Interview with Gael Grooby

Ag. Director Tariff and Trade Affairs Directorate, WCO

Gael Grooby

On the occasion of International Women's Day, and as part of an ongoing campaign to empower Women in Customs, launched by Ian Saunders, the Secretary General of the World Customs Organization’s (WCO) on 4 March 2024, we are delighted to present an enlightening conversation with Gael Grooby, the Acting Director of the Tariff and Trade Affairs Directorate of the WCO. Gael's journey through the ranks of Customs is a compelling narrative of determination, ingenuity, and the occasional serendipity such as wanting to start a career for the love of dogs and having to live up to the reality of the daunting task of dog handlers. Reflecting on her career, she offers insights into the challenges and triumphs of balancing a demanding professional life with personal responsibilities, particularly as a woman in a field that has traditionally been male-dominated. This interview sheds light on her career progression, the role of women in customs, and her advice to those looking to navigate similar paths.

Interviewer: Can you tell us about your career in Customs and how it all started?

Gael: Absolutely. My journey into Customs was quite unexpected. As a single mum and a part-time university student studying IT, I was looking for a stable job to support my daughter. I took the public service exam, which led me to Customs. Initially, I was excited as I believed I could work with the Customs dogs, but soon realized that the cute little beagles were with quarantine, and my short, slow legs would never run fast enough to pass the physical to working with our magnificent detection dogs! So, instead I started in postal control and loved it. Over the years, I moved around, becoming a local expert in various areas. When my daughter grew up, I decided to specialize in tariffs, and six months into the specialization I moved from the regional to the central office and it led to significant career progression, including the position of deputy director of tariff policy and nomenclature in Australia and eventually my role at the WCO.

Interviewer: How did you find moving up the career ladder?

Gael: The first two steps were the hardest, involving a leap of faith into applying for promotions and moving for my job. After that, things became smoother. I was fortunate to find opportunities that matched my specialization in tariffs, which many find daunting. This specialization helped me advance my career. I was in an area that many saw as difficult or esoteric and thus, I had relatively less competition. Sometimes it’s easier to be a big fish in a small pond.

Interviewer: As a woman and a mother, did you face more challenges in your career?

Gael: It's an interesting question. Being a mother certainly adds complexity to any career path. I chose not to pursue my career while my daughter was young, a decision I don't regret. Balancing a young child and a demanding career is challenging, and while some women do it very well, I knew myself well enough to know I would burn out trying to do both to a high level. But I always found the work in Customs fascinating and I think being a mother actually allowed me to bring a lot of extra skills and insights. Yes, it is more challenging for women, Customs has traditionally been male dominated and old attitudes die hard, but I believe in changing such environments from within by encouraging more women to join and make their voices heard. I love Customs as it offers a wide spectrum of areas to explore and despite the challenges, it is a place where women can excel.

Interviewer: What has been a highlight in your career?

Gael: That’s a tough one. But I think it is the moment I realized I could effect positive change on a global scale through my work on two major proposals for HS 2022. The proposals were made when I was still a delegate and it reshaped my perspective and ambitions, leading me to aspire to contribute more significantly at the WCO.

Interviewer: Any advice for women aiming for high-level positions?

Gael: My advice would be: listen to advice, but don't follow it blindly. What works for one person may not work for you. Instead use it to inform your own path, keeping in mind that you write your future in the present moment, so while your past is what you build on, every present moment is a chance to change your course. The wisdom of others can be invaluable, but it's essential to forge your own way based on your experiences and aspirations.

Interviewer: What would you say to women considering a career in Customs?

Gael: Customs is incredibly varied and offers unique challenges and opportunities. I encourage women to explore different roles within Customs to find their niche, especially early in their career. The sector provides a chance to make a significant impact, and there's a lot of satisfaction to be gained from the diverse work it offers.

Interviewer: What are the challenges for women at an operational level?

Gael: It depends on the administration as the barriers and opportunities vary from one organization to the other. However, even if the operational areas are still largely male-dominated, woman can make a difference by being true to themselves. As long as you treat colleagues with respect, and remain professional, don’t be afraid to be yourself and to be different.

As I said, be flexible and explore different areas. The enforcement areas are sometimes the ones that women I have met felt most nervous trying. But it is possible for a woman to break down doors and search for drugs. Women also bring unique strengths and perspectives that are invaluable in operational roles. Their attitude can also lower the tone of aggression in a high-emotion and conflict situation. I am not saying it works all the time or that all women have those skills, but most women have had to face more physical threats and unequal power situations through their lives, creating greater ability to understand people and read nonverbal signals as a survival technique. Personally, I found it easier to deal with a conflict situation as I speak quietly, and people had to be quieter to hear me, thus defusing the situation.

Interviewer: How can we empower women in Customs?

Gael: It starts with treating the workforce with respect and valuing the diverse qualities everyone brings to the table. Promoting inclusivity and diversity is key to empowering women and all employees within Customs administrations. So, administrations should regularly check the way they are treating their workforce and make necessary changes when needed.