International Women's Day is a celebration and a protest, says A&S alumna Catherine Bragg

March 8, 2021 by Sarah MacFarlane - A&S News

Don’t get intimidated by intimidating situations, seek guidance and choose kindness.

These are the three principles A&S alumna Catherine Bragg lives by — and with a career as accomplished as hers, it’s clear they’ve served her well.

Bragg is the former assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and deputy emergency relief coordinator at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a role she held from 2008 to 2013. She has 24 years of experience as a senior member of the Canadian federal government, where she served in seven departments, including the Privy Council Office, Department of National Defense and Department of Justice. She also served as director general of the Canadian International Development Agency and managed Canada’s international humanitarian assistance program.

Her work has taken her to more than 100 countries, and she has participated in the response to nearly 30 international humanitarian crises.

She has served on advisory groups and executive boards of organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, World Food Program and International Organization for Migration. She was a member of the University of Toronto Governing Council from 2016 to 2020 and has held the position of adjunct professor in the Centre for Humanitarian Action at the University College Dublin since 2013.

Bragg earned her bachelor of science in psychology from the University of Toronto Faculty of Arts & Science in 1975 as a member of St. Michael’s College. She holds a master’s in criminology from the University of Cambridge and a doctorate in criminal justice from the State University of New York at Albany.

How did your studies at U of T help to prepare you for your career?

The third- and fourth-year research skills I learned from the Department of Psychology have been invaluable throughout my career. At the most straightforward level, I landed a job as a research officer when I finished my PhD. But later, as I began to focus more on policy, I found that policy work invariably involved asking, “Is A better than B?” My social science research background allowed me to ask, “How do I know A is better than B?”

What challenges have you faced as a woman in your career, and how did you overcome them?

Women face the unique challenge of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, and studies have shown that maternity leave can delay career progress. My first child was born when I was completing my dissertation, and my second child was born after I had been in a full-time position for three years. To meet this challenge, I negotiated with my manager for accommodation. What I learned then, and always afterwards, was that management was willing to accommodate as long as I had something to offer. So even though I was entitled to six months of maternity leave (this was in the ‘80s), I returned to work after six weeks and worked part time according to my child’s breastfeeding schedule, starting with one hour in the morning and afternoon, increasing gradually to full time when my child decided to wean at 11 months. I was promised I didn’t have to travel, and management didn’t have to find a replacement for me during my maternity leave.  

How have you challenged yourself to excel in your career?

I think I’m just easily bored. I had a 30-year active career, and with a few exceptions, I didn’t stay in any position longer than three years. I always felt that when I had mastered the responsibilities and nailed down some accomplishments, it was time to move on. And in every subsequent job I sought, I looked for a new set of skills or body of knowledge to master.

What professional achievement are you most proud of?

Hands down, orchestrating and achieving $1 billion USD in a donor funding appeal for the international response to the Horn of Africa famine in 2011. At the time, a number of multilateral organizations — the European Union, African Union and others — were competing unhelpfully to lead the appeal. Resolving the tension and competition so that the target could be met was particularly satisfying. 

What advice would you give to U of T students — particularly women — as they begin to navigate their careers?

These are not so much words of advice for anyone, but creeds I try to go by (often failing to), and they have helped me when the going gets tough.

Do not be intimidated even if the situation is intimidating, reach out for help and feedback and always choose to be kind.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you, and why is it still important in 2021?

The aspiration that shapes my world view and life’s work is that every person should have the opportunity to grow up to, and to fulfill, their fullest potential, and those opportunities should not be deprived of them by human decisions. This is particularly applicable to women and girls. International Women’s Day is a celebration of the girls who have become fully fledged, accomplished women, and a protest of the arbitrary deprivation of opportunities that is still regularly visited on so many occasions.

We’re celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 by highlighting the groundbreaking contributions and unique stories of A&S women. All week, we’ll shine a spotlight on the vibrant women of our community.