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The Goal of Gender Parity in the UN: Proving That Women Are Equal to Men


Ana Menéndez, a former Spanish diplomat, leads the UN’s internal gender parity strategy and oversees the institution’s policymaking. In an interview with PassBlue, she said that the UN stands for certain “values,” and an integral part of those beliefs is gender equality. Here, she attends a UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting, March 2019. AMANDA VOISARD/UN WOMEN

Ana Menéndez is a former Spanish diplomat who oversees the gender parity strategy at the United Nations, working directly for Secretary-General António Guterres for a year and a half now on one of his main priorities at the institution. Menéndez is tasked with the role — besides being responsible for overall UN policy — after a diplomatic career of 30-plus years, based in Geneva, New York, Ireland, Tunisia and elsewhere.

When asked how her diplomacy experience is relevant to her UN job, she said that after many years working for a national government, it was interesting to work from a more universal perspective.

“Of course, I am a woman, and no country in the world is free of the challenges of gender,” she said. When she joined the diplomatic echelons of Spain in the 1980s, she noted, about 8 percent, or fewer than 20 women, served. “I know the difficulties working in an atmosphere that is very male, you have to prove yourself and argue that it would be better if there were more of us.”

On International Women’s Day, March 8, Guterres reiterated in a speech that the UN, which has been dominated by men since its start in 1945, has gained gender parity “among those who lead our teams around the world.” Six months ago, the UN reached parity in its senior management ranks, which he personally appoints, resulting in 26 women and 16 men at that level and “placing us well ahead of schedule to achieve the goal of parity in all senior leadership by 2021.” (His five-year term ends Dec. 31, 2022.)

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Yet gender parity, he emphasized, is about power, symbolized “in the fact that those targeted for sexual harassment are overwhelmingly women.”

Menéndez spoke to PassBlue in her office at the UN about its progress — and the serious barriers and backlash — in striving for systemwide gender parity. The 45-minute interview occurred in March, right before the annual women’s rights conference at the UN began on March 11. (On that issue, PassBlue reported that the United States, the most powerful member of the UN, is aiming to roll back women’s rights at the conference.)

Menéndez asked that the questions be sent to her beforehand, although some were answered spontaneously during the conversation. Mostly, she cited the UN’s bureaucracy as the primary obstacle to sweeping change, but at the same time, she seemed to let UN member countries off the hook in promoting women in their own governments, leaving them outside possible UN jobs later on.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Q. PassBlue published an op-ed in January 2019 about the significant obstacles hindering the UN’s goal for achieving gender parity throughout its operations. Can you explain the gains so far in reaching the goal?

A. I am personally overseeing the gender parity strategy of the secretary-general, which is part of the gender equality agenda. . . . We are working internally with the objective of reaching 50-50 parity among all UN staff by 2028, all the UN system, across the board. We are not looking in terms of aggregating data because if we look in those terms, we already are there; right now, there are more women than men at the lower level, more men at the upper level. So what we are talking about is all agencies, departments, funds and programs, at all levels. We are talking about the professionals. International professionals, not the national.

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The secretary-general has set 2021 to reach parity at higher echelons. We are not there yet, as there are more women than men in the senior management group . . . but not in the field. We are very, very close, and we are certainly on target. For example, the resident coordinators, our leadership in the field, we are already there. In political and peacekeeping missions, we are at the highest historical level . . . that is, civilian personnel only, not police or military components.

[Those] uniformed personnel have another strategy . . . so we are making progress. Now, take into account that [the 193] UN member states have asked the Secretariat to reach parity since the 1980s, so we should have reached parity in 2000 . . . and we are 2019, so many people are skeptical. This time around, I think there is a major difference: we have a strategy, a 15-page document which has targets, benchmarks and recommendations. So it’s very specific. It’s not abstract ideas about how to get there.

Q. What is the main obstacle right now in achieving full equality in the UN?

A. The problem is the following: The UN is a bureaucracy, with a lot of rigidities. So there are things we can change and there are things we cannot change by ourselves. The secretary-general must go to member states if we want to change some rules or regulations, assign budgets to this or the other. This is a member-state-driven organization. So, when there is criticism about, for example, an idea of an all-women [job] roster [to recruit women], that’s something that legally we cannot do. However, we can do so many other things. And we are doing them.

