get an education and live a happy life? Here, I’ve seen it in the widows in Wadi Musa. These are the women that, I have to say, I admire the most. The women who make sure that every cent saved is invested in the children. Those are the women that inspire me.