Katja Iversen is the President and CEO of Women Deliver, a leading global advocate for investment in gender equality and the health, rights, and well-being of girls and women, with a specific focus on maternal, sexual and reproductive health and rights. She is an internationally recognized expert on development, advocacy and communications, with more than 25 years of experience working in NGOs, corporations and United Nation agencies, including UNICEF, where she held the position as Chief of Strategic Communication and Public Advocacy. She has counseled and trained multiple Fortune 500 executives on cross cultural management and cross cultural communication. Katja is a member of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s G7 Gender Equality Council, and was recently named in the top 10 of Apolitical’s Top 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy.
Can you start by describing what Women Deliver does, and what your role is there?
Women Deliver is a global advocacy organization. We started with maternal health, and women’s right not to die in childbirth, and what could prevent that. Today our mandate is much broader. We advocate for gender equality and the health, rights, and well-being of girls and women, including their ability to have control over their own bodies. We do it by driving specific investments that benefit women and girls, whether it’s economic, political or programmatic. We aim to show how the world — and everybody — wins when we invest in girls and women. That is what research shows, and that is what we know.
I have been involved in Women Deliver since the first Women Deliver conference in 2007, when the organization was established. I was at UNICEF at that time, but I became an adviser to the founder, and then at some point she came to me and said, “I want you to take over.” After a couple of those conversations, I said yes. That was four years ago. For me, working on girls’ and women’s health and rights, and really investing in women’s opportunities at all levels, is so key if we want to make the world a better place. I’m motivated to make change happen in the world, to create a more fair world, and a better world for all – that’s what gets me up and what makes me happy every day.
When did you realize your passion for these issues?
My grandmother played a big role. She was a remarkable woman: quiet, fierce, smart, wonderful, hardworking. She was born at the start of the last century, and so when she was growing up, there were not a lot of opportunities for her. After a couple of years of sporadic schooling, she was sent out to work as a maid, so that her brother could get an education. She worked seven days a week to get my granddad through college, and they knew, both of them, that one of them had to get an education, which meant that she couldn’t get pregnant. That was when her work in reproductive health and unmarried women’s access to contraception started. And that has always inspired me. The day I graduated college she cried tears of joy and asked me to go and do good in the world. So she’s my yardstick that change is possible. While I can’t say I always knew I would be in this line of work, I think the rights of women to have access to reproductive health, the need for education, economic freedom, to have your own room, as Virginia Woolf said, has always been important in my life. I was also lucky to be born in a country where women’s rights and women’s opportunities are treasured and invested in.
“Believe in yourself, and never stop dreaming. You have every right to be there and every right to be successful.”
Do you have any ideas on how corporations who aren’t necessarily focused on these issues can still make an impact and make a difference?
Companies should look at their own leadership – how are they being run? We know from experience that companies with more diversity and more women fare better, make more money, so it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the sound thing to do. So, invest in women’s leadership but also in supply chains. Invest and buy from female suppliers. You also can’t forget that you can’t be what you can’t see. If we look at a lot of marketing today, we see how women are depicted and how gender norms are shaped. If we only see scantily clad women, or women playing just secondary roles, or women only buying the washing powder, that is not facilitating a more equal society. It’s really important that companies invest in un-stereotyping. Why does it always have to be pink if it’s a girl and blue if it’s a boy? Why do the girls have to play with dolls and the boys get the engineer sets where they can build the machines? Stereotyping happens so early and continues through life. So, every corporation has a lot to do, both in terms of hiring and providing proper working conditions, whether it’s childcare, parental leave, or equal pay, but also in the ways they depict themselves and their products to the broader world. We work with a lot of corporations to make that happen, but we also work with companies or institutions to do research on this so that we have a bigger evidence base and a stronger case. And I always find the figures so astounding. The McKenzie Group conducted a big study on what the world would look like if we had gender equality in the workplace, and the world stands to gain $28 trillion US dollars, or 26% added to the annual GDP. That’s not pocket change. That is roughly the size of the combined US and Chinese economies.
Complete this sentence: “We support women and girls when we…”
We support women and girls when we invest in their health, rights, and well-being, including their ability to decide on their own bodies and their fertility. That is the bedrock of power and privilege for all. That is the bedrock of gender equality and prosperous societies. How many of us women in leadership positions today would be here if we couldn’t have access to modern contraception?
What would you tell young women and girls who have not yet started their post-secondary education or career who want to follow in your footsteps?
This is a very formative age. It’s an age when self-esteem and self-doubt can really set in. So, my message to the girl who wants to follow in my footsteps or in just making it and living her full life, would be: work hard, step up, speak up, don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, believe in yourself, and never stop dreaming. You have every right to be there and every right to be successful.