SDWG - Women of the Arctic Council: Interview with Jennifer Spence, Executive Secretary, Sustainable Development Working Group

Women of the Arctic Council: Interview with Jennifer Spence, Executive Secretary, Sustainable Development Working Group

08 March 2020
In honor of International Women’s Day on 8 March, we spoke with some of the women who work with the Arctic Council to learn more about them, what it means to be a woman in their field and their advice for young women.
Jennifer Spence is the Executive Secretary of the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG). The SDWG focuses on the human dimensions of the Arctic, working to protect and enhance the environment, economy, social conditions and health of Indigenous and Arctic inhabitants. We spoke with Jennifer about her unique career trajectory, the invisible bias many women face at work, the value of different perspectives women bring to the table, and her advice for young women to get out there and try different things.

Can you tell us about yourself, your education and your current role?

I have one of those careers that has not been a clear trajectory from point A to point B. The common thread throughout my career has been finding interesting ways of working with people and communities. I got my bachelor’s degree in political science and was very lucky to have the opportunity to work with First Nations in British Columbia, Canada on fisheries issues. I then worked for the United Nations Development Program in Nairobi, Kenya. I also worked with the National Police of Canada (RCMP) in Vancouver. After that I moved to Ottawa to continue my work in the federal government. In 2011, I decided that I wanted to continue to explore public policy from outside of the government system. I got my doctorate in public policy with a focus on Arctic governance. Working in the Arctic Council context gives me the opportunity to tie together my knowledge and experience with academia and the government policy making system.

What is the most interesting project you have worked on and why?

I cannot pick just one favorite, but I will talk about a good example. I got my master’s degree in conflict management, and after finishing that I had an opportunity to work with First Nations communities in British Columbia, Canada in dealing with conflict that had developed between fisheries officers – the enforcement arm of the Government of Canada – and communities who wanted to fish for salmon. I took on the role of working between those two worlds to find different ways of developing a relationship. We worked on projects to try to build new relationships, but also projects that could advance new ways of doing things. It gave me a lot of freedom to think of new and innovative ways to approach problems that have existed for decades between a government organization and First Nation communities. I was helping to create an environment to empower those in conflict with each other to collaborate and come to their own solutions. These types of projects really bring together all the elements I enjoy – learning, growing and working collaboratively.

“I think one of the greatest challenges for women is the invisibility of the bias, and that you cannot undo what people cannot see.”

What obstacles have you faced during your career? Do you believe any of these were specific to being a woman?

When working in the federal government of Canada, I moved up through the system very quickly. It was a world of men, so it was not unusual during management meetings that I would be the only woman – and a young woman. When you are an agent of change – a role I often gravitate to – as a woman, you have to approach things differently. You have to be conscious of the world you are coming up against, and the world tends to be male dominated. I myself am aware of it, but many are not. I have worked with people who genuinely did not feel that they were discriminating in the way they staffed. However, we tend to hire what we are comfortable with, and that tends to be a reflection both of who you are as a person and the traits you possess. When a world is dominated by men, and you are hiring what you are comfortable with, it is not necessarily a conscious decision to exclude women. I think one of the greatest challenges for women is the invisibility of the bias, and that you cannot undo what people cannot see. Sometimes it is easier to be silently aware that these gender biases are there. But the people that really should understand these biases are not forced to understand it in the same way.

Who is your role model, and why?

There is not one specific person, but I have worked with leaders that inspire me who are, what I would call, service-oriented leaders that lead from behind. They lead through lifting other people up and encouraging them to learn and grow. These types of people lead with humility and thoughtfulness. Those are the people I want to emulate. Those are the people that demonstrate the type of leadership that values difference and diversity, and create work environments that are healthy, where everybody can feel that they are valued. I have really appreciated the opportunity to work with special people that have these qualities, and I wish this type of leadership would be rewarded more often and that we saw more of these types of leaders.

“I do not believe that we will find solutions to major issues like climate change or inequality using the status quo approach. Valuing women’s perspectives will take us a long way towards finding those solutions.”

What do you think are current challenges and opportunities for women in public affairs?

I worry that the way we have defined success is gender biased. This is a generalization, but I think many women leaders often find success by emulating the characteristics that are traditionally associated with men. We still have not come to a point where women can be leaders using alternative approaches. To me the greatest challenge is to recognize the biased environment that we work in and push the boundaries. I do not think that people have an intention to continue the bias, but it does exist. If we can expose it in a respectful way to everybody then we might get to a better place. It comes back to the major challenge that we cannot change what we cannot see.

I think women tend to have different ways of thinking about things. As the international community faces challenges and policy issues where we have struggled to take the right path forward, part of finding solutions come from different perspectives. I do not believe that we will find solutions to major issues like climate change or inequality using the status quo approach. Valuing women’s perspectives will take us a long way towards finding those solutions. Being a woman with the opportunity to try and tackle these issues is a huge challenge, but a really exciting opportunity.

“We cannot assume that there is a magic tipping point where suddenly more women will be in roles that have been dominated by men in the past.”

What do you think needs to be done to increase representation of women in public affairs?

It is not easy, but I do believe that affirmative action is important. Despite the fact that in some cases it can cause tension. At the end of the day, increasing the representation of women will not happen naturally. We cannot assume that there is a magic tipping point where suddenly more women will be in roles that have been dominated by men in the past.

I also think more effort from women to mentor younger women would be incredibly valuable. This type of mentorship tends to happen spontaneously, but if organizations actively offered those opportunities, that would be amazing. I found my own mentors along my way, but I would have jumped on that opportunity for support in finding a network of mentors.

“Do not be afraid to try new and different things. Do not be afraid to take advantage of those experiences.”

What advice do you have for young women who are interested in pursuing a career in public affairs?

Try different things. I am a generalist, so someone who is a specialist would have a very different perspective on this, but I have gone from working in fisheries to working in dry lands development policy to working in integration conflict management with police services to working in the Arctic. The value that you can draw from all those different experiences is so incredibly rich, and there are more connections between them than you ever would imagine. So, do not be afraid to try new and different things. Do not be afraid to take advantage of those experiences. They build on each other and create a foundation of experience that can be incredibly rich.