Home Featured WTO’s first female leader wants to help world’s women to thrive

WTO’s first female leader wants to help world’s women to thrive

WTO’s first female leader wants to help world’s women to thrive
From left to right: Women Business Collaborative CEO Gwen K. Young, Director of the United States Trade and Development Agency Enoh Ebong, Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and U.S. Export-Import Bank President and Chair of the Board Reta Jo Lewis during an award ceremony honoring Dr. Okonjo-Iweala in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 12, 2024. (Sardari Group Inc Media)

When Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was interviewing to become the first woman – and first African – to lead the World Trade Organization, she told the hiring committee that breaking through that glass ceiling wasn’t what motivated her to apply for the job.

“I was a little bit cheeky,” Okonjo-Iweala, who was also Nigeria’s first female finance minister, said at a Jan. 12 event in Washington hosted by the Women Business Collaborative, where she received the 2024 Trailblazer in Gender Equity and Diversity award.

“I said, ‘It’s nice to know I will be the first woman and the first African, but that’s not my motivation. The organization needs a competent leader. It needs a lot of reforms, and that’s what you should be looking for.’”

She doesn’t want women to be hired because they’re women, but because they are the best person for the job, she said.

Okonjo-Iweala got the job and started leading the WTO on March 1, 2021. The world was in the middle of the COVID pandemic, which not only claimed millions of lives but also affected supply lines and global transportation.

The Trailblazer in Gender Equity and Diversity award recognizes individuals who implement change that helps their community and the world. (Sardari Group Inc. Media)

The WBC’s Trailblazer in Gender Equity and Diversity award recognizes individuals who implement change that helps their community and the world. Presenting the award to Okonjo-Iweala, Women Business Collaborative CEO Gwen Young said, “You’ve helped get the global economy back on track. You’ve expanded the global economy by making it more inclusive.”

Easier access to finance, fewer constraints

During a panel discussion featuring Okonjo-Iweala, Young, U.S. Export-Import Bank President Reta Jo Lewis, and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency Director Enoh Ebong,  the WTO director-general was asked how the trade body is helping to expand opportunities for women.

Working with the International Trade Center, it’s improving women’s access to finance and removing supply side constraints they face, she said.

It’s teaching women in developing countries about the quality standards they have to meet to sell their goods on the international market, and seeking to scale up women-owned businesses’ involvement in trade so that they move from “a small group of women here, a small group there and it’s successful” to even greater success.

“We’re aiming to raise a $50 million fund to scale the actions of our sister organization. the ITC, in terms of helping women who are trading digitally, expand their businesses, and remove obstacles in their way,” she said. “I hope to raise this by the end of February when we have our 30th ministerial in Abu Dhabi.”

Another area that Okonjo-Iweala is focused on is climate change and international trade’s role in it.

“I’m one of those who believes very strongly that climate change is an existential threat, and we’ve got to fight it,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

“Most people think of trade as part of the problem because of the emissions,” she said.

International trade has grown more than 27-fold in volume since 1950, according to the WTO. Goods that are traded have to be transported from one country to another, and most of the energy used to move those goods comes from fossil fuels. This makes trade a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Okonjo-Iweala urged the audience to look at trade from a different angle and ask what positive roles it can play in the fight against climate change. She also urged them to promote opportunities for women in global trade.

World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala holds up a WTO report that examines trade policies governments could consider to fight climate change. (Samjith Palakkool/UNCTAD)

“If they are (digitally) connected, they can reach out to the world and sell their goods and services,” she said, noting that digital and universal services trade are two areas of trade that are experiencing rapid growth.

The panel also discussed the need to continue elevating women into leadership roles, include them in global infrastructure projects, and integrate them into value and supply chains to advance equality.

Attention also has to be paid to closing a financing gap that still exists for women versus their male counterparts, they said.

“We need to work together to reimagine what trade can and should look like to ensure a prosperous, inclusive global trade environment for everyone,” said Young. “A reimagined trade approach must include women – women in leadership, women as part of value chains, women as part of the workforce, women in government.”



Karin Zeitvogel

Karin Zeitvogel started her journalism career at the BBC World Service and has worked since then for international media outlets and organizations including Agence France-Presse, U.N. agencies, Voice of America, RIA Novosti and the National Institutes of Health. She's lived in nine countries, speaks fluent French and German, good Spanish and a smattering of other languages.