Inaugural class of Gender Champions at the launch of Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy in November 2018, Washington, DC

Gender Champions

Across the United States, the rallying cry for gender equality and women’s empowerment is getting louder.

By Ambassador Pamela Hamamoto and Ambassador Laura Holgate

“The meaningful inclusion of women in decisionmaking increases effectiveness and productivity, brings new perspectives and solutions to the table, unlocks greater resources and strengthens efforts across all the three pillars of our work.” 1

– United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres (inaugural member of the International Gender Champions leadership network)

The Women’s March, Jan. 21, 2017, the largest single-day protest in US history, drew millions of people to the streets to advocate for women’s rights, reproductive rights and other important social issues and has inspired a heightened level of activism for gender equality that continues to generate momentum to this day. The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault quickly went viral in 2017 as further evidence of the growing outrage felt around the world about the continued widespread mistreatment of women.2 Inspired by this movement, more than 200 women diplomats (including us both) civil servants and others who worked on national security for the US, signed an open letter stating they had survived sexual harassment or assault or knew someone who had experienced it, and called for stronger reporting, training and data collection.3 All of this begs the question: What can leaders do to address such a deep-rooted problem? Below are our stories of how we have helped create a model that engages leaders around the world to take concrete steps to advance gender equity, and how Congress and leaders of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can make a difference in their own spheres of influence.

Why Does It Matter?

There is ample research that shows the best way to bring about peace and prosperity, to lift up entire societies and to advance sustainable development is to invest in women and girls. Women’s empowerment leads to global gross domestic product (GDP) growth, higher living standards and more resilient communities.4Meaningful representation of women at the negotiating table during peace processes results in far better and longer lasting outcomes.5 Educating women and girls creates a powerful ripple effect from better decisionmaking, improved health care and more advanced skills.6 We live in a deeply interconnected world, so it should come as no surprise that companies with greater diversity consistently outperform those with less diverse workforces. In fact, a 2016 McKinsey report estimated that global GDP would increase by $28 trillion by 2025 if the global gender gap in workforce participation were to close.7

For decades, women have been speaking up for equal rights and equal representation in all aspects of their lives. The Charter of the United Nations (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) served as early clarion calls and presented frameworks for achieving gender equality across all countries. But it was only in 2018 that, for the first time ever, there was gender parity across the United Nations (UN) senior management team. Underlying this accomplishment is UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ personal commitment as an International Gender Champion to promote equality and to achieve gender parity across the UN system well before 2030.8

In the lead up to this current period of increased gender activism, two important developments occurred in the international arena and national security field: 1) the creation of International Gender Champions (IGC), first in Geneva and subsequently in New York, Vienna and Nairobi and 2) the establishment of Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy (GCNP) in Washington, D.C.9 We are the founders of each of these initiatives.

What We Did: International Gender Champions

While serving as ambassador to the UN in Geneva from 2014-2017, I (Pamela) saw the harmful effects of gender inequality permeate each of the issues I addressed. Many of the organizations I worked with in Geneva promoted gender equality in some capacity, but there was very little coordination. Often responsibility was buried deep within the organization, resulting in slow and uneven progress. International Geneva, with its unique concentration of Member States, international organizations, civil society, research/academic institutions and private sector entities, presented an ideal platform for harnessing leadership in very practical and impactful ways.10 In 2015, I teamed up with Michael Möller, director-general of the UN Office at Geneva (UNOG), to launch IGC with the objective of uniting the international community around the all-important goal of gender equality. Leveraging off my signature Future She Deserves initiative and the UN System-Wide Action Plan on Gender Equality (UN-SWAP), we urged colleagues to lead by example through concrete actions that would result in genuine change both in organizational culture and in their programmatic work.11

IGC was built on the premise that engaging leaders at the highest levels was essential, but it was also imperative that we all work together — across organizations, sectors and cultures — if we are to bring about meaningful and lasting change. More than 600 action-oriented commitments have been made by IGC Champions over the past three years and have focused on good governance, leadership and accountability, organizational culture, representation, recruitment and work/life balance. Only through active engagement in each of these areas from top government representatives and policymakers, business and civic leaders, activists and influencers will we achieve the policy, behavioral, environmental and cultural advancements necessary to bring about gender balance and increased representation of women in positions of importance.

As she prepared in 2016 to take up her post as US ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency and to the international organizations in Vienna, my colleague, Ambassador Laura Holgate, was encouraged by the State Department to develop a version of IGC for the community of organizations, diplomats and NGOs she would be joining. She held extensive consultations with potential advocates and with me and my team in Geneva. Although she resigned from her post in January 2017, her efforts laid the groundwork for the launch of the IGC Vienna chapter in June 2018.

What We Did: Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy

I (Laura) have been committed to promoting women in the international security field since the early years of my career, including working with Women In International Security (WIIS), a professional society dedicated to supporting women at all stages of their careers. I eventually rose to the position of president of WIIS. This is why I was so pleased to have the opportunity to promote the IGC in Vienna, and why I was so grateful to the ambassadors who picked up the baton to carry the IGC launch across the finish line after I left my post. With this career backdrop, and inspired by the practical nature of the IGC’s focus on leadership and pledges, I came to believe that a network of gender champions could be beneficial in supporting women throughout the often male-dominated world of think tanks, NGOs, activist groups and philanthropies that work on nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear security, disarmament, deterrence or nuclear energy.

The nuclear policy and national security communities in particular have challenges in achieving a balanced representation of men and women. NGOs in this field are often small, with few management positions between research assistants and top leadership. Key feeder communities for organizations working on nuclear policy tend to be male-dominated (military, intelligence, technical), although the associated academic disciplines are producing higher proportions of female graduates. The benefits, however, of greater diversity of experience, viewpoint, scholarship and work style should be as high as those reported in business or other fields.

