One year into the United Nations’ new strategy for gender parity among staff members at all levels, a gendered backlash has emerged, even as parity has been achieved at the highest echelons of the world body. Political will from UN leaders beyond the secretary-general and member states is needed to ensure that where the UN is downsizing, particularly in peace operations, momentum will not be lost in increasing the proportion of female staff members.
Indeed, Secretary-General António Guterres’s gender parity strategy, which aims to achieve equality throughout the UN system by 2028, is facing stiff headwinds. The strategy has won strong success at the level of senior appointments, where Guterres initially set a deadline of parity by 2021. At his current rate of appointing women to senior leadership posts, he will reach parity before then.
Other areas of progress exist, too. The UN is on track for parity at all levels in its headquarters in New York. It has made more progress on sexual harassment in the past year than in the entire history of the organization.
For the first time, the UN conducted a systemwide survey of harassment (by Deloitte), released on Jan. 16. While only 17 percent of staff members responded, the survey found that harassment is prevalent and serious (1 in 3 respondents suffered harassment in the last two years). The survey has elevated the issue to an important discussion.
Yet the gender parity effort is facing challenges from staff unions, structural blockages in the system and faltering political will.
Anxieties about the effort surged as significant institutional changes were — and continue to be — instituted throughout the UN. The retirement age was raised to 65 from 62, so fewer positions are open at the top of the pack. Funding cuts and restructuring also mean downsizing, which is intensifying competition for the surviving midlevel positions. The peace and security pillar — peacekeeping — with its large and historically male-dominated field operations, is contending with the biggest difficulties.
A major problem is the charge that the methods that have been proposed to achieve gender parity could discriminate against male staff members. The UN’s numerous staff unions have presented objections to a working group of the UN’s Staff Management Committee, and a response has been presented by the Department of Management. Both papers have been sent to Guterres.
The staff unions’ argument is that the actions to reach gender parity by 2028 violate Article 101 of the UN Charter, repeated word for word in the Staff Regulations, which make “the highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity” the “paramount consideration” in recruiting UN staff.
By citing this article in the objections, the inference is that if gender balance is a priority in hiring or retention decisions, it violates professional standards. This point was explicit in a provocative headline for an article in the Inter-Press Service in October 2018: “When Gender Parity Knocks at the Door, Does Merit Fly Out of the Window?”
What is unclear is whether the staff unions’ complaints are backed by all staff members, although Ian Richards, the president of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations, with more than 60,000 members in the UN worldwide, says the complaints represent widespread unease with the policy.
Bibi Sherifa Khan, the president of the United Nations Staff Union, covering approximately 20,000 staff members recruited nationally and internationally, said in an interview with PassBlue that there are different perspectives among staff members on the parity strategy. Many women support it and complain about a history of unequal treatment, gender bias and harassment.
Khan spoke of “a whole new generation of young women coming from outside the system who are challenging what they find here.” She cited unconscious gender biases that undermine women’s chances of recruitment, label them as underperformers and make them more likely than male colleagues to leave the UN before they hit the pipeline into middle-management, where the numbers of women are lowest.
The question of how decisions are made about which staff members survive restructuring and downsizing processes could have a gendered effect that hurts the parity goal.
Staff regulations stipulate that individuals holding permanent contracts should have priority to posts that survive restructuring. According to interviews with staff union representatives, the UN’s Office of Human Resources informed the Staff Management Committee that 70 percent of those holding permanent contracts are men. These rules will disproportionately benefit them during downsizing, leaving a concentration that will make achieving parity impossible until the men’s — now more distant — retirement.
The effect is likely to be most pronounced in the UN’s male-dominated peace and security institutions, which are undergoing significant reorganization and, in several major peacekeeping missions, dramatic downsizing — such as in Darfur.
John Ging, the director of operations for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) and a member of the Working Group on the Gender Strategy, said in an interview for this article that proposed procedural changes to determine the order of staff retention in downsizing offices would prioritize gender balance.
