A hundred years of striving for equality at global bodies

Patricia Koo Tsien, chairperson of the UN Ad Hoc Group on Equality for Women, and Armando Duque, chairman of the UN Staff Council, present a petition signed by 2700 staff members to secretary general Kurt Waldheim requesting an affirmative programme of action to end discrimination against women in the secretariats and agencies, 7 March 1975. (UN/Teddy Chen)

Since the establishment of international organisations, women have struggled to get the deserved recognition, pay and respect for their work as civil servants amid historical, cultural and political constraints. A Genevan historian tells us more.

Over half a century after women’s rights movements erupted to demand equal pay, and years following the start of #MeToo movement that revealed the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace, many experts argue that international organisations are still not the haven they should be when it comes to women’s inclusion.

Such inclusion had been codified over a hundred years ago in the covenant of the League of Nations and reincorporated in the charter of its post-World War Two descendant, the United Nations. The original document stated that “all positions under or in connection with the League, including the Secretariat, shall be open equally to men and women”.

According to Myriam Piguet, a historian and doctoral student at the Global Studies Institute at the University of Geneva, it was the first time that equal opportunity was permitted at an international organisation. The article was included after an international women’s group successfully lobbied for it during the signing of the covenant in Versailles in 1919.

Piguet, who has studied the history of women at the League of Nations and the UN between 1920 and 1975, grew up in Geneva. She was “always very curious” about how the global bodies functioned, given a lack of access to the UN for locals. “You cannot even enter its park.”

She spoke with Geneva Solutions about how the organisation’s project to provide equal opportunities to the sexes remained somewhat of a stale plan for so long, frozen by political and cultural constraints, while discriminatory pay practices and sexual harassment went unchecked.

Geneva Solutions: After the League of Nations introduced the idea of equal employment access for women, did women respond to the call?

Myriam Piguet: As you can expect, there weren't many women working in the League of Nations at the professional level. But if you look at all the people working at the League between 1920 and 1930, there was a majority of women, holding mostly positions in subsidiary ranks, such as secretaries and stenographers and typists. There was nonetheless a low number of some women who worked in professional positions, representing only around four per cent of all women staff. That meant around 20 to 30 or even fewer women. Otherwise, the remaining 96 per cent were in subordinate positions.  Among the few women in more senior roles, there was (British social reformer, Dame) Rachel Crowdy, leading the opium and social question, and American Florence Wilson, the library director at the League.

Following the World Wars, the role of women in society and the economy became increasingly recognised. Did that motivate member states to think about the status of women, not only in international public roles?

The national associations that lobbied at the League of Nations and the United Nations knew that if the international organisations would settle on international norms on the status of women, then these norms would have to trickle down to the national level.

One example of that is the issue of the nationality of married women. Until 1956, women holding their husband’s nationality, if they were getting divorced or wanted to do so, or if their husband died, they could not get back their nationality at birth. A UN convention in 1956 that women’s international associations had worked on since the League of Nations put an end to this practice.

On the question of women’s integration into civil service, I don't think that the decisions taken in the League of Nations really changed anything on the national level. What was happening on the national level at the time was that the USSR (Soviet Union), Latin American countries and Scandinavian countries were the first to send ambassadors that were women to foreign countries. But the truth is that until the 1950s and even up to the 1970s, it was generally very difficult for women to have a career in foreign affairs on the national level, mostly because of marriage barriers. If you were married, you could not become an ambassador because your husband could not take the role of the wife of the ambassador.

Have the UN and the League of Nations actually been practising what they preach with regard to the employment of women?

I have to say it's quite complex because the hiring of international civil servants is a highly political question. Often it's more up to member states to decide about the higher positions. If you want to become an under-secretary general or an assistant secretary general, you generally need to be supported by your member states.

Read more: How much substance is there to the UN’s gender parity goal?

In general, countries were not very interested in pushing the candidacies for women. The other thing is that there is a perception of what I call the rhetoric of difference. There was a perception that certain roles in the League of Nations and the United Nations secretariats are better suited for women. All the roles related to the status of women were held by women, but also questions related to child rights, women's rights, welfare, family law.  There is also the issue that these questions were not really perceived as a priority for both organisations that I studied. But from the 1970s, these questions became more important, with development and social economy issues gaining importance.

