A conversation with Dr. Ximena Melon on gender and leadership


Two years ago, Dr. Ximena Melón, National Director of Animal Health of the National Service of Agrifood Health and Quality (SENASA) and Delegate of Argentina to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), spoke about gender during WOAH General Session. Her intervention was key to finalising the creation of a Gender Task Force within the Organisation. This initiative was officially launched in October 2021, and it consists of 25 WOAH staff working in different departments at Headquarters and regional offices.  

During this year’s General Session, the Gender Task Force had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Melón –as part of a series of interviews – to learn more about her career and her leadership role at SENASA’s Animal Health Directorate. 


What is your professional background and how did you get to the position you hold now? Have you worked on any gender issues throughout your career? 

I am a veterinarian graduated from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. I joined SENASA in 1997 as this institution asked my university for a list of students with the 10 best averages, and that is how I started my career in animal quarantine. For the last 3 years I have been the Director of Animal Health and WOAH Delegate of Argentina. 

Regarding gender, in Argentina it is important to have a state policy on the issue because it is a complex subject. For example, a few years ago I tried to make an inclusive recruitment where priority was given to transgender people, but in reality, it was very difficult because I did not get a formal database of potential applicants. Thanks to a state policy, there is now a percentage of women and transgender people working in the government. 

In my work, I try to ensure a gender balance in the teams. For example, out of 4 directors, 2 are women and 2 are men.

“I try to ensure balance especially the management positions, because at the beginning, the Veterinary Services were mainly run by men. I am happy to have been part of the change, as I am now the first female Director of Animal Health in Argentina.”


How would you describe your leadership style and how have you developed your leadership skills and confidence? 

In Argentina there is no difference in salaries in government entities for men and women, but in order for women to access leadership positions, they need to do “something more”, especially when compared to the burden of domestic tasks and family organisation. 

My differential in terms of leadership is to have technical strength and to give room and opportunities to other people to form teams that support us.

“It is crucial to build trust in the teams and give people space to work internally. I believe in leadership supported by a team that trusts and feels supported.

In Argentina, for example, being a woman, one has to be patient and carry on despite the fact that sometimes our qualifications are questioned. We often hear how is a woman going to know about livestock issues? or about men’s issues? Unfortunately, the challenge is that livestock-related positions and the livestock sector is still very male-dominated. As I had prior experience in this sector, it helped me [be more confident]. 


Has there been any one key person in your career who has mentored or guided you? 

No doubt about it. I grew up in a Veterinary Service with few women leaders. That’s why most of the bosses/team leaders who have impacted my career have been men. Several of them were mentors who trained me technically and have been key to expanding my knowledge and technical competence. It wasn’t formal mentoring; it was day-to-day work. Although I had few women as bosses or team leaders in the teams in which I worked, without a doubt the ones I had represented very important guides and left an imprint on my way of leading. 

In addition, I participated in trainings and workshops on leadership, teamwork, coaching, and conflict resolution, among others. We continue to do this today. For example, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) invited two people from the Veterinary Services of some Latin American countries to participate in training for personal development (“Leaders’ course”). That helped me a lot as well. 


Can you think of one or two key events or opportunities that have marked your career path and led you to where you are now? 

The “Leaders’ Course” mentioned above was an important pillar in the development of my career. 

When I started a family and when my children were younger, I was very demanding in my work. This was also fundamental because I only started to accept certain challenges and responsibilities when my children were teenagers. This difference is important between men and women because it makes us, by default, responsible for our children. 

Now, as a woman leader, I try to bridge the gap between women and men with children, for example by also asking men if they need time to take care of their children. Also, when I have women in my team who are in management positions with young children or who are pregnant, I am emphatic in pointing out that this is not an issue.


In some countries, both men and women have the option of working part-time. Do you think that to be a leader in Argentina, you have to be on the job and put aside personal time? 

It shouldn’t be the case, but it still is. For example, in Argentina teleworking is not yet in place and the workload is high, but I don’t think that full presence is necessary for team achievements. For me, teleworking is a very good option, even for a Delegate. The workload of 8 hours for 5 days is not an assurance of anything. The work can be done just as effectively with less presence. 

Part of my leadership, in the operational working teams within the 23 Argentinean provinces, allowed me to move from two face-to-face meetings per year to more frequent virtual meetings, all thanks to the pandemic. That is why national laws must accompany the Veterinary Services. There should not be individual criteria on this issue. 


What are the most important qualities to be a leader? 

I believe that one of the main qualities is to be a guide, to set goals and priorities in a team. A leader must also take risks. I believe in supporting teams, so staff feel like they are supported and part of a team. I am very interested in the workplace climate, so we conduct interviews and surveys to understand how staff perceive their working environment. 


What do you see as WOAH’s role in helping to create the conditions for women working in Veterinary Services in the animal health sector to reach their potential?

I can summarise it in one word: visibility. 

It is important to get people to think about and incorporate gender issues. In this General Session, for example, there are kiosks, the World Café, etc. This issue could be given more visibility through these spaces. 

A suggestion for WOAH would be to be able to make a small comment on the issue of gender during its presentations. In the same way that there is a WAHIS survey, there could also be a survey from the Gender Task Force. 

Another idea would be to include a mention of gender in the reports provided to Members, which would bring the issue to the attention of all of us, as no one should be oblivious to this issue. 


There is a debate that this issue should be discussed only among women. Do you think there should be a women’s network in the Veterinary Services? Should we give it that space? 

I think the main objective is to include everyone. I am afraid that it is “only” about women. To have a deep impact you have to involve everyone to be change makers. It is also important to be able to listen to men and their concerns. 


Final thoughts

I want to thank WOAH and the Gender Task Force for working on the gender equality initiative. It is very good to know that an organisation as important as WOAH is working on the issue. It is important to disseminate these experiences both for women in the Veterinary Services and for women in other fields. 


About the Gender Task Force (GTF)

In October 2021 WOAH launched its GTF, composed of 25 staff working across departments at Headquarters and regional offices, to inform how WOAH understands gender across its mandate.  

Goals of the GTF include:  

  • Develop a better understanding of how gender affects WOAH’s work, projects, and programmes (e.g. data collection, guest speakers, cross-team discussions, sharing results of gender-sensitive work at WOAH);
  • Identify training needs and organise training opportunities to raise staff awareness and engagement on gender issues;  
  • Author a roadmap leading to an institutional strategy on gender reflected in WOAH’s next strategic planning cycle. 


Sonia Fèvre and Xyomara Chavez  

Original interview conducted in Spanish.