IFAD VP: Career success isn't a mystery, it's hard work

Josefina Stubbs with President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic. Stubbs joined the International Fund for Agriculture Development in 2008 as regional director for Latin America. Photo by: PresidenciaRD / CC BY-NC-ND

Josefina Stubbs has lived “too many lives,” she joked with Devex, though her continued passion for development work suggests she’s just getting started.

Hailing from the Dominican Republic, where she began working with smallholder farmers in the coffee sector more than 30 years ago, she then spent 16 years at Oxfam International and 11 years at the World Bank. Stubbs is now one of two associate vice presidents at the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a specialized United Nations agency.

Appointed in Oct. 2014 as VP and chief development strategist, Stubbs describes herself as a “passionate development worker” who firmly believes that everybody should have the same opportunities she had and whose objective is to “permanently remind the world that it cannot live without the rural sector.”

Stubbs joined IFAD in 2008 as regional director for Latin America and doesn’t regret having left Washington, D.C., noting the “incredible position” that her agency enjoys.

“We have the resources to get to people that really need them; we have the instruments that many other international financing institutions have; and we work under the umbrella of the U.N. What else do we want to have?” she said. “We work with the people there, we have the money to do it and we have the ears of the world on what we do.”

A political scientist by training, Stubbs is shaped by the belief that “everything we do, every day, should contribute to a better world.”

In an exclusive interview at IFAD’s headquarters in Rome, she shared with Devex some of the challenges women face to rise through the ranks to assume leadership positions within global development organizations, as well as key lessons learned during her own career.

Below are several excerpts from that conversation:    

You are one of just a few women in such a high-profile leadership role at IFAD. What does it mean to you to be a woman in that position? What are the challenges you face and how do you overcome them?

I haven’t thought about that since I took this post. I’ve been so busy that I just need to see that we achieve the objectives that we have. Certainly, when I came to IFAD in 2008 there were only two women as regional directors — myself and one for the Middle East.

I have to say that coming from Washington, D.C. and from Oxfam before that, IFAD was lagging a little bit behind compared to other agencies, but we have seen a very fast move in terms of commitment to having women in decision-making positions. Since he came in during 2009 as IFAD president, Kanayo Nwanze has personally made enormous efforts and we even won an award for gender inclusion, not only in our projects — which you see by loan regulations and by procedures that half of all beneficiaries have to be women — but also in terms of internal HR and the distribution of posts. We have made a lot of progress, although there is more to do ...

What does it mean to be a woman? First of all, we are at the table — we don’t ask for permission. We have to assume our responsibility to be equal. Nobody is going to give it to you, you have to exercise your responsibility of being equal. We work hard, probably a little bit harder … I don’t want to be different — I hope I am not different — but I know that others understand that I am different. We have to work to have our presence recognized and work to educate others …

What are the lessons you have learned as a woman in your career, in achieving your goals and rising to a leadership position? And what would you have done differently?

First lesson: Be yourself, always. Be truthful to yourself and to your principles, to what you think, because at the end of the day, it’s about being passionate in what you do. If you are not yourself, you cannot find the passion and fire that really moves you to achieve what you want to achieve.

Second lesson: Lean in. Don't sit at the back of the room waiting for someone to invite you to sit at the table. If you have things to say — and we always have something to say — be there, be heard and don’t be afraid.

Third lesson: Work with others so that they can understand that you are prepared to collaborate ... It is not enough to go off into a corner saying “because I am a woman I am discriminated against.” No. Reach out, work with people, talk to them so they know where you’re coming from and they’ll understand.

What are the challenges? We have to manage too many things at once: the family, the household, our own life. Sometimes we really need to work with our colleagues, with our partners and with our families to really assume some of the many responsibilities that, by default, have been unfairly assigned to women. We [need] time for ourselves and that is the biggest struggle that we women all have.

And so what advice, what recommendations would you give to women wanting to build a career within an agency like IFAD or a development organization?

There’s no mystery. Just work, follow you heart and be there. Don’t put yourself aside. Don't think “because I am a woman.” ... Just be there, with confidence, with assertiveness, with kindness, with love — and people will recognize you.

What can women bring to an organization like IFAD?

We bring something that, I believe, our male colleagues can’t develop — a sense of wholeness. That sense of wholeness, being aware of others, even means letting yourself be guided by intuition, listening to others. I think that we women have the capacity to listen, [which] is not only listening to words, but listening to how much your staff is working and acting accordingly: I want a work-life balance and I also want that for my staff. So listen in an active way, recognize others in an active way. And do your job, delivering the best you can. There are no secrets, that's it. Just do it. Take the power of doing it. That’s what makes us powerful.

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About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.