Celebrating UNVIE Women: Lisa Kalajian

Celebrating UNVIE Women: Lisa Kalajian

We continue our series to celebrate the accomplished and visionary women working at UNVIE with Deputy Counselor for UN Affairs, Lisa Kalajian. Lisa answers questions about her work, what inspired her to take up this career path, and why it’s important to promote gender equality in government and in STEAM.

Describe your job / what you do?

I am a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, currently assigned to the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna as part of the team that represents U.S. interests in UNODC, which is the UN Organization on Drugs and Crime, and other Vienna-based UN agencies. I directly work on anticorruption issues with UNODC, budget and management issues of UNOV, and I support U.S. participation in UNCITRAL, which is the UN organizational on international trade law.

How did you decide on this career path?

Before I joined the Foreign Service I worked at a “Big Four” accounting firm in a group advising big companies on international tax strategies. Though it was a good opportunity to use my quantitative skills and be surrounded by a diverse group of professionals, I wasn’t getting much in terms of professional fulfilment. So, I looked back at what really gave me joy, which was travel and adventure, and what would make me feel like what I was doing mattered, which was using my quantitative skills to make a positive impact on the world. I have an advanced degree in quantitative economics and studied international relations and languages as an undergraduate, so combined together, the Foreign Service seemed like a natural fit!

What is it like being a woman working in a STEAM field?

While my current position isn’t necessarily in STEAM, my background is. I remember being only one of four women in my entire graduate program, and even getting that far was a challenge. My advisor even told me to reconsider applying (despite my high grade-point average) because it was too “mathy!” This advice came several years after my high school guidance counselor canceled my AP calculus exam because she didn’t order enough, and it “just made sense” to give them to the boys (I was the only girl signed up). Now that I’m in the diplomatic world, I am seeing more women, but our numbers drop off precipitously the higher up we get. The result is that I don’t have many women in my field I can look to as an example. It makes me feel so lucky to be at a post with so many excellent women leaders!

Why is it important that women work in STEAM fields?

It’s important that women pursue STEAM education and work in STEAM fields because we are just as capable as the men that do it, and we can bring a different perspective. We need to show up so we can prove my advisors wrong! And it is incumbent upon those of us who made it through to break down barriers so others can pursue their interests, regardless of gender, and pull each other along.

How does the work you do help UN member states and improve the lives of people around the world?

I love my work because I get to contribute to policies and programs that contribute to a less corrupt and more efficient economy – two things that people can take for granted, but greatly impact our day-to-day lives.

What is the United States doing to promote gender equality in government and in STEAM?

While we as a government do contribute to gender equality in government and STEAM, we are also aware that we need to do better internally as well. We have chapters of the Federal Women’s Program at every post to help promote gender equality in our own ranks. Just recently I moderated a panel that asked our incredible senior-ranking women at post to share their experiences closing the so-called “likeability gap” that can penalize competent, confident women and hinder their career advancement. It was so inspiring to hear how these women fought for their positions while maintaining their senses of self, which really drove home the power of representation at the senior levels.

How does your work further U.S. interests?

It’s in the interest of the United States to have a safer, more secure world free of transnational organized crime, illicit drugs, and corruption. Since these are problems that touch every country, we need to work together to solve them. I get to work with our allies and partners every day to help make this dream a reality.