"Don’t let stereotypes and cultural and social norms weigh you down"

Priscilla Idele, Deputy Director at UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti, had never faced a crisis of this magnitude in her entire career

15 March 2021

On March 8, it's International Women's Day. This year’s theme is "Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world", celebrating the tremendous efforts by women around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. At UNICEF, we want to celebrate the achievements of women in leadership positions, and also those who display leadership qualities.

Throughout the whole month of March 2021, the Women's Month, we publish the stories of only a few of the many women who make a difference in UNICEF every day. Today, we host the interview of Priscilla Idele, our Deputy Director at UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti

Priscilla Idele
Priscilla Idele

Don’t let stereotypes and cultural and social norms weigh you down.

You can go to school and excel in any subject, including science, technology and mathematics.

Think about what you want to achieve in your career and your life, and then explore the steps in how to get there.

Priscilla Idele

Deputy Director, UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti

Who are you and what is your role at UNICEF?

I am Priscilla Idele, Deputy Director, UNICEF Office of Research- Innocenti, the organization's dedicated research office based in Florence, Italy.

How did COVID-19 impact your life, both on professional as well as on personal level?

I was in Florence, Italy when the whole country was put on lockdown on March 9, 2020 - the first country in the world to do so. Before then, I had never really dealt with a crisis of this magnitude. But I found myself in the middle of a crisis overnight as if in a dream. On a professional level, and being Deputy Director, I had to play my role. Through the Crisis Response Team, I supported the development of a Business Continuity Plan, which included ensuring staff wellbeing and safety, delivery of office equipment like computers, chairs and other accessories to their homes for a conducive work environment at home. This also marked the onset of online work interactions with colleagues, never like before. The daily Zoom or Skype check-ins to make sure everyone was doing fine; daily email updates, the weekly all-staff counselling sessions, the many questions from colleagues about when we shall return to the office defined my daily life – and of course the daily phrase ‘You are on mute’ was ubiquitous in every conversation. I participated in over 700 meetings in 2020 alone! While it was overwhelming, stressful and full of uncertainties, it was also fulfilling to be there for all colleagues in the office. The COVID-19 pandemic stole the precious face to face office interactions, the informal chit chats over coffee, lunch, dinner or drinks, and to be just social human beings. Yes, work from home has its benefits, but I truly miss the office work environment.

On a personal level, I can’t lie – but admit that this experience was like no other. Being partly caught up in Italy where deaths due to COVID-19 increased from about 230 to over 2500 in just 10 days (March 7 -17 2020) was very scary and unsettling. The rapid evolution of the pandemic made it very uncertain of what to expect each day, leading to some high levels of fear, anxiety and stress. On a positive note, the COVID-19 pandemic also made me bond and be closer to my family. It has been a great opportunity to be there for each other. My granddaughters now have ‘Tata’s room’ (grandma’s room) in their house, because of the length of time I spent with them.

Priscilla Idele with her grand daughters during play time
Priscilla Idele
Priscilla Idele with her grand daughters during play time

I was able to experience firsthand the impact of school closures on children’s wellbeing and, on parents’ lives, who remain the unsung heroes in this pandemic. My daughter who has never been a teacher, suddenly had to plan and supervise lessons for her daughters, often with minimal guidance from the schools. I observed the impact of unstable and weak internet connectivity on children’s learning, and many more. COVID-19 has also made me appreciate and be mindful of my own wellbeing. We never know what tomorrow will be like. To have a healthy mind and wellbeing, I exercise regularly, eat well, keep a positive outlook and share my concerns and fears with a few trusted friends and relatives.

Do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionally impacted women, mothers and girls' lives, and how?

The emerging evidence shows that it clearly has. The COVID-19 pandemic is harming health, social and economic well-being worldwide, with women at the center. Women are more likely than men to have given up work owing to unpaid caregiving responsibilities related to COVID lockdowns and other public health measures, and less likely to have returned to work even when these measures eased. Women continue to bear the burden of household tasks, which have increased due to mobility restrictions and economic recession. Women make up almost 70% of the health care workforce, which exposes them to higher risk of infection. Women also face high risks of job and income loss since most are in informal businesses or in sectors that have been heavily impacted by COVID-19 pandemic, including tourism, transport, and service industries. Women are disproportionately more likely to have experienced increased violence, abuse and exploitation as a result of the mobility restrictions, quarantines, and other fallouts of the pandemic. And girls are less likely to return to school than boys, while many adolescent girls are facing an increased risk of adolescent pregnancy and child marriage in some societies. So overall, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on women, mothers and girls - and we are not even aware of the full extent due to the paucity of evidence, and especially gender-disaggregated data and research, in many countries and contexts.

We are not even aware of the full extent of the impact the pandemic has had on women, due to the paucity of evidence, and gender-disaggregated data and research in many countries and contexts.

Priscilla in a meeting with UNICEF partners
Priscilla Idele
Priscilla Idele during a business leadership meeting in New York

What do you believe are women's strengths, and what are the advantages of female leadership in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic?

Women's strengths are multiple, as we all know -- they hold up more than half of the sky. But there are two characteristics of women that I would like to emphasize that have struck me particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic: innovation and resilience. Innovation, in that there are numerous stories of women facing enormous economic and social challenges exacerbated by the pandemic finding fresh ways to meet these challenges – from feeding their children to getting an education and averting child marriage or violence. And resilience because in the face of the multiple risks I cited in the previous response, women are still the main bedrock of their families, communities and societies. On the advantages of female leadership in combatting the pandemic, it is clear to me that the COVID response often lacks gender sensitivity. For example, whereas there is - and rightly so - a massive global push to restore routine vaccination, there appears to be less global attention to restoring and expanding women's healthcare services, including maternal, sexual and reproductive health services, and ensuring fair opportunities for girls and young women to return to education. But female leadership is not only about putting these issues on the table, however; it's also about bringing fresh perspectives and energy to combatting the crisis. The crisis has shown that responses to COVID-19 has been more successful in countries where women are at the top leadership, such as in New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan and Denmark. But the pandemic has also revealed that there are few women leaders making key decisions at the highest level. And that is why the recent appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Director-General of the World Trade Organization is a most welcome development in an organization that will have a key role to undertake in making the global COVID vaccine rollout equitable and sustainable – and hopefully gender-sensitive as well.

What is your advice to women navigating their careers during a health crisis, as well as in a post COVID-19 pandemic world?

My advice to women, particularly young women and girls, is the same as it would have been before, during and after the global health crisis we are currently living in. Believe in yourself. Don't be daunted by the challenges you may face, both personally and professionally. You are strong, innovative and resilient, and have the resourcefulness to overcome every challenge. Don't let anyone take you for granted - know your rights and stand up for them always. Don’t let stereotypes and cultural and social norms weigh you down. You can go to school and excel in any subject, including science, technology and mathematics. Think about what you want to achieve in your career and your life, and then explore the steps in how to get there. You remember, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step – so take that first step and then the next and the next until you get to where you want to go. Talk to other women who have walked the path you want to travel for guidance on the opportunities and risks. And finally, love yourself, take care of yourself, and do it your own way.