The appointment of Nigeria’s Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the new head of the WTO has been greeted with racist and sexist reporting while ignoring or downplaying her qualifications.
Okonjo-Iweala became the first woman and the first African to lead the organisation earlier this month after the US government dropped the Trump administration’s veto.
Okonjo-Iweala’s educational background – graduate of Harvard University and PhD at MIT University and her professional background as a World Bank insider where she spent 25 years rising to the number two position, has taken a back seat amongst some of the coverage around her appointment particularly in the West.
Supporters of Okonjo-Iweala at the United Nations condemned the “offensive, sexist and racist” headlines on her appointment “in a world where both public and private sector leadership is dominated by ageing Caucasian men.” Adding that often the men’s experience and skill was held up rather than their background.
The comments follow the headline in some Swiss press which read “This Grandmother will become the new boss of WTO.”
The article went on to add that “There are still doubts about the qualifications about the mother of four and grandmother.”
The Swiss daily, later amended the headline following worldwide backlash and condemnation and apologised for their ‘indiscretion’.
While Okonjo-Iweala is indeed a grandmother, commentators, however, took exception to a characterisation that seemed to underplay her substantial career and academic achievements that wouldn’t have otherwise been made towards a man in a similar position.
The amended headline later read “This 66-year-old Nigerian becomes the new head of the World Trade Organization.”
One social media user pointed out that “What would you think if you wrote about Biden ‘this grandfather will be US President’? Adding that the newspapers should respect Okonjo-Iweala.
In a statement following the outcry, the Swiss paper said “Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman to head the World Trade Organization. We presented the 66-year-old economist and former World Bank deputy head in a portrait and focused on her role as a grandmother in the title. That was wrong.”
The Swiss newspaper was one of several to downplay Okonjo-Iweala’s qualifications for the job using similar descriptions.
Another online user said of the reporting that “This is really a disgrace! That a person at the age of 66 already has grandchildren is really not worth mentioning.”
Okonjo-Iweala takes over at the WTO as national governments struggle to contain the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a statement accepting her appointment, the economist said in her acceptance speech “A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again.”
Okonjo-Iweala also noted that the “WTO was already facing acute challenges before COVID-19,” issues that have only been amplified by the pandemic.
The former Trump administration’s tariff wars against China and Europe had already caused considerable harm to the trading order, challenges that the chief of the WTO will have to contend with.