Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: SA’s “cool Gogo” leveraging UN, multinationals: Full women equality 2030

Former South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has enlisted the “enemy” to fight for global gender equality. After her hugely successful HeForShe initiative attracted over a billion people on social media, in Davos this morning the UN’s Executive Director for Women took the wraps off her latest innovation. This time she has received the commitment from ten global companies to pioneer full gender equality, leading the charge towards corporate transformation. The multinationals are charged with having women filling at least 50% of executive management (and directorates) by 2020. At present their proportions range from 11% to 33%. Their leadership is expected to propel others to follow, helping reach international equality by 2030. Mlambo-Ngcuka, who did a doctorate in mobile technology between her SA and UN jobs, is leveraging her knowledge, contacts and the UN brand in a very smart, public manner. South Africa’s ultimate “cool” Gogo (granny) spoke to’s Alec Hogg this morning after her big announcement at the World Economic Forum annual meeting.

Alec Hogg is with Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka UN Woman Executive director, one of the top five at the United Nations, leveraging women’s rights very aggressively. Last year when we spoke at the end of our interview, which went viral, I must have you know, you described yourself as cool gogo because you’d done a lot of work in the social media field, HeForShe in particular.

We are still keeping up with the use of technology and not only that, we have made Twitter one of our ten champions amongst the CEO’s and we are having Twitterthons quite often as young women but also we are using the social media to encourage women, not just to use the social media, but to influence it. We have a programme for instance, about women who code, especially teenagers starting them early so that they can gain the skill. Yes I’m maintaining the cool gogo status as much as I can.

Many people don’t realise but you did a doctorate in this field, in mobile technology.

Yes, mobile technology and it’s used in education and in fact, a lot of what we are doing now in our HeForShe campaign are things that were part of my research and I’m excited that I’m able to live some of that work.

Read also: WEF 2016: 4th Industrial Revolution. 5mn jobs, women in the firing line.

It’s incredible that you’ve been able to leverage the UN brand, your position at the United Nations and are now really making strides towards gender equality. Where did this idea come from? I’d like to talk to you in detail about exactly how the HeForShe has been catapulted. Where did the idea go?

Well, I think in a way being a South African and having gone through the struggle against Apartheid taught me that if you’ve got a huge challenge as gender equality you need buy in from a lot of people. The UN by itself, UN women by itself, we just do not have the capacity to have the kind of outreach that you need because gender equality exists, inequality exists in every country in every community, in most of our homes. Technology is important for outreach. I needed somehow to have an outreach but also I needed a mechanism to mobilise people to own the issues.

One of the things that we did in the anti-apartheid struggle was to let people in every corner of the world to fight for us the way they know how. If they were in the private sector, they decided if they are going to do disinvestment. If they were in sports they decided that they were not going to play in South Africa. If they were schoolchildren they decided that they were going to create. I am trying to create a movement that is bigger than just the women’s movement, which has done so much, is carrying such a load, so that this load that is being carried by women is actually distributed and is carried by more people whose buy in we need for this battle to be won. If we don’t win the men and if they don’t take the responsibility we are not making the kind of progresses.

The idea came from the need for me to reach out to make sure that the ownership of this is not just in the usual suspect, people like us but that as you saw this morning, you’ve got the CEO of Price Waterhouse, the CEO of McKinsey, CEO of Barclays, all sitting together discussing what it is that they need to do, ought to, in order to achieve gender equality and I’d like to see many of them, men and women institutions such as churches ensuring that traditional authorities, all of those people need to be able to have their own programme of action and to take the responsibility for success.

Traditional authorities might take a little bit longer.

We’re trying but let me tell you in Malawi where we have partnership with traditional authorities, one of the areas in which we are asking them to take leadership is on ending child marriages because that is a socially sanctioned activity in many communities chiefs get involved in marrying girls. We are asking them to take a stance, in fact because now we’ve also convinced government and government has taken the leadership to have a law that they’ve passed.

The chiefs have to comply but we’re asking the chiefs as part of actively supporting the law, they must find families that do this. The families must know that this is not acceptable to do this. Recently one chief, after the law was passed unmarried the girls that were already married and made sure that they go back to their families and for us as young women, what we did then was to meet them halfway by making sure that the girls must go to school, which becomes their un-wedding present and these are 18, 16 years old that we’re talking about.

These are incredible achievements but you’re also looking at a global scale and I think what’s most impressive of what was announced this morning is you’ve got these ten companies all from different sectors, presumably other companies in those sectors are going to say we’ve got to follow them as well and you have a target and that is something to aim at.

