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Gender Parity in Upper-Level UN Jobs Remains Elusive


Ban Ki-moon of the UN
Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations,with students in Februay 2011 at Oxford University after he spoke on human security. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

This year, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has so far appointed 55 people to high-level positions. Twelve of the appointees, nearly 22 percent, are women, filling roles like the special representative for children and armed conflict and the executive director of the World Food Program.

Some of the people Ban appointed include Zainab Hawa Bangura of Sierra Leone as the special representative on sexual violence in conflict; Angela Kane of Germany, a former under secretary-general for management, as high representative for disarmament affairs; Karin Landgren of Sweden as special envoy in Liberia, after working in Burundi in a similar status; and Ertharin Cousin of the United States running the World Food Program.

Of the 78 high-level positions at the UN, women fill 23, or almost 30 percent. Ban’s office said it was working on raising that percentage, but that it is not easy. When Ban first took office, in 2007, 24 percent of high posts were employed by women. The rate jumped to 28 percent in 2009; 31 percent in 2010 and dropped to 29 percent in 2011.

“As you undoubtedly know, there are still obstacles to achieving gender parity at the U.N., and this continues to be one of the Secretary-General’s priorities,” Eduardo Del Buey, deputy spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. “We have indeed made significant gains in this regard, but much remains to be done to break down old stereotypes and create a modern vision of today’s United Nations.”

Some UN reports offer various explanations as to why progress in reaching the General Assembly‘s parity goal for women in top UN posts is not there yet. Strides have been made: appointments of women in high-level slots and in entry- and managerial-level jobs at the Secretariat and UN agencies have steadily risen under Ban’s tenure. The most consistent gains have occurred in jobs at New York headquarters.

Still, the higher women trek, the less likely they will be working with other women.

The General Assembly passed a resolution in 1996 calling for gender parity in managerial decision-making positions at the UN by 2000. It reaffirmed this resolution with nine others through 2009. In 2004, a resolution called for gender parity among special representative and special envoy jobs by 2015 – positions appointed by the secretary-general.

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That office and UN agencies refer to the parity challenges in recent studies, helping to clarify the difficulty in increasing the percentage of women working across the UN system.

Reported factors include a low number of qualified women applicants; weak flexible-work arrangements; lack of strong political will and leadership support from senior levels of organizations; and sexual harassment and violence in the workplace (concentrated possibly, but not specifically noted, in field situations).

Angela Kane, UN head of disarmament affairs, with Tibor Toth of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, at a Nagasaki Peace Memorial ceremony on Aug. 9, 2012.

A glass ceiling at the UN, one of the world’s biggest promoter of women, at least on paper, stops virtually at the midcareer professional (P-4) level, Aparna Mehrotra, a senior adviser for  UN Women, said earlier this year at a panel on “integration of gender” at the UN.

Women stood the greatest chance of being employed below the P-4 level; their greatest representation in 2011 was at entry level, or P-1, at 60 percent, the secretary-general’s report says.

Numerous civil society organizations that monitor the hiring of women in the UN, specifically in the field of peace and security, declined to comment for this article. The Office of the Focal Point for Women at UN Women, which tracks such information, also declined to comment, reinforcing the sensitivity of the issue and the overriding role of diplomacy at the world body.

But as Emma Sabin, a vice president of advisory services for a New York-based research organization called Catalyst, said, similar trends in the business world could be consistent with the UN model.

Catalyst, a nonprofit group that tracks the inclusiveness of women in companies worldwide, found that in 2011, women held 16 percent of the board seats in Fortune 500 businesses, and that fewer than a fifth of the companies had 24 percent or more women directors. Catalyst released its findings in a census this month.

“In managerial levels, women can make up 30 to 50 percent, but the CEO percentage is 6 percent or less in that pyramid,” Sabin said in a phone interview. “That’s the same in companies across the world.”

Catalyst has found that women are less likely to benefit from formal leadership development programs than men and that they are also less likely to have senior-level mentors.

What’s helpful, Sabin added, is to think about qualifications differently.

“When considering competency, you should be looking for not just the title held before, but the actual competency that is necessary for the role,” she said.

At the UN, title and diplomacy matter equally. Member states directly influence the placement of women in peacekeeping ranks, for example, offering personnel from their own military and police force to the UN, thus deciding if they want to send women or men. Women make up a mere 3 percent of military personnel and 10 percent of police ranks in UN peacekeeping missions.

But women are rarely part of senior-level peace talks, despite a 12-year-old mandate by the Security Council to ensure women’s roles at such negotiations.

At headquarters level, Ban’s team appeared to also shift blame onto member states, an argument that has been used year after year, yet the team emphasized its efforts to push the UN’s 193 nations along.

“We are working with member states to ensure that the candidacies of high-level women are put forward for management positions at all levels,” Del Buey said. “We are working hard to underscore and publicize the work of women staff members at all levels to ensure they are seen by others as role models to be emulated.”

Ban revealed his own mind-set on the matter in a recently published book, “Conversations With Ban Ki-Moon: What Is the United Nations Really Like? The View From the Top,” by Tom Plate, an American journalist who specializes in Asia.

In the book, Ban said that in his first three years as secretary-general, he increased by 60 percent the women senior advisers at the under secretary-general level, but he didn’t provide the original baseline.

He also said he changed the makeup of the all male “selection committee” to be “equally balanced” and that when three names were submitted for openings, there had to be a woman’s name — “at least one.” When no women’s names were submitted, he said he would return all the names, and that by doing so “I was eventually able to find a senior woman to appoint.”

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Amy Lieberman is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She reports mostly on UN headquarters news when she is not working abroad. In the last several years, she has reported from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nepal and Thailand. Lieberman is a graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. For more information, go to

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