"We are never 'too senior' to learn, and we are never 'too junior' to contribute"

Shelly Abdool, Regional Gender Advisor in Latin America and the Caribbean, counts her self lucky to still have a rewarding job amidst a pandemic

12 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 and girls 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 Shelly Abdool, our Regional Gender Advisor in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Portrait photo of Shelly Abdool
Shelly Abdool

Find passion and meaning in your work, without letting work define you. Remember that we are never 'too senior' to learn, and we are never 'too junior' to contribute.

Shelly Abdool

Regional Gender Advisor, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Who are you and what is your role at UNICEF?

I'm Shelly Abdool, Regional Gender Advisor in LACRO

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

On a professional level, the pandemic has highlighted the structural gender inequalities and their impact on women and girls. Apart from an increase in virtual meetings, teleworking and no face-to-face contact with colleagues, the pandemic has also reduced travel possibilities to adequately support country offices as they remain on the frontlines to ensure that gender equality gaps do not worsen. On a personal level, the pandemic has pushed the limits of work-life balance. I count myself lucky to still have a rewarding job that allows for flexibility to be able to work from outside of my duty station; a privilege many other women do not have.

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

Absolutely! The pandemic has not only kept women and girls on lockdown with abusers and interrupted protection services to ensure their survival and safety, but it has sparked a care crisis with a higher burden on both women and adolescent girls. With a higher number of women in informal, daily or precarious employment, the economic impacts of the pandemic have been hardest on women with limited access to comprehensive social protection programmes. With respect to higher care burdens for women, we also know that adolescent girls have higher burdens of care as they leave their own studies to help brothers and sisters, to help around the house and help to care for ill family members. We know that the risk of child marriage/early unions, early and unwanted pregnancy and violence increases by 9 times when schools are closed, that the digital divide is worse for girls from marginalized groups, interrupting their distance learning – and that when difficult decisions as to which child has access to tablets, mobile phones or internet bandwidth to continue studying on line, girls may not be the first choice. A higher proportion of female health care workers means a higher risk of infection and stigma. These are but a few of the examples of the disproportional impact.

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

How to name women's strengths in this little box? Hmm. Women's strengths are many and include resilience, compassion, leadership, supportive, inspirational, consultative and determined. The advantages of female leadership in the C-19 pandemic is similar to the advantages of female leadership in any decision-making position. Some traits include: they listen and engage in consultative processes, they prioritize work-life balance given their own care burdens, process and not simply result/outcome is prioritized and they understand the ways that discrimination operate as they will all have had to deal with multiple forms of discrimination.

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

Be kind to yourself - we have enough external pressures as women than to impose them on ourselves or each other. When you're tired, take a break. When you cannot take on that additional assignment without working 24 hours/day, say so. Find passion and meaning in your work, without letting work define you. Remember that we are never 'too senior' to learn, and we are never 'too junior' to contribute. Lift-up other women and avoid comparing yourself to a heterosexual male (or any) norm - be You!