What about salaries?

The way salaries were attributed in both the League of Nations and the UN was institutionalised, meaning that they could not just decide to pay someone less on the same professional levels. But what often happened was that a woman may have held a certain position level while, in practice, they were doing something that was on a higher level. Rachel Crowdy never held the rank of director. When she was replaced by a man, he was given the position of director. This practice was repeated at the United Nations. Instead of being an assistant secretary general, (the Swedish leader of the disarmament movement and Nobel peace prize winner) Alva Myrdahl, for instance, held the position of director.

How much were  women limited in their access to positions at the international organisations due to social constraints in headquarters countries, such as in Switzerland, where limited school hours until recently made it difficult for them to work full-time?

As early on as during the League of Nations, this question was raised on what to do regarding international civil servants. Women were engaged in the creation of the international school that was then established in Geneva. That was also an issue at the United Nations at the very start, with women working for the establishment of an international school in New York. In both New York and Geneva, there was a group called the Committee for Equal Rights that, from the 1970s, really worked to improve and create equal regulations applying to both men and women. These included payment of pensions at death to surviving spouses and home leave funding for women. The group operated like a labour union for women workers at the UN.

Sexual harassment has long been an issue, and not only at international organisations. But management at the organisations have reacted to incidents only recently. What have you observed regarding historical incidents?

It's very difficult to find traces of this in the archives, to be completely honest, especially because these things have happened and arrangements were made to put an end to them informally.  As recently as in the 1950s, the organisation understood how important it was to remain discreet on these kinds of issues that could happen within its walls.

What I can say is that the approach of the organisation to the question radically changed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In my research, I used the internal newspaper of the international civil servants of the UN. The UN Secretariat News was a monthly newspaper written by international civil servants for international civil servants. In the 1950s and 1960s, you would see a lot of comics that were quite sarcastic, making fun of the role of secretaries with the image of a sexually attractive, young and  beautiful woman. They would also joke about the role of the elevator lady and the woman guide, and nobody would do or say anything about it. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, you have the Miss Carpool of the month, with pictures of a young woman that would carpool, and she was generally a very young 21-22-year-old secretary. The text would state how she's very pretty, and that's why we really liked the secretaries of the United Nations. That was all very normalised in the 1960s.

The international decade of the woman between 1975 and 1985 led to a discussion over how this was not normal, and it could not continue and that the behaviour of men in the organisation had to change. Finally, by the end of the 1970s, questions about sexual harassment began to be included in the agenda, and the Ad Hoc Group on Equal Rights organised a report on the issue.

How much do you think we have moved on from what you describe?

It has both changed tremendously and not at all. You do have an evolution, which is, I mean, the normal evolution that most private and public organisations have seen. If you go to work at Nestlé, you're not going to have the same experience as a woman today as you would have had in the 1960s. However, some international organisations are still very late.

However, if you look at some systemic problems that existed at the League of Nations and in the early years of the UN, they still remain. When today I talk about this idea of rhetoric of complementarity, you still find this at the UN, where women are going to be perceived as pitted for certain positions, while other positions in the UN system will remain in the hands of men because they are within the realm of hard politics. Sometimes there is what we call a glass cliff, where nobody wants a position because it's too politically risky. There would be no male candidates, and then a woman would fill the role. This is what happened when the first woman was nominated as UN under-secretary general in 1983, Lucille Mayer from Jamaica. She was to preside over the first conference on Palestine, which was doomed to be a failure. It was very sad because her role, coming from the Global South, was a breakthrough. UN institutional memory has forgotten her, preferring to cite Margaret Anstee from the United Kingdom who took on the role in 1987, as the first woman under secretary general.

We could see a glass cliff phenomenon happening with the election of the next UN secretary general. I strongly hope that a woman will be nominated but will also be disappointed if one is chosen because the risk of failure is so high that no one else wants to take the job.