Q. Bureaucracy is one barrier, but what are the other obstacles for gaining parity at the UN?

A. It’s a cultural thing. Gender parity is not only about numbers, but also about institutional culture and institutional change, and this is really very complicated. I’m not talking about the UN; you can go to the private sector, you can go to many other institutions. You will see that unfortunately, women are not where they should be. So there is an issue of culture that you need to make the case, so that everybody in the organization — in this case in the United Nations — owns the concept. That they realize that this is a good thing because this is an organization that is about values, because we are serving the peoples in the world, and let’s not forget, 50 percent of world is women. It’s not only men that we are serving. Our staff should reflect what the world is.

There is also a rights perspective. There is all this institutional change that is, I would say, that changing an organization — bureaucracies — can’t be done overnight. So you need to make your case about the fact that reaching 50-50 staff for the UN is going to be ultimately better for our effectiveness and efficiency. It’s not an easy thing, but we are doing it. If the UN reaches parity by 2028, it’s a good example for all member states because they can say, this can be done. If the UN can do it, we can all do it. So many things are important in this agenda.

Q. Pushback against comprehensive institutional and cultural change is a constant in history, including in promoting equal rights for women. Can you elaborate on why there is pushback from some quarters at the UN?

A. There is some pushback because there are anxieties, and I can understand that, too. I can understand the anxieties of those who think maybe we are going to be left behind, or that our careers will stall. And that’s simply not true. The issue is that we have an organization that is reflective of the world today, that is more fair and more just.

Q. Is the pushback coming from men in the UN, from certain departments of the UN?

A. This is a generalization, which is not good. Because many men are very supportive. It would be a generalization to say that managers are against it or all midlevel [staff] are against it; many people are supportive. I have listened to negative criticism by women, too, who say, We reached the higher levels without help — in a sometimes-hostile environment. I wouldn’t blame anyone in particular, but the problem is more rooted in bureaucracy. It’s difficult to carry forward an institutional change. There are some resistances that may come from, maybe to be fair, there are more men than women who could oppose on principle or be uncomfortable with the idea. But most people are really helpful, enthusiastic, some of them are convinced that this could be good for the organization.

Q. How do you manage the pushback and backlash at the UN to the gender parity goal?

A. What is important for us is to have a good internal communication, we are working on that. The [gender parity] strategy was launched in September 2017 and started to be implemented on January 1, 2018: the first stages were all departments and agencies, funds and programs, they must have their own targets, plan of action. Things are moving faster in headquarters, like New York, Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi, but not that fast in the field because we are far far far behind in the field; we see it is much more difficult to move in the field. We were focusing in the first year on targets, implementation, what do we need to take forward to member states, what can we do on our own, what are our figures?

We established a website that is public, interactive in real time, where you can see the data, go to any department and see the conversation. All these things have taken time — we are working better at internal communications, at dissemination, talking to people, also listening to the concerns that could be legitimate; that’s the phase we are in now. I am also going to to country teams and to field missions to speak with hiring managers, women, men, senior managers, to see the obstacles. We have to be better, I have to acknowledge this, to make sure everyone is listened to and that everybody understands they own the equality agenda. If people don’t own the agenda, I don’t think we are going to be successful.

Q. How do you get everyone to “own the agenda,” to persuade people who are very reluctant, leery of change, particularly if they feel threatened by it. How do you allay their fears?

A. The first thing we need to say is that this is a question of values; and gender equality is a value. We work in the UN because we believe in the values of the organization. We cannot say we are staff of the UN and we don’t support equality, this is not fair. We’re not a private company where people go to make money. We need to make money because we need to live, but we are here because we believe in values. We need to uphold the values of the UN.

The second thing: our staff should reflect the reality of the world. Half the world’s population is female. We are serving in the field; in many instances, women need to see women in the country teams and in the leadership of the UN because it is a good example; for many women, it can be inspiring; they think, I could be there.

For example, in cases of sexual exploitation and abuse or sexual harassment, when survivors are female . . . sometimes women feel more at ease if they can talk to other women than if they have to tell their stories to men. Many studies make the case that organizations are more effective, efficient, if they have significant numbers of women, not tokenism, but real participation of women at all levels, and this makes institutions to be more modern.

