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Will UN Secretary General Achieve Gender Parity in Leadership Roles?

Has Antonio Guterres revived the organisation’s “lost agenda”?

Earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres unveiled a “system-wide” gender parity strategy which sets 2021 as the target for gender-balance in senior leadership, and 2028 for parity across the entire system. Whether or not heads will roll if these targets aren’t met is another question. It is notoriously difficult to sanction UN staff for abuses, let alone for failing to implement a personnel policy.

Feminist critics of the UN could be forgiven for not getting excited. We’ve been here before. A 1994 general assembly resolution set 2000 as the target for gender parity within the UN secretariat. That year came and went: no gender parity. No heads rolled.

Subsequent initiatives similarly lacked commitment, prompting one former special representative of the secretary-general, Karin Landgren, to describe gender parity as the UN’s “lost agenda.” UN Women said little about stalled progress and it took an undergraduate student’s investigation, published by 50.50 last year, to show that under Ban Ki-moon, Guterres’s predecessor, the proportion of women at top levels (around 22% in 2016) and the parity agenda were far off track.

But this time it really is different. Responsibility for getting to parity is assigned to Guterres’s own senior advisor on policy. This, along with conflict prevention, is her main job. She has a dedicated and highly-respected senior gender advisor to monitor progress. There are numeric targets for annual increases in proportions of women in every staff category, for every UN entity, as well as provisions for databases of women candidates, ‘strategic’ head-hunting, specialised training, and fast-track programs.

For the UN secretariat — which has more than 40,000 staff members in peace operations and diplomatic work — the plan is particularly interventionist. If a secretariat office or field mission fails to meet female recruitment targets by December 2019, a central personnel department will take over hiring for a year. As negative incentives go, this is a strong one: no UN mission head wants to lose control over staff selection.

The UN’s biggest gender parity problem is in peace operations, where women account for less than 30% of staff, and are disproportionately represented in the lowest-level jobs. At the highest levels of management, according to the new strategy, getting to parity at current rates would take 703 years.

Most UN peace operations are in dangerous ‘non-family’ posts. The new policy aims to make work conditions more accommodating for women staff by, for example, improving security in ‘camp’ type missions, providing support to install families in the nearest possible safe country, and doubling parental paid leave from six months to a year.

UN entities will also have to supply early childcare on site, or partly subsidise its costs — finally tackling a long-standing and obvious gender bias within the organisation. While the education of employees’ children from kindergarten through their first university degree has been subsidised, there has never been support for the care of kids under five years old. The unfair assumption has been that staff with small children have had their own, dedicated private care.

Other gender biases are not so decisively addressed, however. In order to be promoted within the secretariat, staff must complete tours of duty in non-family stations, usually in conflict zones. The new parity strategy refers to this as a ‘restrictive requirement’, but it’s cagy about how removing this rite of passage would impact the secretariat.

This document goes far beyond ‘do your best’ exhortations. It also differs from its flabby predecessors in its tone, which is almost exasperated. It mentions that women are currently 32% of senior managers, and 43.7% of staff at lower levels, but there is no time wasted on self-congratulations on the distance come so far (which is not too shabby). Instead it exposes female drop-out rates as seniority increases, and shows how women’s representation at top levels has stagnated and even dropped.

The strategy impatiently preempts opposition to special measures for women. It notes, acidly, that there is as little evidence that women recruits lack merit as there is that “our institutional processes at present are geared towards securing and promoting the most talented staff in an unbiased manner.” Sarcasm in a UN policy document? Maybe things really are changing.

It fails, however, to even mention the well-known role that powerful UN member states play in distorting staffing decisions. At the highest levels, leadership of key agencies is effectively ‘reserved’ for specific countries (the US gets UNICEF, for instance; France gets peacekeeping).

At lower levels, I have seen states (particularly the big donors) presenting UN agency heads with CVs, demanding appointments of their nationals. Sometimes states confront managers who have not renewed their nationals’ staff contracts. Such practices override merit-based job criteria, and they ignore gender-balance priorities too.

Eventually, any parity strategy must confront culture and gender role expectations. The problem is not just one of gender bias among recruiters, failing to see the potential of women applicants. It’s also about private obligations that limit women’s choices.

In UN peace operations, a commonly-heard argument is that women don’t want these jobs, because of a lack of work-life balance, or even women’s lack of ambition. This puts the responsibility for low staff numbers on women, not work conditions or bias. But often women don’t apply for these positions because they have child, elder, and other domestic care obligations that can only be contracted out to a point. Or their spouses are unwilling to take up the slack in domestic duties.

How far should the UN go in helping women address these constraints? The Guterres strategy doubles paid parental leave for women in peace operations. But this alone isn’t a viable solution: a woman with a one-year-old baby would have to leave her behind, and see her maybe one week in four.

It’s never really questioned why it’s more acceptable for male staff to leave their families behind; an alternative approach could level the field by barring both men and women with children under five from peace operations.

Few organisations approach gender parity goals by trying to transform men; more typically they look at helping women with domestic constraints. But if the transformation of gender roles is needed for gender equality, and gender equality is the work of the UN, it’s not unreasonable for personnel policy to get more radical.

Gender parity in staffing, and the broader project of women’s empowerment, are not the same thing — though they are connected at two levels. The first is in the potential availability of women for these jobs, which depends on how far women around the world have come in education and the labour market and in their personal liberation from domestic duties.

Second, the broader project of women’s empowerment might get a boost if more female leaders control power and resources at the UN. This, however, depends on women leaders being feminists, which is not a given. The new personnel policy promises ‘psychometric’ testing for leadership candidates. If that includes assessments of commitment to egalitarian principles, the broader women’s empowerment project would be a little safer.

The policy also says little about confronting male staff members’ sometimes fierce contempt for female colleagues. Sometimes this is expressed as sexual harassment, and while the document does mention zero tolerance, it says nothing about how management has tended to defend accused staff members.

Contempt can take indirect forms — I have heard women complain of male staff watching porn on their computers during work hours, in view of female colleagues. In other cases, men who feel victimised by affirmative action may sabotage female colleagues, ignoring or belittling women’s suggestions, or omitting them from meetings.

Thus summer, the so-called ‘Google memo’ saga exposed the intensity of some men’s resentment of affirmative action, and at the UN, backlash is already brewing from men who fear they will be pushed aside by the parity agenda.

Guterres has called achieving gender parity within the UN “an urgent need, a moral duty, an operational necessity — and a personal priority.” He has good reason to say so: his own appointment last year, as the ninth male secretary-general, starkly highlighted the fact that not a single woman has ever occupied this post.

This year, Guterres did give women 17 of his 32 fresh appointments to the senior management group. But how serious is he really? Not one of these women seems to manage a large budget or team, unlike their male counterparts. Also worrying is the moment of truth for the secretary-general’s parity policy: its 2028 deadline is more than a decade away.

It doesn’t take a hardened cynic to work out why this date was chosen. Guterres will no longer be in office then: he won’t have to answer for its failure. A real test of his commitment to gender equality will be whether, like Google’s Sundar Pichai, he demonstrates zero tolerance for opponents of parity and sends misogynistic heads rolling.

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