The New York Times has called Gillian Martin Sorenson ’63 the “diplomat’s diplomat.” It’s a fitting moniker, given the former U.N. assistant secretary-general’s passion for global politics and commitment to public service. “When I came to the United Nations I had a powerful sense that this was the place I belonged,” she says. “This was the work I was meant to do.”
Sorensen majored in French at Smith, and, after graduating, spent some time working in television production in New York City. But having been raised in a politically active family in Michigan (her father held public office and her mother was a journalist), she missed being in a political environment. So in 1977, she signed up to volunteer for the late Ed Koch’s New York City mayoral campaign.
When Koch was elected, Sorensen approached him with a proposal: appoint her to the New York City Commission for the United Nations, Consular Corps and Protocol, which serves as a liaison between the city and the United Nations, foreign governments and the U.S. State Department. Koch agreed. “I was intrigued by the work and by the community of diplomats,” she says. “I loved that job.”
In 1993, after 12 years with the Corps, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali appointed Sorenson to the United Nations as special adviser for public policy, where she led the United Nations’ 50th anniversary events, including coordinating the anniversary summit, which brought together l80 heads of state. From 1997 to 2003, she served as U.N. assistant secretary-general under Kofi Annan, where, her responsibilities included outreach to diverse groups and organizations around the world to further the United Nation’s mission of human rights and development.
Today, as senior adviser to the United Nations Foundation, she travels the world as an advocate for the United Nations’ mission and speaks to a wide range of audiences, from congressional leaders to university students. On a visit to Smith, Sorenson spoke to students about her experiences and reflected on her work, women’s leadership, Smith and the future.
How do you see the role of the United Nations today?
The role of the United Nations has changed considerably, but the United Nations is invaluable—imperfect but indispensable. It is still the only universal organization in which every country has a voice.
What is the United Nations involved with currently?
Many Americans are unaware of the very broad agenda of the United Nations. They read about peacekeeping and they may know about UNICEF, but it’s much more. Right now, the United Nations is involved with combating poverty, advocating for fair elections and human rights, and providing humanitarian relief and refugee assistance. It is environmentally active, working on issues of sustainability and climate change and, of course, global health, which clearly crosses borders. The United Nations has also done remarkable work empowering women and girls, including dealing with education, health and safety issues.
Tell us about the need for more women in leadership roles.
We all need role models. We need to see women from all ethnicities who embody leadership experience and show younger women that it is possible. And there is statistical proof that any country that doesn’t make use of the female half of its society is never really going to achieve its full potential. Both the current Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon of Korea, and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, for whom I worked, understood that and they made very significant appointments of women at the highest levels and made an effort to move younger women up.
Do men and women approach leadership differently?
I think there are differences. The basics may be the same—you need to be well informed, you need language skills, an ability to present and to persuade—but I do believe that women bring another dimension to leadership. You might say it’s compassion or maybe it’s an awareness that among the many who suffer in the world—among refugees for instance—the great majority are women. It may also be an awareness that the responsibility for families, especially in situations of chaos, very often fall on women.
What do remember most about your days at Smith?
I had wonderful French courses, remarkable professors, and I studied abroad in Paris and in Aix-en-Provence. My favorite extracurricular activities were theater and dance. I took part in a number of plays and I danced every year, including going one summer to Brazil with the Smith dance group to perform and teach.
How did Smith contribute to the woman you are today?
My theater classes at Smith helped me find my voice—literally find my voice. I gained confidence here. I was somewhat shy and reserved when I came to Smith, but I learned that I had potential. Nobody said that exactly, but I absorbed it from the other talented, intelligent girls around me and from the amazing professors.
What’s next for you?
I want to take what I know and what I’ve done and move it forward as a message to teach, to inspire, to inform, to debate, to engage and to elevate the discussion about what it means to be a global citizen and how we can reach across boarders as global members of the larger, human family. I feel like I am in a position now to use my voice to advocate my position to all kinds of groups, including those who may not necessarily understand the idea of global citizenship or support it.