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The UN's concrete ceiling

UN Women demonstrate for equality on International Women's Day. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown.

Global feminism hit a concrete ceiling in 2016. The first woman U.S. major-party presidential candidate was unable to rally votes in enough states across the country for her election despite an incompetent, openly racist male opponent. Record numbers of qualified women candidates ran for election as the ninth United Nations secretary-general only to have the door slammed in their faces with a Wonder Woman cartoon as honorary ambassador offered to the world’s women by the U.N. bureaucracy as a consolation prize.

Feminists failed in the UNSG election mainly because we did not have a clear and agreed-upon strategy to navigate the minefields of the U.N. Security Council selection process. It was clear from the first rounds that the man to beat was the eventual winner, António Guterres, former head of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees and former prime minister of Portugal, and the only male candidate with extensive U.N. experience.

Three women were of comparable qualifications—Helen Clark, administrator of the U.N. Development Programme and former prime minister of New Zealand; Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, director-general of UNESCO; and Susana Malcorra, foreign minister of Argentina and former U.N. chief of staff. They faced an uphill battle against open misogyny in the Security Council. Women’s groups and governments in favor of a woman failed to forge a joint strategy for success. We can see in hindsight that women campaigners needed to coalesce around one woman for the job.

Realizing the high expectations of women worldwide, Secretary-General Guterres, to his credit, gave his first senior appointments to three credible women—Amina J. Mohammed, environment minister of Nigeria, as deputy secretary-general; Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, former Brazilian ambassador to the U.N., as his chief of staff; and Kyung-wha Kang of South Korea as head of his transition team and special advisor.

The Colombian ambassador to the U.N., Maria Emma Mejia, who had led the Group of Friends for a Female Secretary-General (which is composed of close to 50 government representatives), has now refocused its mandate to become the Group of Friends for Gender Parity at the United Nations.

Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh of the United Arab Emirates along with her female colleague from Qatar have joined Ambassador Mejia. On December 13, 2016 they organized a public exhibition on the history of women’s roles at the U.N., highlighting achievements including the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the first woman head of a department, first woman head of an agency, and first woman peacekeeper.

Ambassador Mejia, in her inimitable style—soft-spoken, with a hint of steel—reminded the incoming SG of his promise to be a feminist as she invited him to the podium. In his speech, Guterres pledged that by the end of his five-year term he will bring the U.N. to 50-50 gender parity. Released at the exhibition was a dramatic graph that shows just how hard that goal will be to achieve: In 43 years women in senior posts have gone from 0 to 21 percent. 

Women’s progress in the U.N. system faces several hurdles. First, labor laws of member nations do not apply to the U.N., including laws of the host country, the United States. When faced with gender discrimination, women employees have complaint procedures and recourse to administrative panels, but they cannot take the U.N. to court. Second, senior posts are allocated by regions/countries. So the first priority of the U.N. is to satisfy regional/country power positions; gender is secondary. Third, many U.N. jobs are tied to specific donor trust funds with an understood priority for staff from those countries. Last is a lack of transparency in the process. “By the time most posts are advertised, individuals are already serving in them in as temporary consultants,” according to a senior U.N. staffer who did not wish to be named. Governments also submit candidates directly and negotiate on their behalf. These nomination lists are not publicly available.

Having set a target and a date, what levers does Guterres have to push the process to parity in the difficult negotiations over the hundreds of senior posts? He would have to push governments to submit gender parity nominations, exerting pressure by publicly announcing the gender breakdown of each government’s list. Several positions have never had a woman in the job—the head of U.N. Peacekeeping, the head of U.N. Political Affairs; he can demand that governments that want the job must nominate women.

More easily within his authority is the internal promotion system. Guterres can order the Office of Human Resource Management to review the dossiers of all women at the P-4 levels who have not progressed to P-5 (the highest professional level) and above to give them a second chance if they are competent. He can make managers more accountable by tying their promotions and bonuses to gender parity in their departments and require affiliated agencies to do the same.

Since the U.N. recruits from foreign ministries, governments must also do more to appoint women in their foreign ministries, including as ambassadors to the U.N. missions. Two decades after the Beijing conference, only about 15 percent of ambassadors are women. Only 3 percent of peacekeepers are women, drawn from military and police of member governments who do not encourage women to apply for these assignments.

Women’s organizations, such as WomanSG, are also joining this effort by compiling lists of qualified women and submitting them to the SG’s transition team. Beyond lists, women’s career development organizations can give structural technical assistance. At the national level, women can be helped in preparation for the U.N.’s entrance examinations; once they are hired, career development training can also be provided. While international careers are difficult on family life, the barriers to women are internal to the U.N. system and to government ministries. Women work on the same issues in NGOs, including hardship posts in the field. In addition to recruiting from the governmental sector, the U.N. can recruit directly from experienced NGOs.

As one woman NGO expert put it recently, “The U.N. knows who we are. When they want ideas, strategies on new programs, they know how to find us for such sessions; it’s time they tapped us for the actual jobs.”

The last panel at the 50-50 exhibition is poignantly titled "HERstory." It shows photos of nine male secretaries-general; clearly HERstory is still incomplete.

More articles by Category: Feminism, International, Politics
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