Gihan Aboulezz shifting perspectives on traditional gender roles © G. Aboulezz archives

Are decisions based on gender or personal choices?
Going to the field is often a personal choice, especially when it means leaving behind a spouse and children
1 Nov 2023

When I was nine years old and in the fourth grade, my teacher said to me: “Someday, I see you working for the United Nations”. At that time, I did not know what the “United Nations” was. I asked my teacher that question and she replied, “It’s a big place that helps the world”. Well, that was exactly my cup of tea. I wanted to “help the world”. My teacher said this to me because I was always volunteering to do everything at school. From writing poems to the birthday classmate of the day, to cleaning erasers, to volunteering at nursing homes and playing the piano on Saturday afternoons for senior citizens, I have always had a great interest in helping others.

I fulfilled my teacher’s prophecy in 2001 when I was lucky enough to nab an interview at the United Nations headquarters in New York, in the Oil-for-Food Program. My interview was on September 11, 2001, at 9:45am with the Treasurer of the former Department of Management. It took me one year to get that interview, which was subsequently canceled (and you know why). It was a chaotic and sad day for New York.

My interview was rescheduled for late October, and I was offered the position to start on December 17, 2001. I enjoyed the work immensely as a finance officer. Finance was my forte, as I came from the private sector doing just that. After serving 4.5 years in that role, the program was nearing an end, and I applied for and was recommended for a field position in the United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS). As I spoke fluent Arabic, I was thrilled. However, I did two things wrong: (1) I did not educate myself on the rules and regulations of the UN and did not know that I was basically relinquishing my headquarters post, and (2) I thought my husband could handle three children and their schedules (ages 16, 13, and 8) while I was away on this adventure. I was grossly negligent (and wrong) on both counts.

After serving only six months in this role at UNMIS, my husband informed me that he was basically having a nervous breakdown handling the two older boys who were inconveniently going through their growing pains and ‘rebellious’ phases, and my 8-year old daughter who took much too long getting ready for school in the morning, replying to my husband through the bathroom door that “being a woman takes a lot of work to get ready in the morning”.

Although I was enjoying my field work, I knew I had to come back. To what though, was the question. I learned the rules of the Organization the hard way and took a lesser position, simply because there were no other choices for me. I ended up in administration, which I knew little of in terms of the UN. I quickly got through the learning curve and stayed in administration (and in my role) for over 16 years. But I love what I do now, and I love my team and I love going to missions and conducting workshops and review visits. What did I learn? That educating oneself on the rules of any organization is essential. I also came to prioritize my family over my work. My boys came to terms with their rebellious teenage years and turning my husband’s hair prematurely gray. They graduated from university with advanced degrees and are now married with homes of their own. My daughter also graduated from university and is now married. She still takes a long time to get ready for anything, but now that’s her husband’s problem.

I often wonder if I were a man, would I have been faced with the same dilemmas? Maybe yes, maybe no. Perhaps it’s up to the person really, on how to figure it out. Not so much the gender, but the person.

Does it have to do with being a woman or does it have to do with making choices? I would like to think that I am still “helping the world”. When I got into the UN, I invited my fourth-grade teacher, whom I had kept in touch with, for lunch at the Delegates Dining room. She was thrilled. I was thrilled that she was thrilled.

I used to hear my mother always say: “hold the stick from the middle” which essentially translates to: “don’t overdo anything”. It is challenging raising a family and trying to excel in your work at the same time. Many women and colleagues do it, they are able to “hold the stick from the middle”. I work in the Board of Inquiry Unit now, in the Department of Operational Support. Along with my wonderful supervisors and team, we help make the UN safer with a better working environment for all members of the personnel. Did I feel uncertain at times? Yes. Did I feel as if I was given the shorter end of the stick for giving up a field position for a lesser role? Yes. Did I think it unfair? Yes. But then, I also learned to enjoy the journey and to feel proud of my accomplishments, notably my three children and the work of the organization that I have contributed to in my 23+ years of service. 

* Gihan Aboulezz is Chief of the Board of Inquiry Unit in the Department of Operational Support at the United Nations.
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