One Year into the Secretary-General’s Gender Parity Effort at the UN: Bright Spots and Clouds on the Horizon

Panel discussion: September 17, 2018, Permanent Mission of the State of Qatar to the UN

By Anne-Marie Goetz and Paige Arthur

UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ Gender Parity Strategy (GPS), which aims to ensure parity at all levels of the UN by 2026 (and by 2028 in the UN’s peace and security components), was launched in September 2017. An informal review of implementation one year later concluded that the strategy is on track when it comes to senior appointments, but significant challenges lie ahead in the middle-management levels and in peacekeeping missions, particularly in the context of a downsizing organization. Linking the GPS to broader gender equality issues also remains a work in progress, in order to get beyond discussions of “the numbers” to deeper substantive issues.

In a high-level discussion of UN leaders and experts hosted by the Permanent Representative of the state of Qatar, Ambassador Alya Ahmed bin Saif Al-Thani, who is co-chair of the UN’s 149-member Group of Friends of Gender Parity, data on progress to date was shared, as were analyses of obstacles. USG Ana Maria Menéndez noted that there is 100 percent compliance across the system with all human resources units having developed their plans for reaching their gender parity strategy in time. She also noted recent “firsts”: the Secretary- General’s cabinet reached parity, and an extremely challenging UN peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, now has an entirely female senior leadership team (the SRSG and both DSRSGs). Lisa Buttenheim, ASG at the Department of Field Support, also highlighted several “firsts” (which predate the GPS), such as the appointment of Major General Kristen Lund, the first woman to serve as Force Commander in a United Nations peacekeeping operation, and the creation of the senior women talent pipeline program to build a dedicated talent pool.

Paige Arthur, Deputy Director of the Center on International Cooperation, used data to underline several significant shifts. From a situation in 2015 when 92 percent of the appointments to senior positions were men, 2017 saw women taking 54 percent of new appointments to USG and ASG positions, and 2018 sofar has seen women taking 59 percent of new appointment to these levels. The current situation (as of August 2018) is that women hold 38 percent of senior positions. Arthur said that full parity at these levels could be achieved by the third quarter of 2019, well ahead of schedule, if the Secretary-General continues the current pace. Many of these initial appointments, however, were to UN entities with relatively small budgets and few staff, which meant that one year ago (September 2017) male USGs held the top leadership positions of 8 out of the 10 largest UN entities headed by USGs and thus managed 95 percent of these budgetary dollars. More recent appointments (including the appointment of Rosemary DiCarlo at the Department of Political Affairs), however, have changed this, with women now managing 4 of the 10 largest entities run by USGs and more than 20 percent of this spending. Appointments of women from the Global South have not, however, kept up the pace as much as might be desired. Two years ago, women from the Global South represented about half of the women in senior leadership; although they have seen their overall numbers increase under the secretary-general, their proportion as a subset of all women leaders has shrunk: they are now 31 out of the 85 senior women, which is 36 percent.

While these high-profile early successes are remarkable, some speakers noted that senior appointments, although “high-optics,” are also “low-hanging fruit,” as the Secretary-General has considerable discretion in urging member states to put forward female candidates and selecting them. It is a different story at mid- management level, particularly at the highest professional category (P-5) and the two director-level categories (D-1 and D-2), which are dominated by male career professionals. In the context of downsizing field operations and rationalization or merging of headquarters entities, the pursuit of gender parity in the male-dominated pipeline of mid- and lower upper-management has become highly sensitive, since promotions as well as rationalization decisions favor staff with permanent contracts, which are disproportionately held by men with expectations of advancement.

Another area of concern is peacekeeping field missions. While the percentage of women in these missions is up now to 26 percent from 15 percent a year ago, according to Arthur, other speakers noted the gender-specific challenges to women’s tenure in field operations, including the fact that 80 percent of these are non-family duty stations and can involve significant security threats. Promotion of senior levels in peace and security institutions for professionals pursuing the internal career track require several periods of service in these duty stations. And up to 75 percent of the civilian positions in missions call for specialization in fields in which women are rare: logistics, engineering, and piloting. Former SRSG Karin Landgren, currently Executive Director of Security Council Report, set out recommendations for addressing some of these constraints, including improved provisions for women field staff to locate theirfamilies in safe neighboring countries, and modifications to the requirements that duty station experience necessarily be in conflict zones or in UN peace and security entities alone (i.e., service in other types of UN entities could be recognized as relevant).

Some speakers addressed the deeper, often unrecognized, biases and behaviors that either obstruct recognition of women’s leadership capacities, or that contribute to a higher female than male exit rate from the organization. Landgren noted that women’s skills in mediation tend to be unacknowledged, and recommended that UN envoys and mediators and bearers of the Secretary- General’s good offices should be appointed in male/female pairs, not individually. The deputy permanent representative of Norway, Ambassador Mari Skåre, and UN Women’s ASG, Asa Regnér, discussed gendered power dynamics that produce sexual harassment or subtle forms of disparagement. USG Menéndez also noted: “Gender Parity is not only about numbers, but about culture. We know now that we have to embark on a deeper cultural shift in the organization. I think it is important that when we talk about culture that everybody understands this is really about the environment, diversity, and a UN that is more effective.” The moderator, Mr. Youssef Mahmoud, Senior Advisor at International Peace Institute, similarly commented on the importance of a cultural shift in the organization. For this to happen, a convincing narrative is needed from the top down to explain how gender parity is not just a project of increasing numbers, but a means to significant institutional transformation towards greater effectiveness.

CIC and CGA have developed a proposal for a Gender Observatory that would act as an independent monitor of the UN’s performance in implementing its gender parity strategy—and ensuring the strategy’s linkage to broader issues of gender equality both inside and outside of the UN. It will also develop a series of consultative forums to identify the structural and attitudinal barriers that have an impact on the retention of women staff as well as on their capacity to promote gender equality perspectives across the range of the UN’s work. For more information on this initiative please contact Paige Arthur (CIC) at, or Anne Marie Goetz (CGA) at


Anne Marie Goetz is a Clinical Professor in the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Paige Arthur is the Deputy Director at the Center for International Cooperation.

Vertical Tabs

Oct 08, 2018