Q. How has the culture at the UN changed with more female senior leadership in place recently?

A. You see different dynamics. I was recently visiting Unami [UN mission in Iraq], the three top leaders there are women. I won’t say that women are not better than men: they are not. That women work better than men and solve all the problems: this is not the case. You can see in Iraq, this is a country that has had a very difficult history, very complicated. Many countries can benefit from women in leadership, it can really change perceptions, it can really help open doors. Again, I’m not saying that this is going to be better because there are women, not at all . . . but  I think it’s good to have change, good to have diversity, to have inclusion, show different examples of leadership. The three women have been very welcomed by Iraqi authorities. You can see a change that is positive. Nobody is claiming that women are better than men, we are claiming that women are equal to men. The beauty of it is 50-50, it is about men and women.

I would like to make this point because sometimes I have the impression that, oh, women have taken over and now it’s women. No, no, this is not the objective of this strategy.

Q. How do you make cultural changes when it comes to the UN’s 193 member states? Especially if some countries are not interested in or don’t want gender parity, including my country, the United States, under the Trump administration?

A. [Change] must happen via member states. For example, one recommendation of the strategy is to have a paternity leave, which must go through member states, taken by fathers or mothers, for a longer duration than it is now [six months]. We have not defined the new duration yet. We must go to member states because of [related] financial obligations. We cannot do it on our own. There are rigidities in the UN.

I don’t agree with you that some countries do not want gender parity. There is a UN group of friends of gender parity of 150, so out of 193 countries, that isn’t bad. Most countries want to see gender parity. I’ve not heard anyone say they are against it. There may be countries — I don’t know — that don’t support paternity leave because they can’t afford it. The majority of countries support this. [The US is not a member of the group of friends, Menéndez said.]

Q. Switching gears, how can women on the secretary-general’s mediation board make a difference, as compared to male mediators, in that role?

A. The mediation board was established in September 2017: there are nine men and nine women; it is an advisory board of eminent personalities, set up to search for diplomacy, to do conflict prevention, to find political solutions to crises. There is also a geographic balance. It has had three meetings so far and informal contacts. Many of the women are mediators, but not everyone on the board is a mediator. What they bring is not different than what men bring. It’s their own perspective. Some of them have grass-roots links with their countries and their continents and know what is going on, they [and the men on the board] are working with us on trying to encourage networks of mediators in the different regions. One problem with women in mediation is that women are not normally at the table, not in Track 1 negotiations; they are working with us trying to promote this in peace talks or just day to day. Many of them have been very important on that. Men are involved too, and there should be a cross fertilization to participate.

Q. Yet there are still no UN-led peace talks with women at the table. On Yemen, there is a woman on the country team, but that’s it in the immediate parties to the negotiations.

A. I’m not an expert and I don’t want to pretend to be an expert on Yemen. There are many complications, from logistics, but basically what I can say is that we at the UN are encouraging the participation of women in Libya, in Syria; as you know there was a big push with women participating in the talks, even though as a minority.

Q. How do you push for more women in peace talks more concertedly, to force it?

A. You need to have the conversations with the parties . . . the ones in the negotiations. Sometimes discreetly, but you do it.

Q. There are no women leading any UN peace process, correct?

A. I agree. But women were involved in the Colombia peace talks, which is a very good example that can be followed. It may be more difficult in some cases than others, but if you push enough, you may get there.

Q. How can the Commission on the Status of Women — the CSW, the annual conference on women’s rights — draw more attention to itself in the US, where politicians, the general public and media ignore or know little about it? What can it do to achieve gender equality better year-round across the world?

A. [The CSW] is an intergovernmental process in the UN that has its own logic, its own way of being handled; it operates by consensus, negotiating an outcome — it’s not easy [now] as there is pushback on women and gender issues. What is interesting about the CSW is the mobilization of civil society, this is one of the biggest mobilizations of the academic year at the UN, so to speak, the enthusiasm, energy. This is ultimately an intergovernmental organization, and it’s up to member states to decide what to do with the processes. They are the protagonists, they are sovereign countries, they have their ideas, their goals. It’s up to them to take this up and say, we like this, we don’t like that.

Q. If you were secretary-general, what is the first thing you would do to change the organization?

A. For women, to be very vocal; that [equality] is an issue of power, and that unless power is shared, this [organization] is not going to go anywhere. What you need to do is to make men and women own the idea that equality is good; make the business case, the effectiveness case; the rights case; the environment case. To continue a pattern where there is no equality is bad. We need to be convinced of this, to continue hammer the message. There is no other way.

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

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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