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Iverna McGowan

Director at Amnesty International Brussels

Feb 6, 2018, 18 min read

Interview by Sarah Wagner

This week’s featured interview is with Iverna McGowan, Head of the Brussels Office of Amnesty International. In our conversation, we talked about the difficulties of advocating as NGOs, the challenges she faced when she first became a Director, the beauty of living abroad and the significance of education in advancing female empowerment.

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To begin with, tell us a bit about yourself and your responsibilities as Director and Head of the Amnesty International (AI) European Institutions Office.

“I am first and foremost a proud human rights advocate. I have a dual function at Amnesty International; on the one hand I am the Head of Office and on the other hand, I am Europe Advocacy Director. As Head of Office, I am responsible for overall leadership on EU issues, operations including finance, human resources and administration for our some twenty international staff members. Our core EU advocacy team is based here in Brussels, and we have one colleague based in Strasbourg covering the Council of Europe. I am the chief representative for the organization towards both the EU and the Council of Europe, and towards international media on the related topics. Our office plays a central role in that we lead the coordination of our demands in Members States towards the EU. What is challenging is that our small office covers - to use the EU lingo - both justice and home affairs and common foreign and security policy. So, I joke as representative of that that I have almost a presidential-like portfolio covering, work on conflict zones, humanitarian crises, EU position on foreign states’ human rights and on the justice and home affairs side migration, discrimination, hate crime, Roma issues etc.”


Looking at your CV, you seem to have a genuine passion for human rights: you did not only do an LLM in human rights but also held positions working on human rights policy at the UN and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Have you turned a passion into a profession?

“I actually did not always work in human rights. Just under ten years ago, I was a manager in the private sector. In my early twenties, I  was leading a team of ten people. It was definitely a passion and drive to work on questions for the common good that led me to make the career change. I took a break and went on a trip around South America with one of my best friends, which proved to be a life-changing experience. I had always had an interest in human rights, but what I witnessed during my trip around South America and Bolivia in particular really kept me awake at night. As I traveled through the towns, in particular, Potosi, I witnessed the horrible conditions for miners, the severe poverty and the lack of basic health and social insurance. I learned that many of the extracted minerals were being exported around the rest of the world by international companies yielding huge profits. I was shocked by the injustice; the workers were suffering while other people made big profits. I remember one gentleman I spoke to say that statistically speaking, he would not make it to his late 30s either at risk of being killed at work or dying as a result of lung damage because the toxic fumes in the mines were so bad. Many men starting to work in the mine at a young age would die from complications in their early twenties. This, in turn, then often left the younger children in families forced to go work as children in mines as well. All of this really haunted me.

Consequently, when I came back I made a crucial decision. I was grateful for having acquired management and leadership skills but really wanted to turn this passion for fighting injustice I had always had into a job. So, during the subsequent year as a manager, I studied at night to do a conversion to law and went on to do a masters in human rights law. Funny enough, I did my master thesis on the rights of miners in Potosi in Bolivia and the role that international corporations have to play in that industry. Hence, I took both business and human rights with me.”


So, do you think it would be best for everyone to turn a passion into a profession?

“I profoundly believe that if you love what you do you will succeed in doing it. I have seen that again and again. Looking at many friends that have worked in various industries, it really does seem to ring true. If you really find what you are passionate about, the rest will follow and that is really important for happiness as well. I learned that lesson myself. I am sure I could earn a lot more money, have a bigger team etc. in the corporate world but I would not be doing something I really believe in and that makes a fundamental difference.“


I remember, inevitably feeling anxious about the task of leading a team of mostly men at such a young age.


You say you lead a team of ten people in your early 20s. How did you get such responsibility at such a young age? What skills and expertise did you have that made you so valuable to the company?

“Indeed, I was only 24 when first promoted to a managerial position. Looking back there were a number of factors. It was partly being in the right place at the right time, the company needed someone who had prior corporate experience but who could also speak French, English and reasonable Spanish - this was a rare combination to find in Barcelona at that time. From a young age, I had acquired work experience. I helped my father out with his Human Resource business and then also worked on a number of fixed-term contracts at big companies to help fund my studies. I had also undertaken a paid internship in France when I was 20 and so the ability to speak business French fluently as well as being a native English speaker stood in my favor.”   


