March 21, 2023

"I have met only strong women"

Orsolya Székely, Secretary of the World Bank Accountability Mechanism

Orsolya Székely. Photo by Dominic Chavez.

By Rabi Thapa

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on the World Bank intranet site as part of a series of stories on International Women’s Day.


In July 2021, Orsolya Székely began her work as the first Accountability Mechanism Secretary at the World Bank. The Accountability Mechanism, which houses both the Inspection Panel and a new Dispute Resolution Service, is an independent mechanism for people and communities who believe that they have been, or are likely to be, adversely affected by a World Bank-funded project.

Ms. Székely, a lawyer by training, has worked for many years with women in conflict-related situations, including those who suffered from violent attacks. She also has years of experience in mediation involving international institutions and communities. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.


As a female professional working across large multilateral institutions for more than two decades, what are your top takeaways on career development for women? What are the challenges you've faced and your main achievements?

I think it's fair to say that 20-plus years ago, when I started a career in this quite specific field of working with peacebuilding, conflict, and development, I did not imagine being where I am today. But quite early on, I broke ground in a few ways: I was the first Hungarian lawyer at the European Court of Human Rights besides the permanent lawyer, and at the Council of Europe, I was the youngest Special Representative of the Secretary General assigned in Kosovo.

And then, I probably overcame various other perceptions or perceived boundaries when I took on challenging tasks in conflict zones where there weren't too many female representatives doing what I was doing. One takeaway from this experience is that I never actually thought about the boundaries. I never approached any task with this limitation of 'Am I supposed to be here as a woman?' When I faced challenges, I always tried to make people see the values, the knowledge, the experience I represented, rather than my gender. If you focus on values, you can shift discussions and change minds,

And yet, I have seen gender bias in all sorts of fields. So that has pushed me to think about how to mainstream gender in everything I do, and to think of creative ways in which inclusion can happen—beyond artificial quotas or rules to overcome these biases.


Do you feel there's a particular role for the Accountability Mechanism to relate to women who might be locked into situations created by gender discrimination?

Yes. For instance, gender-based violence is a recurring concern in development work, and the work of the Inspection Panel highlighted a prominent case in Uganda a few years ago. But I've also seen that women's networks are extremely powerful, in villages as much as in legislatures. I think that because of the particular issues that women face, women are prompted to talk to each other. By talking to each other, their shared experiences make them stronger. Once they are stronger, they are more capable of pursuing their goals. Or maybe it's simply because they have a natural understanding of helping each other within a community. These networks are key to our work because we can only do so much to disseminate information, for example, about the new accountability tools. We achieve so much more if we do it all together.

In the field of accountability, men and women both can bring an all-round sensitivity to the multiple challenges that communities face. At the Accountability Mechanism, we are very aware of this, down to the smallest detail of how we schedule meetings. In whatever we do, we need to be very practical and realistic. If we don't pay attention to these cultural nuances, then how can we create an environment of trust for discussions about matters of extreme importance to people? So I think it's important to understand, beyond the needs of the community, the needs of individuals as well.


How can the Accountability Mechanism contribute to this year's theme for International Women's Day – "DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality"?

Within the Accountability Mechanism it was very clear from the beginning that our social media presence was limited and that we needed to make a special effort to enhance this and distribute information in a way that was accessible for all. Although there is access to the internet and to mobile towers even in extremely rural areas, there is limited data and limited literacy around access to information online. So in planning our outreach we are making it a lot more visual, easily downloadable and available in multiple languages or other forms.

When I think more broadly of inclusion and women empowerment, based on my experience, I can say that I have met only strong women. Perhaps some women lacked options and opportunities. But all were strong. They pursued every angle of their ambitions through the tools they could get hold of. I've seen women getting access to the internet and data even if it means sharing one phone among 10 women. Perceived boundaries will make women go to great lengths to find their way to what they want to achieve, and I call this power rather than weakness.

Empowerment is never about just individual empowerment but about the possibility to provide access to these things. I've seen how powerful digital tools and access to digitalized information can be in some of the most challenging circumstances. I will never forget talking to families in conflict zones who were trying to maintain some normality for children by accessing education online.


Do you have any advice for young professionals?

I believe in mentors and in mentorships. Find a mentor who suits you—not because of their grade, or gender, or perceived importance, but because they suit you. So they have to fit your needs, in terms of personality, experience, expertise, and interest, but you should also feel challenged by the individual you choose.


What about your own learning experience? Who have you learned from?

My own daughter has been the greatest educator for me. It's amazing for me to watch how she naturally sees equality. If we could push a reset button in our minds, and start out with a fresh mind, like my daughter's, we'd realize that we are all equal. We'd realize how much of inequality is based on perceptions and biases built into our structures and our cultures. I think that has been the greatest lesson of all from her, to think how is this going to work in an equal way? The possibility of change begins in our minds.

Last Updated: Mar 21, 2023

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