Okonjo-Iweala blasts racist and sexist Swiss newspapers who labelled her ‘grandmother’


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The newspapers have issued apologies to the former finance minister.

The Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has blasted Swiss newspapers who labelled her a “grandmother” after she was crowned as the new boss of the global trade resolution body.

At least three Swiss newspapers—Luzerner Zeitung, Aargauer Zeitung and St. Galler Tagblatt–cast headlines depicting Okonjo-Iweala as a “66-year-old Nigerian grandmother.”

“This grandmother will become the new boss of WTO,” screamed the headline on the print and online editions of Luzerner Zeitung.

Ambassadors’ letter

Last week, 124 ambassadors and heads of international organisations in Geneva sent a petition to the editors of the newspapers, demanding a retraction of the stories and an acknowledgement of Okonjo-Iweala’s qualifications for the job, her Ivy league education and her experience garnered from the World Bank and elsewhere across the globe.

“The title you found appropriate to choose for your report on the new Director-General of the World Trade Organisation; ‘This grandmother will head the WTO,’ landed you with a wave of outrage in various social media,” the letter from the ambassadors read.

“The latter had the merit of spreading a set of information not contained in your article about Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, the first woman and first African at the head of the WTO, and the stellar career which had led her from universities like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute for Technology to the executive floor of the World Bank.

“She served twice as the Minister of Finance of her country Nigeria and once as the Foreign Minister.

None of this could be found in your article whose title sounded implicitly demeaning both for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala and — in the process -the WTO itself.

“As readers of your article we were wondering what kind of information policy might have inspired this kind of presentation: Is a title qualifying a lady in a somewhat derogatory way as “grandmother” really a better eye-catcher than advertising an exceptional female career?

“How many domestic male politicians might feel that an article qualifying them — even though truthfully — as “grandfathers” without, however, mentioning any further qualifications, does justice to their “profile”?

“One might add some more questions, e.g.: do you consider it a useful support to Switzerland’s very committed international headquarters policy to present international personalities in rather pejorative or belittling terms?” the petition added.


Some of the newspapers have now apologised.

“The headline was inappropriate and unsuitable,” Aargauer Zeitung wrote. “The title sparked angry reactions from readers. We apologise for this editorial mistake.”

In her reaction, Okonjo-Iweala said: “I’m thankful to all my sisters, UN Women Leaders and the 124 ambassadors in Geneva who signed the petition calling out the racist and sexist remarks in this newspaper. It is important and timely that they’ve apologised.

“We need to call out this behavior when it happens. This is precisely what my book Women and Leadership coauthored with @JuliaGillard talks about – the stereotypes women face when they take on leadership positions.”

Okonjo-Iweala kicked off her first day as boss of the WTO today, March 1, 2021.


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