Gender Empowerment Falters at the Highest Echelons of the UN

The UN General Assembly in session. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias
  • by Thalif Deen (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

Progress won over decades is vanishing before our eyes, and gender equality is growing more distant, he told the CSW, the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women (and which concludes its two-week session on March 17). And he quoted the dire prediction from UN Women that “gender equality is 300 years away”.

Hopefully, that prediction does not apply to the United Nations which has failed to elect a woman Secretary-General during the last 77 years while asserting male dominance in one of the foremost international institutions—even as it ceaselessly continues to advocate gender empowerment worldwide.

Guterres said last December that overall, “we have come a long way”, and achieved some notable firsts, such as reaching parity within the senior leadership group, for the first time in UN history, two years ago.

“That’s also true now among heads and deputy heads of peace operations. Five years ago, the proportion of women in those roles was just 25 percent”, he noted.

Parity was reached in 2018, among the 130 Resident Coordinators, and the representation of women at headquarters locations has now reached parity, while the number of UN entities with at least 50 percent women staff, has risen from five to 26.

Still, the male/female ratio for the Secretary-General stands at 9 vs zero. And the Presidency of the General Assembly (PGA), the highest policy-making body at the UN, is not far behind either: 73 men and four women.

The upcoming election for a new PGA --Dennis Francis of Trinidad and Tobago—will bring the total to 74 men and four women. Score another one for men.

PassBlue said last week that Some diplomats are rightly furious that this means that there will be a 74th man elected out of the 78 people to hold that role, but they have been unable to organise a rival to run against him.

“Pressure has at least caused Mr. Francis to publish a vision statement, although that is perhaps a generous term for a short document containing only four paragraphs on policy”.

“We wish Mr. Francis the best of luck in this important role but regret that the process wasn’t strengthened by meaningful competition and a thorough policy platform,” said PassBlue, a widely-read independent, women-led nonprofit multimedia news company that closely covers the US-UN relationship, women’s issues, human rights, peacekeeping and other urgent global matters playing out in the world body.

The nine Secretaries-Generals so far include Trygve Lie from Norway, 1946-1952; Dag Hammarskjöld from Sweden, 1953-1961; U Thant from Burma (now Myanmar), 1961-1971; Kurt Waldheim from Austria, 1972-1981; Javier Perez de Cuellar from Peru, 1982-1991; Boutros Boutros-Ghali, from Egypt, 1992-1996; Kofi A. Annan, from Ghana, 1997-2006; Ban Ki-moon, from the Republic of Korea, 2007-2016 and António Guterres, from Portugal, 2017-present.

The only four women elected as presidents were: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit from India (1953), Angie Brooks from Liberia (1969), Sheikha Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa from Bahrain (2006) and Maria Fernando Espinosa Garces from Ecuador (2018).

But the blame for these anomalies has to be shouldered, not by successive secretaries-generals, but by the UN’s193 member states who are quick to adopt scores of resolutions on gender empowerment but fail to practice them in the highest echelons of the UN totem pole.

Ben Donaldson, speaking on behalf of Blue Smoke – described as “a new initiative shining a light on UN appointment processes”—told IPS progress on gender parity at the UN has been mixed.

“Gains have been made within the SG’s senior management group but this is not the full story. There is no avoiding the fact that an unbroken chain of nine male SG’s will have led the organization for 80 years by the time the next SG is due to be chosen and just two of the last 50 Presidents of the General Assembly have been female”.

And like Guterres’s reappointment, the male candidate for the next PGA has a blank slate before him - unchallenged by any candidate, female or otherwise, he pointed out.

In both cases, he argued, states have failed to nominate female candidates despite the plethora of highly qualified women out there.

“Sexism still pervades the international system, stacking the deck against women from early career onwards resulting in our current predicament: just 25% of UN ambassadors are female and parity remains well out of reach in field operations, peacekeeping and in global health leadership despite 70% of the health and social care workforce being women,” said Donaldson.

“The most frustrating thing about the UN for those of us trying to understand this issue is the lack of transparency”.

“It remains impossible to obtain a readout of the gender balance of, for example, all D1 and D2 positions across the UN system, or a geographic breakdown for that matter. This is why we launched Blue Smoke - a monthly email shining a light on UN appointment processes and calling for inclusivity every step of the way,” he declared.

Mandeep S. Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, told IPS the gender imbalance in the election and appointments of the UN Secretary General and President of the General Assembly “is symptomatic of a larger malaise in our societies”.

“States in particular need to make progress on diversity, equity and inclusion but are often found to be lagging behind non-governmental actors,” he noted

Meanwhile, reflecting on Guterres’ statement on gender equality, one of the questions at the UN press briefing on March 6 was whether the Secretary-General would “consider making some kind of grand gesture to underline his point by stepping aside and giving his job to a woman”.

Responding to the question, UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said “resigning is not something the Secretary-General is contemplating doing in any way, shape, or form.”

“He will continue and has, I think, shown demonstrable results in improving and reaching gender parity in the senior post that he appoints, right? Because he doesn't have the authority over the whole administration”.

But he has been putting in place a strategy to reach gender parity at the professional levels to ensure that there is more equitable and clearer representation.

“And I think what he has done in terms of appointments was done extremely quickly, within UN standards. I think within two years he had reached the parity, also including the resident coordinators on the ground. And that is a policy he will continue with a lot of energy,” declared Dujarric.

Under the Guterres administration, gender empowerment has been on the rise at senior staff levels, at UN agencies, and in peacekeeping and field operations worldwide.

Mathu Joyini of South Africa, Chair of the CSW, said “gender-based discrimination is a systemic problem that has been interwoven into the fabric of our political, social and economic lives and the technology sector is no different.”

While digital technologies are allowing for unprecedented advances to improve social and economic outcomes for women and girls, new challenges may perpetuate existing patterns of gender inequalities.

She called for more opportunities to be available to women leaders and innovators and for the public and private sectors to make more available funding that enables the full participation of women and girls in the technology ecosystem.

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