‘Women from diverse communities and experiences bring unique insights to the table’: Five minutes with Sonia Karim, director of Sierra Leone’s Cabinet Affairs Department

By on 18/12/2023 | Updated on 18/12/2023

In this sister series to our ‘Five minutes with’ interviews, we share insights from women civil and public servants as part of our Global Government Women’s Network coverage.

In this interview, Sonia Karim tells GGF about being judged harshly for displaying professional qualities that would be commended if she were a man, finding a balance between being assertive and empathetic, and the country’s recently passed Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act.  

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What drew you to a career in the civil service?

I come from a family of professionals working in public service; my father, mother, eight uncles, four aunts all at some point or another were in the civil service, and I was made to see the virtues of contributing to the effective running of the state early on.

My mother, who raised me as a single parent, worked in the civil service before I was born, and left to finish her legal studies during the period she had me. She retired five years ago as a Supreme Court judge and the chair of the Law Reform Commission in Sierra Leone. 

What have you achieved in your career that you’re most proud of?

I am very proud of establishing and leading a very structured and efficient Cabinet secretariat system in Sierra Leone. As director of Cabinet for the past 10 years, I have put in place and maintained an efficient system wherein both ministers and permanent secretaries know they can rely on my team to support them in developing evidence-informed proposals, ensure they get to Cabinet on time and that the Cabinet meetings are run efficiently. I am proud of my reputation, with both politicians and civil servants alike, as a committed, hardworking, smart professional who is passionate about improving the public service. 

What barriers or challenges have you faced as a woman in the civil service and how have you overcome them?

Women leaders are sometimes judged harshly in the civil service, and are perceived to be rigid, tough, pompous, even disrespectful by subordinates and peers for merely being leaders and demonstrating qualities that are applauded and commended in male counterparts. Throughout my years in the civil service, I have struggled with finding a balance between being assertive and results-oriented and being compassionate, understanding and empathetic. What I have relied on the most is leading by example – I have always demonstrated to my supervisors and team that I am passionate, committed, and willing to do the work, and this has given me credibility with others and has enabled me to expect high productivity from others.

What advice would you give a woman eager to reach the top levels of the civil service?

I would advise women to try to consistently demonstrate high levels of expertise, professionalism, and commitment. This can be challenging, given we often have many other responsibilities outside the office such as family, and given that we remain a minority in the civil service and in middle level and senior level positions. However, the relatively low number of females also creates an opportunity to stand out if you are talented, smart and resourceful.

I have taken practical steps in my career to help me maintain high levels of productivity – for instance, I do a lot of work and research at night after I put my kids to bed, and as a single parent of two young girls I also rely on a network of paid help, family and friends to support me in my personal life and to free up time for me to perform my job effectively. Another practical piece of advice I would give is to always maintain a strictly professional demeanour and never engage in romantic or sexual entanglements at work. 

In your opinion, what are the implications if women are not adequately represented in decision-making roles in the public service?

Policies and initiatives will fail to address challenges and issues which often affect women differently than men, and services will not be delivered efficiently. Having women in decision-making roles provides opportunities not only for equitable representation but also for benefiting from the unique insights and perspectives that women from diverse communities and experiences bring to the table, as well as the skills women have in terms of multi-tasking, attention to detail, coordination, communication etc.

Is there a women-focused or gender-related project or initiative your department or government is working on that peers overseas could learn from?

The Government of Sierra Leone recently passed the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act (GEWE) that stipulates 30% representation of women in all appointed and middle and senior level jobs, including in Parliament, local councils, Cabinet, diplomatic missions, commissions, and parastatals; equal pay for work of equal skills and competencies; and gender mainstreaming in development planning at all levels. The GEWE Act was the culmination of extensive stakeholder engagement, as well as commitment by the political leadership to address a longstanding challenge to sustainable development.

Which public policy affecting women and girls do you think is most important at present and why?

Equal pay for men and women remains a critical issue across the developed and developing world, even in countries that have policies supporting equal pay systems. It goes to the very heart of the capacity and capability of women to be respected members of society and for their contributions to society to be acknowledged and appreciated as those by men are. 

What attributes do you most value in people?

Respect for others, integrity, honesty, hard work, humour, tolerance.

If you weren’t a civil servant, what would you be?

A writer of romance novels.

Is there something about you that people find surprising? 

I have always wanted to be a professional dancer. I love dancing and am pretty good at it.

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