“Women often have an easier time checking their ego at the door and just getting things done”

Kim Ghattas Rewriting The Code

Barriers to education, Girls' education, International Women's Day, Technology and education

Theirworld is marking International Women’s Day 2017 on March 8 by talking to inspiring women from across the globe. Read the full series here.

Kim Ghattas is a BBC journalist who is based in Washington, DC, and covers international affairs. Born in Beirut, her 15 years as a journalist has included writing about the Middle East and American foreign policy.

Kim is on the Board of Trustees of the American University of Beirut. She is also the author of The Secretary – an inside account of Hillary Clinton’s time as US Secretary of State. It includes her own experiences of growing up in war-torn Lebanon.

Who inspired you when you were younger? And who inspires you now?

My father – even though I probably didn’t know it at the time. He had a calm inner strength, boundless optimism, an unfailing belief in people’s goodness and never seemed daunted by any obstacles – sometimes I wonder if he even saw them. 

Nothing ever seemed to give him pause and, if it did, he didn’t speak about it. That gave me the same belief that anything could be possible, if I just put my mind to it and worked on it: becoming a journalist, a foreign correspondent in Beirut, moving to the US to be the BBC State Department correspondent, writing a book about Hillary Clinton… me! A kid from Beirut! 

I have doubts and insecurities like anyone, but I always think: well, why not? Most of all my dad never indicated that any route was closed to me because I was a girl, and I realise now that, for a man born in the 1930s in a rural area of Lebanon, this was somewhat unusual and rather special. 

Today I am inspired not by one specific or famous person but by the multitude of people in my everyday life. Friends and others, who each do their bit to help make the world a better, fairer, kinder place and who persevere no matter what, in ways small and big…

A successful CEO friend who also runs summer camps for disabled kids, the young Syrian activists who risked their lives in Raqqa and elsewhere to tell the story of their country, the mailman who does his rounds with a smile and a kind word every time he sees me…

Gaspar Marcos, the young unaccompanied migrant student in LA, whose story was told in a brilliant video, who studies by day and works all night to build a better life…

Or the three extraordinary African-American women, featured in the film Hidden Figures, whose brilliant brains helped turn around NASA’s flailing space programme in the mid-1960s. They didn’t let gender or race get in their way.

What challenges did you have to overcome to get where you are today? 

I grew up in a civil war, in Beirut, and we lived on the front lines of the conflict. The first 13 years of my life were spent mostly in bomb shelters, screaming in fear and dodging sniper fire on the way to school, or missing school altogether for months. 

There were normal days, when we went for Sunday lunch or the occasional play date, but mostly it was war. 

I didn’t necessarily see it as a challenge that I needed to overcome – we just got on with our lives, the same way most Lebanese did but it was a challenge to believe in a better future. 

For my parents it was, of course, also a challenge to keep us all alive and set us up for a good life. War scars you forever, it never leaves you, it becomes imprinted in your DNA and you never really know how much of what you are and what you do has been shaped by those events. 

But I draw strength from it too. Living through war made me want to become a journalist and my past keeps me grounded today, whether I’m interviewing a president or a refugee.

What’s the best advice someone has ever given you? And what advice do you have for young girls and women? 

As a teenager I wanted to blend in, be cool, dress like other girls. I wasn’t a nerd or dressed funny but I stood out in my class because I was a bit more serious, more measured or mature for my age. 

We went shopping once and I wanted to buy some awful yellow neon-coloured T-shirt, which was all the rage in the 1980s, to fit in. 

I was with my sister, who’s 10 years older than me, and she said to me: “Why do you want to fit in? Why do you want to be like everyone else? Just be yourself, be you.” 

It was very simple fashion advice but it was about much more than that too, and I think of it often. It’s not about wanting to purposely stand out by being different, but about accepting yourself and believing that we all have a special something we bring to the table that makes us unique, and recognising that. 

So that would be my advice to girls and women today: be you and believe in your ideas, your creativity, your talent, recognise what is unique to you, make it your inner strength and stand out with your smarts and skills.

What has been your biggest achievement in life so far?

Writing a book. This was the most exhausting, intellectually challenging, rewarding undertaking I could have imagined. 

Travelling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then writing a book not just about her diplomacy but also about foreign policy generally and the concept of American power, in a way that was accessible and readable to people around me, not just policy wonks, it was both daunting and exhilarating. 

So many people told me: it’s hard to get a book deal, it’s hard to get published, Clinton won’t speak to you, you won’t get good enough access, you can’t write the book the way you envision it (it was also partly a personal memoir), you’ll never finish in time… 

I just kept at it, thinking “well why not?!” So I pulled it off, I was signed on by a big publisher in New York City and I even made the New York Times bestseller list. I enjoyed it so much, I’m embarking on another book project.

What skills or attributes do you think women bring to the workplace?

Women can be more collaborative and inclusive in their approach to work or peace-building.

They’re usually better multi-taskers and I think they often have an easier time checking their ego at the door and just getting things done. 

But I did not grow up in an environment where gender differences were emphasised, where women were made to feel lesser, better or different – and that may be very particular to my family and immediate social circle, since women’s rights are a serious concern in the Arab world.

But as a consequence I look at every person and their attributes independently of gender – some men have more empathy than women I know, some of my girlfriends have way more guts than men I know, I’ve come across women who have not an ounce of compassion for others, or guys  who can’t do maths. 

So I don’t like to stereotype in either direction, and I think that’s the best way to “rewrite the code”: to get to a point where we don’t think in terms of gender anymore but look at each person and their personal qualities, attributes and talent.

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