A few days ago, I was sent an article that accused the United Nations of not «walking the walk» on women’s empowerment. My gut reaction was to agree. Working for UNA-UK – an NGO offering independent analysis on the UN – I am only too aware of the areas in which the UN could improve its performance. And gender equality is one of them.
There has never been a woman at the helm of the UN. Female representation in senior professional positions falls short of the 30% target the UN recommends to states for their national parliaments. And a number of high-profile sexual harassment complaints have blighted its record, not least because its response has been slow and often defensive. But although the article’s intention is honourable and the subject worthy of discussion, the impression it conveys is false.
While it’s true that just five of the UN secretary general’s 32 «regional representatives» are female, this is cherry-picking the figures. For representatives with thematic responsibilities (eg climate change, HIV/Aids), for example, the gender ratio more than doubles.
Since Ban Ki-moon became secretary general in 2007, there has been a 40% increase in women appointed to senior positions. His senior management group includes 14 women, which is 38% of the total and equals the percentage of women across all UN professional grades. This is better than the UK cabinet (17%) and many private sector firms – a quarter of FTSE 100 companies – have no women on their boards. (Incidentally, at 22%, female representation in the British parliament falls short of the UN’s recommended target.)
The UN has also made some progress in addressing complaints. In 2009, it instigated an overhaul of how it processes harassment charges and introduced mandatory training for its staff. This does not mean the UN should be complacent. It still has a long way to go to achieve the gender parity target it set in 1995, and while Ban has done much to improve the balance at the highest levels, the gap in the middle remains.
Most importantly, the article oversimplifies the link between the UN’s staff make-up and the priority it accords to gender issues. Of course, the UN should be expected to lead by example, and it is reasonable to suggest that female staff members are more likely to raise gender issues. But the real issue is not how many women the UN employs. It is political.
The UN’s senior appointments, priorities, budget and institutional arrangements are approved by its member states. And while they are happy to pay lip service to women’s empowerment, many are reluctant to put their money where their mouth is. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that although 186 countries have ratified the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, it also has the largest number of state ‘opt-out clauses’.
The result is a fragmented approach to gender issues, with responsibility spread across four UN bodies (Unifem, Daw, Instraw and Osagi) with little co-ordination, clout and cash. Together they command just $221m annually, a fraction of Unicef’s $3bn budget. UN member states are currently hammering out the details of a new agency for women intended to remedy this situation. It remains to be seen whether they allow it to be as strong and as well funded as it needs to be.
The UN has done much to further the lot of women worldwide but huge challenges remain. While more girls are in education than ever before, millions have never entered a classroom. While the number of women in parliaments has risen, they are still vastly under-represented. Maternal mortality kills half a million women a year and violence against women is rife. One in three women worldwide will experience some form of violence in their lifetime.
As the world’s standard-setter, the UN must take action to improve gender equality in its own ranks. But all of us – governments, companies and individuals – share its moral responsibility to address these issues on a global basis.