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New WTO head welcomes Swiss newspaper apology over ‘grandmother’ headline

Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala took over the reins of the WTO on March 1, 2021. Keystone / Fabrice Coffrini

The World Trade Organization's (WTO) first female and first African director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has welcomed an apology from several Swiss newspapers that had dismissed the experienced Nigerian politician and economist as a grandmother.

This content was published on March 1, 2021 - 16:21
AFP/Le Matin/sb

“It is important & timely that they’ve apologised,” tweeted Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on Monday.

The 66-year-old took over as the new head of the Geneva-based WTO on Monday after a long career as Nigeria’s minister of finance and foreign affairs and 25 years at the World Bank.

But on February 9, the German-speaking Aargauer Zeitung, Luzerner Zeitung and St. Galler Tagblatt newspapers and their online versions – part of the CH Media group - announced her appointment with the article headline, “This grandmother will become the boss of the WTO”. The headline was later changed.

Several women heads of UN agencies and over 120 ambassadors in Geneva signed a letter saying the headline was “offensive, sexist and racist”.

"Inappropriate and unsuitable"

The Swiss newspaper group apologised in a statement.

“This headline was inappropriate and unsuitable... We apologise for this editorial mistake,” the group’s foreign editor-in-chief, Samuel Schumacher, said in a statement on February 26. He insisted that the original author, Jan Dirk Herbermann, had in no way been responsible for the headline.

In her tweet, Ngozi said she was “thankful to all my sisters, UN Women Leaders and the 124 Ambassadors in Geneva who signed the petition on calling out the racist & sexist remarks in this newspaper”.

“We need to call out this behaviour when it happens,” she added.

The new WTO chief said she talked precisely about these kinds of “stereotypes women face when they take on leadership positions” in her book Women and Leadership, co-authored with former Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard.

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