Resistance was predictable, as people did the math. According to a staff union executive, who asked for nonattribution: “Those who have been on the frontline will suffer. Will I be fired for my gender after 20 years taking bullets for the organization?”
It seems apparent that the male-concentration effect will be most intense in areas where gender parity is needed the most. That is certainly the case in fragile and conflict-prone settings, known as “hardship postings” and “non-family duty stations,” where personnel have historically been mostly men. But the parity goal aims to do more than just add women to a department or entity and leave it at that.
Its objective is to ensure that the UN can meet its goals in every sector, particularly in peace and security work, where there is growing demand for female UN staff and leaders to enhance peacebuilding and offer better responses to all conflict-affected populations, including women and girls.
Much can be done to make these contexts more conducive to female staff members, such as taking sexual harassment seriously and modifying a benefits system that assumes that staffers’ families follow a male breadwinner model, with a home-based caregiver.
The gender strategy observed that at current rates of recruitment and retention of women in these settings, it will take 703 years to reach equality at the top of middle management in UN missions. As part of restructuring, the selection of these posts has been shifted to the secretary-general, which should help assure parity in the field.
The unions are not the only ones putting the brakes on the strategy. Structural issues, including the recent UN reform process, have also affected prospects for success — also notably in the peace and security pillar. As of Jan. 1, 2019, authority for policy, compliance and accountability in aligning recruitment processes with the gender strategy resides with the Department of Management.
Previously, the authority was handled in the energetic and committed leadership of the Department of Field Support, which also managed the Senior Women Talent Pipeline. Will the new leadership be similarly enthusiastic about gender parity? The concern among some staff members is that resistance to gender parity may make it politically easier to let the strategy die rather than to fight for its implementation.
Other hurdles have appeared. A proposal to increase the number of women in the UN’s civilian rosters in peacekeeping missions — for example, logistics experts, electricians, communications specialists, supply managers, plumbers and statisticians — by introducing a women-only call for applicants has encountered objections from the Office of Legal Affairs. Rosters enable rapid deployment because they contain candidates who have been reviewed and been deemed qualified and therefore can be called for future openings.
The Office of Legal Affairs argues that a women-only call constitutes discrimination in recruitment. But others see the proposal as an attempt to create talent pools that are more inclusive of both women and men. The proposal is in line with the call by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women to create temporary special measures to override gender-based discrimination.
A final challenge is a potential faltering of political will. Blame for foot-dragging on gender equality is often laid at the door of the UN’s 193 member states, but on paper, at least, support exists: the number of nations backing the strategy in the Group of Friends of Gender Parity, 140, is larger than any other group of friends in the UN.
Member state endorsement in the UN General Assembly’s budget committee will be needed to approve changes in staff regulations, such as prioritizing gender balance in hiring decisions. But without a strong defense of the strategy, the UN’s committees may be the place where the plan dies. In the committees, it could become ensnared in endless discussions and procedural traps and could face resistance from powerful countries that are not members of the Group of Friends.
Political will can only be galvanized if internal champions show determination — as the Center on International Cooperation noted when the strategy was first released — so that people, regardless of their gender, can rally around the plan’s deeper ambition of strengthening the UN’s ability to advance equality agendas.
In the words of Bibi Sherifa Khan: “What is real is that gender parity at the UN is not an ‘if,’ it is not a ‘maybe or a maybe not,’ it is not an issue that only governments have to deal with. The Secretariat has to. It is not a question of if, but how we do it. It has to be done.”
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Anne Marie Goetz is a clinical professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and was previously director of the peace and security section of UN Women. She is the author of seven books on gender, politics and policy in developing countries.
Paige Arthur is the deputy director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, where she also leads its work in the prevention and peacebuilding program. She holds a Ph.D in contemporary history from University of California, Berkeley, and a B.A. in international relations from Johns Hopkins University.