How did you get this credibility and convince people to believe in you despite your age?

“I must say, especially now looking back with a more mature and profound reflection in particular on the gender elements of taking up a management position, I have to give credit to my hiring manager. He was French and had lived many years in Sweden which I believe seemed to have given him a particularly progressive outlook. I remember, inevitably feeling anxious about the task of leading a team of mostly men at such a young age but he was very encouraging, telling me that age was nothing to do with it and that leadership skills and talent was what counted and what I should focus on.” 


“At times we have internalized prejudices suffering from an ‘imposter syndrome’ or believing others are judging you - you have to try and leave that at the door.”


Has your gender or age ever influenced your voice as Director?

“Absolutely. I think very unfortunately that there is no woman in the world that will tell you that she has not been discriminated against for her race, age or gender at some point. I believe that it was challenging certainly in the early days of leadership, when you could sense other people’s prejudice. I had to be very assertive and bring what I needed to the table. I must say that over time, as my own confidence grew and when people realized the expertise you have irrespective of what prejudice they may have, you can break through this challenge and exert influence. However, it was definitely an obstacle in the beginning.

I remember reading an article in a paper where a woman spoke about this phenomenon of being a female ambassador: When she opened the door for a meeting the person she met would keep looking behind her, assuming that she could not be the Ambassador. You get that a bit in Brussels as well. In the beginning, when I was not known, there were people who could not imagine that the Head of AI could possibly be a relatively young woman. That was definitely something I had to challenge in the beginning. I equally think it's important to reflect not only on the discrimination you face but also on your own privilege. I am very aware that as a white, native English speaker I enjoy privileges which only heightens the responsibility to challenge your own prejudices and those of others.”


“Extensive research has shown that, unfortunately, we are less liked as women just for being leaders."


How did you challenge such behavior? What would advise you can give to younger women facing similar obstacles?

“You really have to focus your energy on the job at hand and think about the extent of responsibility on your shoulders. Sometimes I would sit across the table of some of Europe’s highest ranking or most powerful politicians and I would experience this dynamic of ‘Who is this younger woman talking to me?’. In such situations I would remind myself of the importance of what I had to say, being the bearer of facts and information - accepting that the specific role of speaking truth to power is inherently uncomfortable one. This helped me to channel the message - irrespective of other people’s misconceptions or biases. It is the strength of the message that people cannot argue with. And it is usually important, particularly to younger women, to note that at times we have internalized prejudices suffering from an ‘imposter syndrome’ or believing others are judging you - you have to try and leave that at the door. I’ve also noticed that prejudice often only lasts for the very beginning of a meeting. By not being apologetic about who you are and what you stand for, by taking a seat at the table, you can quickly dispel it.”


Building on that; the rules at work are still predominantly shaped by men. Do you think, in the long run, women have to establish their own rules or rather adapt to the existing ones?

“I think that feminist leadership has a very important role to play. What I mean by that is that many work environments are very patriarchal; there are norms about gender which are not correct. There are even rules based on misperceived gender norms. I do think it is very important - irrespective of gender - for a leader to really challenge those norms and perspectives to envisage a more progressive and modern way of working. To ensure we have the right culture and work environment allowing women to prosper.”


A classic type of a power-hungry leader is just looking into implementing her own agenda, which is really dangerous.


Apropos leader, what is good leadership to you and what is a good manager?

“For a starting point, there is an important difference between a manager and leader. A manager is really good at planning, budgeting, compliance etc. What makes a difference for a leader is the ability to look into and imagine a better future, pave the way for a team, take the right decisions although they are difficult and have the power to inspire change in others by demonstrating the transformative impact change can bring. A good leader listens well and is in tune with the surroundings and can adapt to changes. She also has integrity and really puts the issues above her own ego and focuses on what really matters. A classic type of a power-hungry leader is just looking into implementing her own agenda, which is really dangerous. A real leader really steps above that and puts the causes first, elevates and empowers the team. That is of course also what feminist leadership is about.”

Being transformative and open to change is important to be a good leader but how do you ensure that the people you work with really embrace the change aspired by the leader, who foresees the best for the team in the long run?