Upon my return to Washington, D.C. in 2017, I shared my experience with IGC among colleagues in the nuclear policy field. With their support, I designed the GCNP initiative and began recruiting the heads of these organizations to make specific pledges to enhance the presence, visibility and influence of women in the nuclear policy community. More than 30 men and women leaders pledged to be champions at the formal launch in fall 2018, and further outreach is ongoing as we continue to build this valuable network of leaders in the nuclear policy field.

Both IGC and GCNP helped catalyze global leaders, experts and activists in the ongoing fight for gender equality. But the issues are broad, deep- seated and stubborn, and our efforts have only scratched the surface.

What Comes Next?

Progress has been made, but much of that progress is under threat from policymakers. Women who speak out against abuses continue to be victimized and silenced. Gender inequality remains deeply rooted in developed and developing countries alike, and widespread underrepresentation of women in positions of power is a pernicious and persistent problem. We believe the time is now for our political and civic leaders to demand equality for women and girls. Congress could ignite a sea change for women if collectively they would summon the will to act. There are many practical and meaningful actions all stakeholders could undertake immediately to put us on the path toward gender equality:

  • The US government should aim for gender balance among senior officials, consider the gender balance of the delegations they send to international negotiations and meetings and publish up-to-date statistics on the gender breakdown of government staff and official delegates.
  • Members of Congress should require at least one of every three candidates being interviewed for an open staff position be a woman and ensure that the hiring process does not contain gender bias and discrimination.
  • Members of Congress and their staff should speak publicly about the benefits of inclusivity and suggest concrete actions for addressing gender inequality.
  • Congressional committees working on national security should pursue gender balance in selecting experts for hearings and briefings so that more women’s voices are heard, and their expertise is showcased.
  • Staff directors on congressional committees dealing with national and international security matters should actively seek gender balance among their teams.
  • NGOs, foundations and think tanks benefiting from 501(c)(3) status should be required to publish statistics on gender distribution among leadership, governance boards, staff and grant recipients.
  • Leaders of civil society organizations should draw upon and adopt best practices identified by organizations such as Catalyst and authors such as Iris Bohnet to eliminate unconscious bias in the way their teams are recruited, selected, promoted, tasked, mentored and paid.
  • Funders and program leads in the nuclear policy field should call for and support additional analysis which applies a gender perspective to a range of nuclear issues.
  • All stakeholders should actively support existing programs that seek to support and empower women on Capitol Hill, such as the Women’s Congressional Staff Foundation and the Black Women’s Congressional Alliance.

As we saw with IGC and GCNP, leadership is critically important in effecting change. Those at the top have the ability to shape organizations, build teams, marshal resources, set policy, establish standards, influence public opinion and start movements, and with such power comes great responsibility. In this regard, brave and bold steps from our leaders could springboard us all to a more just and prosperous world. Ultimately, this responsible leadership would empower people at all levels to join the chorus of voices calling for an end to gender discrimination and the beginning of lasting equality for women and girls everywhere. The time is now.

Ambassador Pamela Hamamoto served under President Barack Obama as Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva from 2014 to 2017, where she led the United States' largest overseas multilateral diplomatic post. In 2015, she co-founded International Gender Champions, a global network of leaders committed to promoting gender equality through specific actions and policy changes. Early in her career she worked as a civil engineer and computer programmer focused on hydroelectric power generation and as a strategic planner in the telecommunications sector. Following graduate school, she spent 10 years as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. She is a member of Ploughshares Fund’s board of directors and is currently serving on the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and as a 2018-2019 Stanford DCI Fellow.

Ambassador Laura S. H. Holgate is the vice president for materials risk management at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). She served as US Representative to the Vienna Office of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency under President Barack Obama from July 11, 2016 to Jan. 20, 2017. Previously, she served as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism and Threat Reduction on the National Security Council and held senior positions in the Departments of Energy and Defense. She is the co-founder of Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy, a leadership network in nuclear policy committed to breaking down gender barriers and making gender equality a working reality. 

This article is part of our new report, "A New Vision: Gender. Justice. National Security." See all the articles from our report here.

The rallying cry for gender equality, empowerment is getting louder #NewVision2019.

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1 “United for Gender Parity,” United Nations, accessed December 7, 2018,

2 The #MeToo movement was originally founded in 2006 by activist and community organizer Tarana Burke. It then spread virally on social media in 2017 due to its use by celebrities and other notable individuals in the entertainment industry.

3 “#MeTooNatSec,” Open Letter to the National Security Community, November 27, 2017,

4 Maureen Fordham and Suranjana Gupta. “Leading Resilient Development: Grassroots Women’s Priorities, Practices and Innovations,” (Groots International, Northumbria University School of the Built and Natural Environment, and the United Nations Development Programme, New York, NY, 2011),

5 “Women’s Participation in Peace Processes,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 4, 2018,

6 “Girls’ education — the facts,” (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations, October 2013),

7 Jonathan Woetzel et al. “How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth,” McKinsey & Company, September 2015,

8 “António Guterres, Secretary-General, United Nations,” International Gender Champions, accessed December 7, 2018,

9 International Gender Champions, accessed December 7, 2018,

10 “About Us,” Geneve internationale, accessed December 7, 2018,

11 “US Mission Launches The Future She Deserves,” US Mission to International Organizations in Geneva, February 6, 2015,; ”System-Wide Action Plan for Implementation of the United Nations CEB Policy on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women,” UN Women, Committee on Programmes/Public Document/SWAP.pdf.


Photo: Inaugural class of Gender Champions at the launch of Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy in November 2018, Washington, DC.