It has been over 20 years since the United Nations first pledged to increase the number of women in the Organisation to 50%, however this has yet to become a reality. Rosa Freedman and Aoife O’Donoghue highlight some of the barriers that have prevented the UN from reaching this goal and what can be done to achieve it.

Featured image of the United Nations Gender Network by Angela Hayden.

The United Nations holds a global leadership role as the only international organisation that works across all issue areas in all parts of the world with near universal membership. Its Charter, which created the UN in 1945, begins with the opening phrase ‘We the peoples…’, signalling that the organisation would represent all people across the globe. Indeed, the UN Charter sets out a requirement that all peoples are represented equally and proportionately. Yet seven decades after its creation the UN has failed to ensure representation of women in positions of leadership or power. This issue received some attention when the UN recently elected yet another man as its Secretary-General despite no woman every having held that job. Mr António Guterres’ appointment is emblematic of a problem that can be seen throughout the UN: women are under-represented at all but the lowest-ranking levels. And that has a significant impact upon the UN’s work, activities, legitimacy and credibility.

In 1991, Boutros Boutros-Ghali became UN Secretary-General and pledged ‘50-50 by 50’: 50% of UN staff to be women by the Organisation’s 50th anniversary in 1995. That year came and went, and the target of gender parity was no closer than it had been in previous years. Since that time there have been many initiatives, formal and informal, systematic and ad hoc, but the goal of equal representation of women in the UN remains elusive. The new Secretary-General has set out yet another gender plan, but whether that will make the difference remains to be seen.

In the meantime, we, a group of scholars, practitioners, UN staff, civil servants and civil society, have determined that if change will not come from within then it is time to encourage change from without. To that end, we are combining our skills, knowledge and expertise to jointly produce concrete proposals for reform that will affect meaningful and lasting change. To do so, we are conducting research on why women remain outside the rooms of power and are denied positions of leadership, and on the effects of the current and long-standing situation.

But it goes further than raw data on how many women are appointed to leadership positions, to also who those few women are that reach those positions and what types of jobs they are given. Our research demonstrates that women appointed to these positions usually are parachuted in from outside the UN, often with far higher qualifications than their male counterparts who preceded or succeeded them in those jobs. They tend to be given ‘softer’ thematic issue areas, on human rights, development or gender, rather than ‘harder’ areas like peace and security. Until the appointment of Ms Jane Connors as the inaugural UN Victims’ Rights Advocate it was almost unheard of for a female staff member to rise through the ranks to become an Assistant Secretary-General – something that many men have achieved, and many male staff members view as a straightforward career path. And that organisational culture has a trickle-down effect, with more women working in ‘softer’ thematic areas, and with qualified women reluctant to apply for promotions.

There are also organisational barriers to women applying for or progressing in positions at the UN or even staying within the UN system. Those barriers range from lack of systematic policies on gender-related issues such as parental leave or sexual harassment, to lack of role models and informal systems of mentoring. The female UN staff we work with or have interviewed frequently raise the same issues of visible and invisible barriers, and the UN’s near-failure to take seriously or address those issues.

UN history shows us that when women are represented they play a central role in all thematic areas. Addressing the gender question will provide the proportionality and balance that the UN founders, including women, envisaged when they wrote The Charter. And the UN’s focus on women and girls in its external activities shows us that only through actively addressing the gender question will our global society truly progress and achieve its potential. But until the UN gets its own house in order, how can it have the knowledge, expertise, legitimacy or credibility to fully undertake its external activities on gender. This Organisation is ours, all of ours, as ‘we the peoples’, which is why we are seeking to ensure that it represents and is represented by all people, including women.

Want to learn more about gender equality and the UN? In collaboration with the United Nations Gender Network, the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security is hosting a free and open public event ‘Gender Equality: How can the UN lead?’ on 7 November 2017, 6.30pm-8pm.


About the authors

Rosa Freedman is the inaugural Professor of Law, Conflict and Global Development at the University of Reading. She has published extensively on the UN human rights bodies and on UN peacekeeping and accountability for human rights abuses committed during such operations.

Aoife O’Donoghue is Professor at Durham Law School. Her research focuses on public international law with a particular interest in global governance, legal theory and feminism. One area of research is the interaction between international law and feminism, particularly within institutions such as the UN and the process of feminist judging.

Together, Professors Freedman and O’Donoghue work on the AHRC-funded project United Nations Gender Network which focuses on reform within the UN Secretariat and Agencies to establish gender equality.