“First and foremost, you cannot impose change. You need to start by creating a sense of urgency for why this change is necessary, by showing people the bigger picture, outlining the consequences of what a lack of change would encompass. Once you have envisaged the bigger goal or way you want to go, you need to listen to different team members and stakeholders on what their views are to get there. Imposing change does not work. You need to inspire people that the change is necessary and then empower them to be on the journey with you.”


“Imposing change does not work. You need to inspire people that the change is necessary and then empower them to be on the journey with you.”


Encouraging a team to embrace change is a difficult process. How do you deal with frustration or obstacles you face on the way?

“You will never bring all people with you at all times. Sometimes, as women, we are so socialized to want everyone to like us and our decisions. Indeed, extensive research has shown that, unfortunately, we are less liked as women just for being leaders. But at a certain level of leadership you have to say ‘Ok, we do the best to create the best environment but after all, we will not please everyone at all times’. Listening is also very important putting yourself in the other person's shoes and understanding where the obstacles are coming from. It is enjoyable when you see – telling from my own projects – that some people who were critical in the beginning come on board in the end and appreciate the job done. Because then you can see that you have inspired change even when difficult to do so.”


“A good piece of advice I was given is that I need to focus on managing my energy rather than my time.”


Looking at your CV, you have lived and studied in many countries like France, Spain and the Netherlands. What made you leave home (i.e. Ireland)?

“My parents and grandparents were fantastic advocates of education, especially for women. They saw from a young age that I had an interest in foreign languages and in the world beyond Ireland so they were very supportive – even as a teenager – to help me work and live abroad to get a feel for European affairs and languages on the ground. My grandmother in particular merits to be mentioned here. She was remarkably bright and won a scholarship to study medicine. She would have been one of the youngest female doctors qualified in Ireland at that time. Yet, her father at the time declined to support her going to University but she persisted, driven by her love of medicine to become a nurse. In her father's view, there was no sense in educating women to that level. At the same time, that gave her such a ferocious drive that the women in her family should get the education they wanted and our generation should be educated. My mother and father kept that value going and worked very hard to put a focus on education and provide opportunities. That encouraged me to broaden my horizon and grasp all the opportunities I got.”


Do you think university prepared you well for working life? How should university education change in order to ensure students are ready for “the real world” upon graduation?

“I studied in a few different institutions; at Trinity College in Dublin, Science Po in France and I did my Master in Maastricht, the Netherlands. The systems were all very different and obviously, there are pros and cons for all systems. One of the things I profoundly appreciate in Trinity – actually more now in retrospect than I did at the time – was to learn thinking critically. It was really difficult because they left us to study really difficult philosophical texts and then asked our opinions, which provided you with a useful tool for life; an ability to see things critically and analytically. This is important as it is not a skill that people immediately label as important for joining the workforce but it is profoundly important not just for work but for our lives as informed citizens in general.

In Maastricht, I appreciated their hands-on approach, the Problem Based Learning*, which was very practical and really prepared you for real life legal cases and scenarios. Having enjoyed both of these systems, I think it would be good if they learned from one another in some way. Older, more traditional universities could be more practical and the newer universities could bring more of this critical thinking into their education. That would be my ideal mix.”


*Problem-Based Learning (PBL) offers you a different way of learning from traditional university education. You work in small tutorial groups, engage in hands-on training and attend few lectures. Under the supervision of a tutor, you team up with ten to fifteen students to tackle real-life challenges. PBL is an active way of learning that shall help increase the retention of knowledge, enhance the motivation of students and encourage them to develop skills that are essential for the labor market in the 21st century. See here for more information.


It is now the end of the year. Do you have any goals for 2018? Do you usually plan a lot ahead?

“For AI, it is clear that we are living through very challenging times for human rights (HR). HR defenders globally are under attack. Just yesterday, I saw the UN high commissioner said that he is not willing to take up another term because it is such a difficult time for HR advocacy at the moment. So for AI, it is clear that we need to focus on HR defenders, going back to the basics and explaining why HR are so important. To a certain extent, this has gotten a bit lost in the conversation over the past years. For example, we should remind people that counter-terrorism laws should matter to everyone because if anybody’s right to be innocent until proven guilty is no longer there, all of our rights are at risk. HR are very important because we all have a right to protest and question and hold our institutions accountable. It was remarkable that the Commission recently proposed to the Council to adopt a decision against Poland under Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union. These issues are very close to home now, practically at our doorstep and hence, I do think AI has to return to telling that basic story of why HR are so important to society.

