Photo: Ambassador Geeta Rao Gupta

Ambassador Geeta Rao Gupta on advocating for women during times of pushback

Picture this: you're the United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues in a post Covid era where climate change looms large, and we're heading into a Biden-Trump Presidential election. Now meet the woman for who this is true: Dr Geeta Rao Gupta.

Coming up to one year in the role of United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, the stakes are high for Dr Geeta Rao Gupta.

The 68-year-old, who was born and brought up in India before moving to the US in the mid 1980s, was sworn into the position by President Joe Biden last May. Not only is she making history as a South Asian woman, but the weight of her role only seems greater in a global climate where women’s issues just simply can’t be ignored. 

The Office of Global Women’s Issues has three policy priorities – women’s peace and security, economic security and opportunity, and gender-based violence. 

“Obviously, the three intersect with each other and climate change affects them all,” Dr Gupta tells Missing Perspectives. “In all three of them, we have such a long way to go still. So, there's plenty to keep me awake at night… but the big troubling piece right now is the lack of progress.” 

Dr Gupta’s perception of gender equality has evolved since her days studying social psychology at Bangalore University. 

“At the beginning of my career, it was equality between women and men, which meant equality of opportunity and equality of outcome,” she reflects. “Since then… we've shifted. The understanding of it is equality is the outcome, and equity is the means to that outcome. So, equity is about the opportunity, and equality is the outcome.

“Now, gender equality is also not just a binary,” she adds. “It’s intersectional, so it’s equality for all women in all their diversity. So, my office’s mandate is to advance gender equality for women in all their diversity.” 

Speaking of her formative years, Gupta says she grew up in a “very progressive” family in India where her parents were an interfaith love match, not an arranged marriage. Her mother’s from the Bene Israeli Jewish community from Bombay, while her father’s a Hindu from Karnataka in South India. Growing up, she watched her mum work full time, and her grandmother was also a full-time working mum.

“So I’m a third generation employed outside the home,” she proudly smiles. “There's been absolutely no question about women having all the opportunities they want to have.” 

This was a stark contrast to the rampant gender inequality that she became more fully aware of once going to university. 

“I didn't notice them when growing up within the family,” she says. “But when I went to college and started realising that girls my age were discussing with their parents how to have an arranged marriage, and whether education was necessary, it came as a shock to me that that was the reality out there.” 

Being exposed to this reality was a turning point for Gupta. Not only did she recognise the gender inequality, but she discovered the means to better understand what exacerbates the problem, and what can be examined further to help address it. 

“India is also home to incredibly inspiring intellectuals, feminists, and a robust women's movement. There are very sophisticated women's organisations, and so interacting with them and being part of the women's movement in India at a young age, I learned a lot about the advocacy that’s effective,” she explains.

“One of the lessons that I learned from senior researchers at that time who were documenting the inequalities between women and men, and writing about it, was that data fuelled the advocacy in a more effective way.” 

Basically, numbers wake people up – an idea supported by MIT data scientists Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren Klein in their highly collaborative 2020 book Data Feminism. In fact, that’s often step one of even being able to paint a clear picture of what’s going on - be it women’s health, financial empowerment, or political representation. Step two is working out how to generate change off the back of that. 

This insight is what drove her to do a PhD in social psychology. Initially, while doing her undergraduate degree in psychology, Dr Gupta says she “she genuinely believed” that the unfair treatment of women “was a pathology”. 

“That this way in which women were treated, the fact that so many more women were poor and yet had to handle all these responsibilities with almost nothing, made me believe that this was a pathology,” she explains, “and so I chose clinical psychology and was a counsellor for a while”. 

After quickly learning that a psychology lens failed to adequately account for structural and systemic issues, as opposed to individual-centric problems, she did a PhD that delved into the “role conflicts” that women faced in India, especially at a time when women were just emerging in the service sector in India. 

“I was trying to understand what’s the conflict between home and work and how do we resolve that … and all of that is still relevant today.” 

It’s been more than three decades since Dr Gupta’s been based in the US after moving there when her husband landed a job in the 1980s. She’s gone on to serve as Deputy Executive Director, Programmes at UNICEF, as a Senior Fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as President of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) amongst other roles. 

“My theory of change has evolved over the last 40 years of being in this field,” she reflects. “Currently, I believe that there's no one way to do this, that it needs us to do many things simultaneously.” 

Dr Gupta explains that political will, adequate structures and policies, resources, and a community mobilising action are all essential elements to driving change in this space. 

Representation of women in leadership roles – across public life, in boardrooms and at different levels of society – is a key piece of the puzzle in Dr Gupta’s eyes. She mentions the notion of critical mass, whereby “the representation of women in positions of leadership is necessary but not sufficient unless there's critical mass”. 

“It doesn't mean that every single woman is an excellent leader and will do the right thing for gender equality, but it does mean that if you have lots of women in lots of positions of decision making, that critical mass begins to shift the norm.” 

Ideally, it should be 50%, as Dr Gupta highlights, before adding that “at one third at least, you can begin to see a change – it’s the beginning of a domino effect”. 

There are pockets of pushback, however. Dr Gupta describes a current climate of “almost a conservative, well-planned effort to push back progress that's been made in the past, in addition to COVID and climate change and conflicts all of the the world we live in today”. 

“What keeps me awake at night is the fact that there are elements out there that are pushing back, and I'm sure it's born out of fear,” she says. “And it comes out of intent as well to undermine democracies, to undermine human rights. 

“And so we are conscious of that as we move our work forward. And I'm trying to look at what are the barriers that stand in the way of progress.”

Moving forward, Dr Gupta finds strength in building key relationships with like-minded governments, local organisations, and business leaders. She aims to lead with integrity and kindness.

In Australia, she shouts out the eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant, who is pushing back on the libertarian “free speech” crowd with efforts to get platforms to consider the real harms stemming from violent content published on the like of X, TikTok, Instagram and more, and the Australian Ambassador for Gender Equality Stephanie Copus Campbell, who has spoken publicly about her observations that “we are going backwards worldwide” on gender equality. 

For whatever reasons, there is a need to constantly re-litigate the point that patriarchy shapes women’s lives and opportunities around the world. The recent rallies in Australia protesting men’s violence towards women - in a liberal democracy no less - is case in point.

How that plays out varies on whether or not you’re in the United States, India, or Australia - but Dr Gupta is well placed to tie many of those complex threads together, and generate change from her place in Washington DC.