António Guterres has finished the first year of his second five-year term as secretary-general of the United Nations. During his original term, from 2017-2022, he publicly avowed to bring gender parity to the UN. Recently, speaking on the fifth anniversary of the launch of the UN’s gender parity strategy, Guterres applauded achievements in that direction.
“Achieving gender parity throughout the Organization was a key priority in my first term and it remains a key priority in the second,” Guterres said in a public meeting on Dec. 12, repeating what he has said in the past about the issue. “Gender inequality is essentially a question of power. Our male-dominated world and male-dominated culture damage both men and women. And to transform power relations, we need equality between men and women in leadership, decision-making and participation at all levels.”
Tracking his appointments and the nominations that have been approved by the General Assembly to high-up posts in 2022 shows that while the UN has come a long way in the last 10 years toward gender parity in such jobs, it may be too soon to rest on laurels. While Guterres recognized early on that the UN had stood on a gender inequality precipice, his appointments in 2022 have not backed the institution too far from that edge.
“The drafting of the Gender Parity Strategy under Guterres is a signal that women’s leadership within the UN is important and needs to be valued,” Sudarsana Kundu, a former co-director of Gender at Work, a nongovernmental organization, and former UN Women staff member. “While it may not signify a shift in gender norms, it denotes an intent to remedy historical discrimination against women within a highly patriarchal structure.”
“If you really want gender parity to be a norm in an institution, you have to look at both the formal and the informal — what is the organizational culture and what are the work practices?” she added. “Unless these change, the UN won’t achieve long-term sustainable parity.”
Among his leadership team, Guterres has achieved gender parity. Of the 45 people listed in his senior management group, 27, or 60 percent, are women. But the funnel of women in these posts narrows from there. Overall in 2022, more women were succeeded in a leadership position than were appointed, reflecting a loss of almost 20 percent. Half of the positions held by women in 2021 went to men in 2022, and half of the positions formerly held by men were not given to women. A woman succeeded a man only six times for a job opening. In a long-nagging problem, a gender gap exists in entry-level positions in the Secretariat, which saw a decrease in women filling such jobs. Guterres acknowledged the fact in his December speech.
Here’s what PassBlue found, based on public announcements by the UN spokesperson’s office in 2022 and information available across the UN system’s various websites. A note about the data: The UN is a vast bureaucracy with multiple streams of information. Working with the spokesperson’s office, PassBlue combined numbers from several sources to produce this analysis.
• Approximately 86 personnel appointments were announced from January through December 2022, which included 32 resident coordinators in what is called “host countries” globally.
• Sixty appointments were made for positions that did not solely name a resident coordinator but may have included that reference in the job title. Of the 26 positions held by a woman that turned over in 2022, 13 (or 50 percent) were given to a man; 11 (42 percent) to a woman. Two women (8 percent) were reappointed to their position.
• Overall, 21 women were appointed to jobs whose title is solely resident coordinator. Eleven replaced another woman, two were reappointed and one assumed an inaugural position. For an additional position, that of director of the UN Regional Information Center in Brussels, it is unclear who held it previously. Six women were appointed to a post most previously held by a man: Michelle Muschett succeeded Luis López-Calva as an assistant secretary-general in the UN Development Program; Elizabeth Spehar succeeded Oscar Fernandez-Taranco as an assistant secretary-general for peace-building; Hanna Tetteh succeeded Parfait Onanga-Anyanga as special envoy for the Horn of Africa; Valentine Rugwabiza succeeded Mankeur Ndiaye as special representative for the Central African Republic and head of mission for Minusca; Ingeborg Richardson succeeded Bruno Lemarquis as special deputy representative for the UN Integrated Office in Haiti (Binuh); Graciela Santana succeeded Carmel Agius as president of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals.
• Reena Ghelani was just named to a new position: UN Famine Prevention and Response Coordinator, while four other inaugural positions were filled by men: Amir Mahmoud Abdulla became the UN coordinator of the Black Sea Grain Initiative (he has since stepped down and been replaced by a man); Robert Piper as the special adviser on Solutions to Internal Displacement; Leonardo Garnier became the special adviser on the 2022 Transforming Education Summit; and Ted Chaiban became Unicef’s global lead coordinator for Covid-19 Vaccine Country-Readiness and Delivery.
• Men were reappointed at slightly less than a 2-to-1 ratio to women to new positions. Of the 10 people who moved from one job to another in 2022, six were men (Robert Piper, Volker Turk, Amir Mahmoud Abdulla, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, Bruno Lemarquis) and five, women (Natalia Gherman, Daniela Kroslak, Ingeborg Richardson, Najat Rochdi and Hanna Tetteh). Denise Brown became a resident coordinator after serving as deputy special representative for Minusca. (Resident coordinators are not included in the reappointment statistic, unless they were also named as a head or deputy head of mission.) Filippo Grandi, Amina Mohammed and Maimunah Mohd Sharif were reappointed to their roles.
In December, Guterres noted that in 2018 there was parity among the resident coordinators. When announcing such positions, the UN does not usually indicate who previously held them. As of the end of 2022, 32 new resident coordinators were appointed, 18 of whom were women. (A resident coordinator is the UN’s representative in a given country, meant to coordinate all UN operations there, especially work on the sustainable development goals.) Five resident coordinators were also named as deputy special representatives in a UN office or mission; four were men: Mohamed Ag Ayoya, Iman Riza, Ghulam Isaczai and Bruno Lemarquis; and one woman, Ingebord Richardson.
Stéphane Dujarric, Guterres’s spokesperson, said that since 2018 more women have been named resident coordinators than men. As of January 2023, of the 111 positions occupied, 55 are held by women and 56, men.
