Women of the Arctic Council: Interview with Nina Buvang Vaaja, Director of the Arctic Council Secretariat

02 March 2020
In honor of International Women’s Day on 8 March, we spoke with some of the women who work with the Arctic Council to learn more about them, what it means to be a woman in their field and their advice for young women.

Nina Buvang Vaaja is the Director of the Arctic Council Secretariat. We spoke with Nina about the meaningfulness in international relations and addressing some of today’s most important issues, the importance of seeing female role models at a young age and her advice in working past doubts to pursue the career you want.

Can you tell us about yourself, your education and your current role?

I am a Norwegian born in the northern city of Tromsø, Norway. My education was within the fields of political science and the Russian political systems, culture and language. For the last 10 years I have worked at the Arctic Council Secretariat, and my current role is Director.

What motivated you to pursue a career in the government?

While I was pursuing my education, I had an ambition to work in the field of international relations. I planned my education with that in mind, and a goal to become part of the Norwegian Foreign Service. I succeeded in that and started working with the Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs almost directly after finishing my education. I have always been fascinated with cultures and how people, communities and states can work together.

“I find a lot of inspiration in the way that the Arctic Council brings together not only states, but also Indigenous peoples and experts in various topics on an intergovernmental level.”Nina Buvang Vaaja

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I enjoy so many things about my work, but one part is working together with and leading such a dedicated, competent and enthusiastic team at the Arctic Council Secretariat. I also find the Arctic Council’s mission really meaningful. I find a lot of inspiration in the way that the Arctic Council brings together not only states, but also Indigenous peoples and experts in various topics on an intergovernmental level. In a way it is like big teamwork, which is really inspiring and meaningful because we are addressing important topics that needs to be dealt with in today's world.

What obstacles have you faced during your career? Do you believe any of these were specific to being a woman?

Maybe I have been just crazy lucky, but I do not feel like I have met too many obstacles in my career. I have been fortunate to grow up in Norway where girls and boys – for a generation or two – have had almost equal opportunities to pursue their dreams, receive the education they want and achieve their goals. I have some experience working in other parts of the world with different cultures where, for instance, I come to meetings as the head of delegation, and am welcomed by the hosts assuming that I am not the head of delegation, but my assistant or my advisor is the head. But I am not inclined to see that as an obstacle. I would rather just take note of that and make it clear that I actually am the head of delegation. I think that is something women all over the world experience, and we just have to take our place and use the opportunities that we get.

Who is your role model, and why?

I am not sure that I have one clear role model that I got inspiration from. When I was a child and starting school, Norway had a woman as our Prime Minister. So, even as a young child it has always been natural for me to think that does not matter if you are a girl or a boy – you can take a leading position. I have always seen female role models, and that has an impact. If a child has never seen a woman in a leading role, then they may unconsciously be limited by that.

In general, people who inspire me are those that are motivated not only by what they can gain from what they are doing, but who go the extra mile to do more. Not only for themselves, or their work environment, but for the common good.

What do you think are current challenges and opportunities for women in government roles?

In parts of the Western world, and I can speak for Norway, we have built an education system that gives equal opportunities to both girls and boys. We can see now that the majority of those pursuing education as lawyers, doctors, economics and so on are women. The opportunity for girls is there, and we have been put in a very good spot by our mothers and grandmothers who fought these battles for women and made it possible for my generation and my children's generation to pursue our dreams. I realized this situation is different depending on where you grow up. And there are still challenges with, for instance, women getting a lower salary than men get in similar jobs. So, there are still structural challenges that we have to keep focusing on and working with.

“My general advice for young women is to decide to just try it and see how it works out. I think you would be surprised many times how well it works.”Nina Buvang Vaaja

What advice do you have for young women who are interested in pursuing a career in government?

I would extend this to pursuing their careers in general, but what I have seen in a management role where I have also been responsible for recruitment, is that there is this tendency for girls to put very high demands and standards on themselves. In my experience, a girl would typically look at requirements in a job posting and question herself and her skills and think maybe they do not qualify. Whereas a boy typically would look at it quite differently with more confidence they could do the job. This is of course not science and just my personal observations, but I think in general girls have to be a little bit more like Pippi Longstocking from the popular children's book. She had this motto, “I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.” My general advice for young women is to decide to just try it and see how it works out. I think you would be surprised many times how well it works.