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South Africa's first woman Deputy President, Phumzile Gloria Mlambo-Ngcuka (49), right, is congratulated by President Thabo Mbeki, left, after she was sworn in by Justice Pius Langa in Cape Town South Africa, Thursday, June, 23, 2005. Women's rights activists have hailed her appointment as a major breakthrough for gender equality and democracy.OBED ZILWA/The Associated Press

It's a tricky job, representing half of the planet's population – but women have a fierce champion in Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

The executive director of UN Women is used to challenges. She is a former deputy president of South Africa, making her the most senior female politician in the country's history, and was closely involved in the struggle to end apartheid.

Now, she crisscrosses the globe to speak about ending discrimination, pushing for a world where girls have equal chances to go to school, land a good job and lead countries and companies.

And while Harry Potter actress Emma Watson garnered much attention in 2014 for launching a HeForShe campaign that encourages men and boys to push for gender equality, the initiative was developed under the leadership of Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka, who is the driving force behind the high-profile campaign.

The Globe and Mail spoke to her this week, while she was on a three-day visit to Canada, about what Canada's priorities should be, what to be mindful of in settling Syrian refugees, and what the significance is of having a self-declared feminist Prime Minister.

With regards to improving the status of women in Canada, what do you think our top priority should be?

On the top of my book, for Canada really, indigenous women would be a top priority. That is why we are encouraged that there is a process that is both consultative and looking for ways to address this issue. I think it is really important for Canada to track this issue.

And I have to highlight that the issue of discrimination of indigenous women, in countries where there is an indigenous community, is a huge issue. So we really need front-runners and Canada has the capacity to be one of the front-runners in addressing this issue effectively.

If Canada gets this right, we could actually use this also to help other countries that are struggling with the same issue.

The issue of violence against women, domestic violence in particular, again is also a challenge. And it is possible for Canada to make progress because Canada has a lot of institutions, capacity and legislation, that can be strengthened and co-ordinated to make an even bigger impact. So Canada is not starting from an empty slate.

With regards to indigenous women, which issues are you referring to?

I have learnt that in Canada, indigenous women do not increase their wages because of being better educated. Better education does not translate into better working opportunities and higher salaries. So that is clearly blatant discrimination, because when we say that education can be an equalizer, it has to be an equalizer for everybody.

Here in Canada, this country has accepted more than 27,000 Syrian refugees since November. Are there things that Canada should bear in mind in settling them, with regard to gender issues?

It's very important to be in close contact with women within families of refugees because they are very important for family cohesion, and for [encouraging] their children to integrate in a meaningful and constructive way. It is also important to pay attention to supporting the women so they can have some form of economic activities that enable them to have a status within the family.

When women are refugees and migrants, with their partners, they continue to be vulnerable to domestic violence within their new setting. This is also something to look out for and pay attention to. When women are in a new country, the idea of breaking ranks and turning on a partner who is abusive can be a very difficult thing to do. There are all kinds of ways to create an environment that enables women to feel protected in the event they need this kind of support.

In Canada, women comprise 20 per cent or less of those on boards, and many companies still have zero women directors. What do you think of that?

It matters because diversity has an impact on the quality of the decisions that are being made. It reduces discrimination against women. Also from a commercial point of view, companies that have diverse leadership either in management or on boards have been found to actually perform better. So even out of self-interest, it actually is smart economics for companies to have women on boards. But more than anything else, it is the right thing to do, because discrimination is unacceptable in whatever form.

Canada has fallen in the World Economic Forum's gender rankings to 30th place globally, partly because of issues such as a persistent gender wage gap. What do you think needs to be done in terms of pay disparities?

Part of the reason why we are really encouraged by the initiative [that set a target of having women comprise 40 per cent of those on provincial boards] by the Premier of Ontario is that this is exactly one of the steps that will help Canada to improve its ranking. What needs to be done is more comprehensive policies that should not just be applicable in one [province] but will be applicable across the country. Also it is important that the laws and policies are enforceable, because in many countries where policy or legislation exists, we still have a problem of poor implementation, and in many cases, even the women do not know that the policy exists.

We also need to make sure that the unions, when they negotiate for minimum wage or for salary increases, that it is not a gender-blind endeavour, that it addresses minimum wage or a salary increase within an unequal dispensation between men and women. Unions aren't enough aware of this, and that is why we still have a problem. If you consider how powerful union negotiations are in most countries where you have active labour unions, this isn't always an issue that is at the top of the agenda. And in fact, underrepresentation of women in decision-making structures of labour unions also, to some extent, has made unions not as sensitive to this issue. The representation of women on boards, in trade unions, in the public sector is part of the larger answer to the issue of discrimination. Because with more women there … one of the most important contributions they could make is to look out for women when it comes to issues of wage discrimination.

The UN has a goal of gender equality by 2030. Is that achievable?

We are asking [countries] to commit themselves to a path that will lead to substantive equality that is irreversible. Because as you know, women in all parts of the world have been working very hard to address gender inequality – but we take steps forward, and we take steps backward all the time. What is critical is actually to focus on some transformative aspects of gender equality so we can make change that lasts. Wage equality is one of those, because once we've established the dispensation that entrenches wage equality, we have addressed one [aspect] of gender equality, because we're putting money in women's pockets.

Anything you'd like to add?

I'd like to emphasize the important role of men and boys in this discussion. In Canada, it is actually one of the countries in our outreach to men and boys that we have received a more favourable reaction. We want to continue to emphasize the important role of men and boys in the gender-equality struggle. We also have noticed that because the Prime Minister has come out and said he is a feminist, that has interested a number of men willing to collaborate and work with us. There's a definite positive spinoff in leaders speaking about gender equality and identifying with the agenda of women and girls.

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