06/10/2013 12:48 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

Fighting for Human Dignity and Women's Equality: Interview with Margot Wallstrom

"Understand, explain and improve the world we live in." This is the motto of Sweden's Lund University. Those few, powerful words encapsulate the life's work and global approach of the indomitable force for change that is the new Chairman of the Board of that same university: Margot Wallström.

Whether it's advocating for gender equality as a politician in her native Sweden, fighting against the horrific use of rape as a tool of war in her historic role at the United Nations or, most recently, voicing the need to appreciate diversity in business and society in her latest reinvention in the private sector, Wallström is a firm believer in fighting for fairness in the world. She is currently working in a variety of roles, including project manager for a campaign on tolerance and diversity for Sweden's Postkodlotteriet.

Wallström has held several ministerial posts within the Swedish government and several international positions. Her professional trajectory has been unconventional, and throughout, her friends report that she has maintained a sense of humor and remained grounded in a strong set of values born from her upbringing in a small, working-class town in northern Sweden.

When asked about the secret to her success, she points to teamwork and professional camaraderie.

"I've always worked in teams and been fortunate to have experienced, professional and nice colleagues by my side. Maybe my best skill is to choose the right people!"

I was fortunate to meet Margot in early 2012, shortly after my husband was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden. One of my goals for our time in Stockholm was to promote women's leadership and I've been seeking out inspiring Swedish women to see what works in other societies.

Margot has been an incredible advisor for me in this endeavor. It's been very inspiring to get to know her and through the below interview I want to share her story and the perspectives she shared with me.

Natalia Brzezinski: You were nominated by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in 2010 to the historic role of Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual violence in conflict and are the first person to hold this newly formed position. How is women's empowerment and protecting gender rights a foreign policy issue?

Margot Wallstrom: First of all: women make up half of the world's population. In so many countries and situations they are the backbone of a family's economy: Women plant or sow something, go to the market, they fetch water and firewood and they raise children and keep the family together. But in modern wars and conflict, women have ended up on the frontlines: innocent, unarmed, unprotected. When they are attacked it affects not only an individual, but a family, a village and the whole society. When thousands and thousands of women are raped, it becomes a heavy impediment to restoring peace and security.

As you know, Stockholm, Sweden is the home of the Nordic Center on Gender in Military Operations. What role do women have in peace-making and peace-keeping efforts? And where do you see examples of American and Swedish cooperation in that realm?

With the groundbreaking UN Security Resolution 1325 from year 2000 it was finally recognized that men and women are affected differently by and have different roles in war and peace. (For example: to protect civilians in times of war and conflict is not a task that can be "gender-blind." Peacekeepers have to know where women go, what their specific protection needs are.)

Women have to be involved in peace processes as negotiators, mediators and signatories of peace agreements. They have to be represented in political life. I believe that both the U.S. and Sweden can contribute with leadership and experience and training on these issues and how to train their military forces. In my view, we ought to foster a military norm that compares the gravity of committing crimes of sexual violence with desertion.

I've been told that you have the ability to work 24/7/365 days a year, yet still be able to prioritize family, your brothers and your sister. How have you been able to balance a very demanding professional life and family over so many years?

I was lucky to find the right man! Without the full support of my husband and children it would not have been possible.

You've had an incredible career that's continuing into a new chapter today as the Chairman of the Board of Lund University. How does your next step at Lund continue your life's goals?

I believe it prolongs my life to be with all these students at Lund University, a university with no simpler goal (and motto) then to "understand, explain and improve the world we live in." Already, I have been able to attend or give lectures about REACH (the European Union's chemicals legislation), my United Nations mandate on rape as a weapon of war and to discuss what the university does for sustainable development and on climate change.

Was there ever a period in your professional life when you wanted to give up, or a job that was so challenging you didn't think you could tackle it anymore. And if so, how did you overcome that?

Over the years I have learned to think about failures as "hard but good lessons for life." I have a competitive character. Of course I have made mistakes -- it is particularly challenging to deal with people, not machines -- and I have struggled at times with finding the role to play, so a wise mentor was helpful.

You once said to me that your work with women is not yet complete, what's next for you?

Thinking of all the women I have met around the world gives me greater hope for the future! They are not only survivors, they are the most important agents for change in this world! So, we have an obligation to show solidarity, fight violence against women and ensure democratic representation and equal opportunities through our different channels and networks.

In 2007, you became the Chair of the Council of Women Leaders Ministerial Initiative (a role previously held by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright). What has this network taught you about leadership, and how can women and men work together to break barriers?

I often quote Madeleine Albright who said that "Sexual violence is not cultural -- it is criminal!" Through this network of women leaders I have had the opportunity to meet with and be inspired by her and other role models like Mary Robinson.

What advice would you give to young women who want to "break the glass ceiling"?

Laura Liswood, who started the network, offers another perspective on the issue of lack of women representation: "My experience is that it is not a glass ceiling, nor a sticky floor -- it is a thick layer of men!"