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International Women's Day Portrait: Jennifer Blanke

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On the occasion of International Women’s Day, March 8, we shine a spotlight on eight women plus one – the Director of Gender, Women and Civil Society – who are making a difference at the African Development Bank. This is the second in the series.

Interview with Jennifer Blanke, Vice-President Agriculture, Human and Social Development

First, please introduce yourself by sharing an anecdote or an experience, personal or professional, that has made you who you are today.

I grew up in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. As some might recall, at that time the city was quite a bit rougher than it is today, and you didn’t even need to leave the city’s five boroughs to witness enormous economic inequalities. Alarmingly, the richest congressional district in the entire US at the time (covering parts of the Upper East Side) sat just a few subway stops from the country’s poorest congressional district (encompassing the South Bronx, where my father worked and I visited regularly). As a young person, I found it almost incomprehensible how people could live so close and yet so far from each other in so many ways. I’ve often thought that witnessing such stark contrasts at a young age was one of the experiences that led me to a fascination with development, inequality, and the forces driving them. The question that still keeps me up at night is this: in a world where the technology and knowhow exists for great prosperity and opportunity, why do so many still live in poverty and despair? This needs to change.

In your view, would you say being a woman has been an obstacle or an advantage in the evolution of your career?

My parents always told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be in my life, and with their unwavering support, I never questioned whether my gender would hold me back. On the other hand, it is true that I had few female role models or mentors to look up to throughout my professional life. And given that I have gone into a relatively male-dominated field, I have often found myself as the only woman on the panel, one of the only women in the room. This is starting to change, but not quickly enough, since we all know that diversity of perspectives of all sorts makes for better debates and decision-making.

What does March 8th mean for you? In your view, should every day be International Women’s Day?

I look at this from a socioeconomic perspective. The bottom line is that women make up just over 50% of the world’s talent, and if they are not able to fully contribute to society and the economy, then we are shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot. I don’t know whether every day should be International Women’s Day, but every day, women everywhere should be in a position to contribute to the fullest and to hold up their half of the world. We need all of the world’s hands and brains working to address the great challenges we face.

What advice or words of wisdom would you give young women who would like to learn from your career and follow in your footsteps?

One thing that I would say is to make sure that you build good support networks. As you move up in organizations, the air gets thinner and the going gets tougher, and you need to have trusted friends and colleagues you can go to for advice and support. And sometimes you need to build elements of this from scratch. For example, when I lived in Geneva, I created a “lean in” group with a small group of wonderful women. We would regularly get together to listen to each other’s opportunities and challenges and give each other advice and support. And sometimes we would meet up just to have a nice chat. I don’t live there anymore, but the group still meets regularly and I try to see them whenever I pass through town.

And in terms of learning from my career experience, it always makes me smile when people ask me how I have “managed” my career. The truth is that – as the great John Lennon said – life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. You do need to have a plan, but you also need to be prepared to shift gears as it takes various alternative paths, as careers – and lives – inevitably will. And as other personal responsibilities arise, like having children or providing care for other family members. I think the most important thing is to do work that you are passionate about, and to step up to opportunities that come your way. Then things tend to fall into place. And don’t hold yourself back because you think that you might not be able to do things perfectly. Women are often perfectionists. But the world doesn’t need perfect leaders – it needs passionate leaders who care about building a better future for us all. We need more women at the top contributing their passion and brains to make this happen.

"Vice President Blanke is part of AfDB's Blog Team. You can follow her Economic Growth, Human and Social Development updates by clicking here."

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