“In his speech, he refers to the 2018 data for resident coordinators,” Kundu said of Guterres. “This is indeed a great accomplishment in his first term. However, rather than resting on his laurels, he needs to hold firm on his commitment to gender parity so that the UN can accelerate progress towards the targets that are yet to be achieved as per the strategy, such as national officers and peacekeeping missions.”
Guterres said of peacekeeping jobs: “We have also reached parity among heads and deputy heads of peace operations. Five years ago, the proportion of women in those roles was just 25 percent.”
The UN has 12 active peacekeeping missions run by the Department of Peace Operations (led by a man) and 16 political missions run by the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (led by a woman), which are all considered missions in Guterres’s December speech.
While the gender gap has narrowed rapidly in this arena, according to public information, parity is still out of reach. Among the 28 combined military and political missions, 30 men serve as heads or deputy heads, while 22 women occupy the same positions. Of the people who head a mission, 60 percent (17) are men and 40 percent (11) are women. Thirteen men and 11 women are deputies, and some missions have multiple deputies.
Among the 12 peacekeeping missions, only three women are the top boss: Rugwabiza of Minusca (appointed in 2022), Bintou Keita of Monusco and Caroline Ziadeh of Unmik. Among the 16 political operations, gender parity exists in the top leadership. In 2022, nine people were appointed as heads or deputy heads of a mission, either political or military; of those, six were men and three were women. (These appointments have “head” in their title.)
Eight people serve as an envoy for the secretary-general: six men and two women. Only one woman, Hanna Tetteh, was appointed in 2022. She is the special envoy for the Horn of Africa. Another woman, Najat Rochdi, was named as deputy special envoy for Syria in 2022.
According to UN data, women make up just 7.8 percent of uniformed personnel in UN missions, including military, police, justice and correctional personnel. It is a large gender gap that Guterres acknowledged last month.
Guterres also appointed people to five boards or groups, such as the Seventh Advisory Group of the Peacebuilding Fund and the Fact-Finding Mission for the 29 July 2022 Incident at Olenivka, Ukraine (which was disbanded officially on Jan. 5). Of all such groups, the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism had more women members than men. Two others met gender parity: the Seventh Advisory Group of the Peacebuilding Fund and the Expert Group on Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities. Two others, the Olenivka mission and the Inaugural Internet Governance Forum Leadership Panel, had more men than women.
Guterres tied the strides that the UN has made in addressing sexual harassment to the gains in gender parity, saying, “Fostering a safe, equal and inclusive environment across the UN system is an essential part” of addressing and eliminating sexual harassment.
Yet one expert told PassBlue: “It is important to assess if the current deterrents in place, to prevent sexual harassment, are indeed working,” Vijaya Nidadavolu wrote in an email. Nidadavolu is an associate at Gender at Work Global. “Overwhelmingly, we hear about the lack of support of survivors of sexual harassment and that survivors do not feel safe to talk about their experience as they perceive the system being in favor of perpetrators, who tend to be powerful men.”
As Guterres said, “Progress has been slow” overall at the UN in achieving gender parity; in some cases, the UN has slid backward. And in some glaring instances, there’s been no progress. No woman has ever been secretary-general (nine men have held the position). Only four women have been president of the General Assembly of the 77 that have served. Of the 15 ambassadors currently represented in the Security Council, only five are women (Britain, Malta, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and the United States).
When asked whether a woman should be chosen as secretary-general when Guterres’s term ends in 2026, Stéphanie Tremblay, an associate UN spokesperson, said in an email: “The Secretary-General has frequently stressed the importance of women’s full leadership and participation in every sphere of public life. Under the Charter, the Secretary-General is appointed by Member States and the responsibility for all decisions on the criteria and process involved rests with Member States.”
Anne Marie Goetz, a clinical professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and formerly with UN Women, has been a relentless advocate for gender equity at the UN. She said in an email to PassBlue: “Sustaining the gender parity push requires unrelenting pressure on member states to present women candidates for high office. The SG needs his senior policy and political advisors to constantly curate a list of women candidates, and to recognize where the talents of excellent internal women candidates may have been obscured by gender bias. This is a lot of work, and without strong leadership, and adequate resources to incentivize and monitor progress, a remasculinization of UN leadership is inevitable.”
Kundu added: “At the UN, the assistant secretary-general or undersecretary-general role is a political appointment. The real indicator of how the UN is nurturing its women talent is at the D1 or D2 level, where it has been very hard to achieve gender parity across entities. If there are not enough women within this leadership role or if there is backsliding, it can be very demoralizing for women down the line.”
D1 and D2 refer to director-level positions, the highest professional, nonappointed rank in the organization. A report by the UN in 2020 found that 43 percent of D2s in the Secretariat, the higher position of the two, were women.
This article was updated to correct the job titles of Vijaya Nidadavolu and Sudarsana Kundu.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on gender parity at the UN in 2022?
Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.
Very interesting article. I can think of two reasons for low gender parity at the lower levels of UN positions. One may be due to these lower levels coinciding with women’s ages and their decisions to prioritize family, thereby passing up mid-management positions in hardship duty stations which are springboards for promotion. If they are excellent, and recognized as such, they will move up the ladder when they themselves are ready to take on more demanding positions. The other may be due to reluctance to potentially share the experiences of their lower or mid-level colleagues who speak out about SAE or other abuse. Also, peacekeeping missions are such male-dominated fields, women get passed up for entry-level positions or promotions. This is a shame because those I have met who did make it, are really excellent and bring added value to PK missions. Did you look at UNVs and JPOs? There may be more gender parity in these usually lower level positions. There are also more and more consultants in the UN, occupying what would normally be secretariat or programme positions. They too may show more gender parity.