On a personal level, I recently got married, and we are looking forward to moving into a new home early next year. I guess it is also important to make sure that despite the huge responsibilities I have, or particularly because of them, I keep a good work-life balance. I do think good leaders are also able to strike that balance, how can you credible lead a time in such challenging times if you yourself are too exhausted? You need to have that contact with the outside normal world and should be well rested to pick those fights and to be creative and innovative for the future.”


*Recent judicial reforms in Poland have put the country’s judiciary under the political control of the ruling party. In the absence of judicial independence, the European Commission questions the effective application of EU law and concluded that there was a serious risk of breach of law in Poland. See here for more information.


How do you achieve a sustainable work-life balance?

“A good piece of advice I was given is I need to focus on managing my energy rather than my time. Working at AI is sometimes a bit like working in a newsroom:  we have to be ready to respond immediately. So, what is really important is to value your own time when you have it and be strategic, prioritize what you are doing at work and don’t let it spill over too much. Physical well being is very important in managing stress and overload.  I go to the gym several times per week to keep my mind on other things and feel energized. It is a constant challenge. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. I think it is really something you must look at week by week and determine what is the best way.”


“You don’t have to be perfect. Having enough knowledge is really sufficient very often.”


You became the Director of the AI Brussels office at a relatively young age. What are your ambitions for the future? How to you continue growing and challenging yourself?

“Irrespective of what roles I will assume in the future, for me, the fundamental mission of standing up for someone’s rights will always remain: justice, freedom, equality are really important to me. That will always be an essential theme of my mission. I also passionately believe in paying it back. For example, I did face a lot of obstacles in the beginning because of my gender and age and I feel it is important to empower other women going forward and to create the work environment they deserve through feminist leadership. To make sure that it is not so difficult for the next generation.

Regarding your second question, every so often you need to ask yourself what you want and what you have achieved already. Let me give you the following example: In the beginning of the interview, we talked about the difference between management and leadership. So, two years ago, I really would have challenged myself by confirming that I had acquired the right skills to be a good manager while questioning what else I needed and what type of support I needed to become a really good leader. It is extremely important to stay motivated, engaged and learn from what is going on around you, take on new projects and challenge yourself. We try to create a culture in our office to encourage regular feedback at AI about strengths and weaknesses, which helps us all to improve and grow. It is important to be open for feedback.”


What would be your advice to other women for embracing work life, while feeling challenged and happy?

“I guess, looking back, I would tell my younger self to believe more in myself and to be more confident. I think often we are filled with doubt that we are not perfect at doing a job, we need to have x and y qualification to do something. You don’t have to be perfect. Having enough knowledge and self-belief is really sufficient very often. Secondly, don’t be afraid to take risks, push your limits and reach a bit higher. It always seems more daunting when you apply for a job than when you actually do it. Your comfort zones expand very quickly, actually.”


Thank you for the interview, Iverna!


Watch Iverna in action here.


Her life


Iverna is the Head of Amnesty International’s (AI) European Institutions Office, heading up the organization’s work towards the European Union and the Council of Europe. She has been with the organization for six years and led her team through dealing with the EU’s response to major human rights crisis including the global refugee crisis and the situations in Myanmar, Central African Republic and Syria to name but a few. She was recognized by POLITICO as being one of the top 20 women who influence policy and politics in Brussels in 2017. She sits on the European Board of Transparency International, and is also on the Advisory Panel to the EU’s Agency on Fundamental Rights. In 2009 Iverna left a managerial position in the private sector to pursue a career in human rights and took up an internship with the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. After this and before joining Amnesty, she worked as a legal researcher for the United Nations Committee on ending all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), she also worked as a human rights desk officer with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s graduate programme. She graduated as a Top 3% Scholar from her Masters of Law (LL.M) from the European Law School of the University of Maastricht where she studied international and regional human rights law, she also holds a B.A. in European Studies from Trinity College Dublin, and a diploma in International Relations from SciencesPo Grenoble France. She has acted as Amnesty International’s global spokesperson on EU and European Foreign Affairs for many years and is a frequent contributor to programmes on CNN, BBC, EuroNews, Reuters and AP.

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