Scale and time frame is very important. In anything that I want us to do in, at young women I always have to think about scale. Even if we start in a small way, maybe with one country or one company I must be able to say, who else can use this experience, who else can learn from you and what is my strategy to get it to scale? With these ten companies, obviously announcing this activity in divorce is part of the outreach but each one of them are also committing to use this experience to draw in their partners, their suppliers but also the fact that they are multinationals, means that they can actually do this work in more than one country. Scale is absolutely important because otherwise why are we United Nations if we’re only going to work in a tiny place.

It’s also a target by 2030, gender equality. Does that mean fifty/fifty in all boards, fifty/fifty top management?

I think it’s important to raise the scales that much because there has been a way of accepting mediocrity, where we talk about thirty percent for women, as if that’s an achievement. When women are more than fifty percent because when we say that, it means that we are saying there’s seventy percent affirmative action for men and we accept that. For women, if you get thirty, shame it’s nice. It shouldn’t be like that. I want us to push the bar so that we get what is best for women and for men in the process but I’m also realistic that we need to phase it in because we are not going to be able to push everybody to jump and do what we want them to do at the same time.

I’m making not just 2030 as the final year for us to have substantive equality but 2020 I want us to do dipstick evaluation so that earlier on ahead of the 2030 agenda, we can see that it is going the right way or the wrong way and we can take correctional action because if you remember, with the MDG’s for instance, we started to get really hot under the collar in the latter years and we lost of time in the earlier years. Now I’m starting on year one and in 2020 already I want a thorough evaluation so that we can see that we’ll be on time for the 2030 titles.

Read also: WEF Gender Report: SA climbs to 17th. Economic gap to close by 2133.

If you were one of those ten companies at Accor Hotels, Coq Holdings is a very interesting one from a Muslim country, Tupperware who are already well towards that goal, are you challenging them by 2020 to actually reach this level, reach to the fifty/fifty so that you can then be a role model for others?

Yes, that’s why I needed to have this intense relationship with these few companies and to have almost an agreement with the CEO’s that they are making themselves available to this because I will be able to call the bluff of companies who may say this is not doable, I say but PWC can do this, Accor can do this and these are companies in different sectors of the economy. We’re also very careful to make sure that we are able to mix the experiences so that they can talk to the different types of companies in the different economies.

There are other companies besides these ten companies that obviously are also taking their own initiative that we may know about or not even know about, so we would also use this opportunity to make sure that those companies know that we’re trying to develop a community of practice because a critical mass and a visible group of companies that are doing this is going to be an important way to impact on the others psychologically who may think that that this is Mission Impossible. These companies are here to show that this is Mission Possible. That is why at the end in my concluding results you saw that I again re-emphasise we are going for 2020 and everybody is on board on that because I need that assurance that I’ve got a time frame and I’ve got targets.

Of the board representation, at the moment Coq Holdings is the lowest.


It is from a Muslim country, Turkey. It’s a brilliant decision to include them. Do you have high hopes that they can also achieve those levels by 2020?

The CEO is very passionate and determined and also fortunately for them the women are very educated in that country. There isn’t a shortage of a pipeline. They can actually find one. I don’t know if you are aware, unfortunately, that we lost that CEO yesterday morning? He had a heart attack and died. This morning we had to start the session with a small remembrance for him. He has left a lot of processes within the company that are linked toward that. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to sustain the company and the family because it’s also partly a family business.

Is that his legacy perhaps?

Yes, absolutely. It’s also important because it’s tacky and his view was that she should succeed because he needs to break the mould in this part of the world.

We’ve lost a great pioneer.

Yes, by the way they are the ones, they also operate in a company. They are behind Defy.

That’s right, in South Africa, yes. Phumzile, the whole gender equality struggle though is something that hasn’t; there’s been a lot of talk of it for many years. With the HeForShe, you seem to have a bit of a breakthrough there and with this, do you think this is your next step towards achieving something that many have spoken about, but only few countries have achieved?

I don’t want to be too presumptuous. We need a whole lot of other role players to do the different things that they do stronger and better and for all of it to come together but I think what distinguishes HeForShe is the inclusiveness, is the fact that we are bringing men and boys. We forgot half of the population who are so relevant for the success to this. Also what we try and do in HeForShe is not to only work with the men that are already progressive and highly initiated.

HeForShe is providing an entry point and a platform for every man who wants to give it a try and we will handhold them into taking a stand but if they’re in leadership positions we need them to take bold steps and we need them to make a change and I think there is something also about HeForShe with the support of the social media that makes it less formal, for instance as against the UN. Younger people are able to identify with it, techno server people are able to identify with it but what we want is for them to go beyond just that initial stage of interacting on the media and move offline now and actually do the actual activities onsite in the community at work.

That transition from taking the first step to press that button on your computer is important because if you just, you only stay on what you could do online and you do not live, then it means that you are not making the progress and that is why we have these concrete activities that we are asking companies to do, we are asking universities to do, we are asking random individual men to do and we are writing about the stories of the men that are doing something.

From a man who  goes to next door and engages a man who beats up his wife and organises a community to actually be there for this woman, boys at school who rally around girls that are being teased and regard themselves as boy HeForShe’s in a country like Pakistan. Twitter was telling me, because they are helping to monitor, that the conversations about HeForShe come from about 200 countries all over the world. Clearly there is a footprint there that we are developing. We have not reached a tipping point as yet but we’re sure pushing.

What about your own country? What about South Africa? Is there progress?

Not to the extent that I would like to do. I’m going now in February to pull together a partnership of on the ground HeForShe supporters that would work with the ministries, work with us and we are asking the Nelson Mandela Foundation to be the lead partner from civil society. If we cannot revoke the name of Nelson Mandela to get all the men who want to do the kinds of things that you would have wanted them to do, I don’t know who else we can find.

The companies there, are they embracing it?

Again, not to the same extent but I must be honest, I have not invested as much time in South Africa. We did not have adequate staffing. We had a very small office. We are expanding the office, so we should be able to see some changes there as well. We’ve also developed material regaining the language. I’m also gaining a little bit of confidence in my job. That should also make a difference.

What’s it been like living in New York, working at the United Nations?

Very inspiring, I tell you there is no doubt there and everything that you do makes you feel that your life is meaningful because you can make a difference in other people’s life. We obviously don’t get to solve all the problems we need to solve. We don’t get to achieve all the things that we get to achieve but when you do have a breakthrough, when you are able to get women in Syria in a refugee camp to re-unite with their family, to give the women the skill to make them resilient, to make them feel that they have hope, that this is not the end of their lives and to continue to want to work for peace in their own country you feel wow, this is something important.

When you are able to sit with the head of state and to engage them about ending female genital mutilation in your country and then from there you move, you develop an act, you help them to actually pass the act, you mobilise with other partners, you support them to take one step at a time towards eradicating that kind of a practice, you really feel that your life is worth living. I have to say I am homesick. That I cannot take away but it’s also good that my work does take me home. I’m also able to work in South Africa. Wits, by the way, is one of the ten universities that are HeForShe Champions. You and I must maybe work to make sure that Wits is one of the high performing universities in this era because they obviously have a lot of challenges.

Indeed and Adam Habib is also a very outspoken man. It’s not surprising to see that they are more progressive in this respect. To close off with, I watched last night, the marketing director of YouTube showing us some of the most successful videos in the world and there’s a video of a Saudi Arabian lady driving her car where she videoed herself and of course, she’s a hero in the country because they’re not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. The challenges are just enormous but if you make heroes out of people who do that kind of thing?

Yes, it is important that when people do something that is outstanding we give them the courage, also the protection because once they are in the public eye, it may not be as easy to come their way. We are pushing and encouraging Saudi to take the next step after the elections of women and in fact I have not been there because it is challenging but actually I have decided I’m actually going to go there because now we have a pool of women that have authority and position to see how we could support them so that they can be part of leading the change. I definitely think it’s going to come.

I also want to emphasise the fact that we have launched this high-level panel on women’s economic empowerment, which is going to be chaired by the Prime Minister of Cost Rica and the CEO of Ikea, Switzerland and it includes a very interesting mix of people from Christian Lagarde as panellists to Winnie Byanyima of Oxfam, trade unionists, academics, small business leaders, big business leaders and what we’re going to be looking at there are the barriers that are stopping women from becoming economically active.

What are they, how can you remove them, who should remove them, how much it is going to cost, where can we start? I’m really looking forward to that. Anything from macro-economic policy to the structure of the financial institutions and how they relate to women, the burden of unpaid care work that women face that stop women from becoming economic citizens, the laws in different countries that still discriminate against women and my plan is to work across the board all at the same time. By 2020 I really want to see that things are actually coming together.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the UN Women’s Executive Director, it’s always a privilege talking with you. Thank you.

Thank you so much for always responding – to give young women a platform.

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