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

World Trade Organization (WTO) director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde arrive for an international women’s day event at WTO headquarters in Geneva on 8 March 2023. (Keystone/Martial Trezzini)

In recent years, the United Nations has made gender parity one of its institutional priorities. But are numbers enough to ensure that women's representation is taking place?

For decades, the leadership photo galleries at many of the UN agencies looked very much alike. The images of mostly greying or balding men would not appear out of place in organisations’ lobbies, while women held far less senior positions in the global institutions.

Since secretary general António Guterres assumed office in 2017, pledging to ensure gender balance at all levels of the organisation, representation of women has improved, most visibly at the summit of agencies.

Women have been nominated to top roles, including at the World Trade Organization (WTO), UNCTAD, the office responsible for promoting the interests of developing countries in trade, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and, most recently, the World Food Programme (WFP).

Tatiana Valovaya, director general at the UN’s European headquarters, welcomed Guterres’ strategy when she assumed the position in 2019. “As the first female director general of the United Nations Office at Geneva… my ultimate goal is that women and men are granted equal opportunities in my organisation and beyond,” she said at the time. “It is self-evident that we will not achieve any of our goals if half of humanity is left aside.”

A 2021 report by Guterres showed that representation of women nudged up in most senior positions but still remained below parity at most directorial or professional roles, known in UN-lingo as D and P levels. In only one of these categories, P-2, were women able to weigh in stronger than men in recent years.

As the secretary general’s conclusive report in 2022 recognised, experts in Geneva say that the organisation still needs to do much more to implement gender parity goals.

Not just about numbers

For Dr Elisabeth Prügl, an expert in gender politics in international governance and a former head of the Graduate Institute’s Gender Centre, gender equality is not about equal numbers. “It is about gender relations and how power is distributed. Gender parity is just one of the tools that are being employed to achieve the final goal: gender justice,” Prügl told Geneva Solutions.

Better representation in organisations may translate into better visibility at decision-making levels of women’s needs in key areas such as health, education and economic opportunities and, subsequently, more funding to programmes supporting women, including climate finance and gender lens investing.

Myriam Piguet, a historian and doctoral student at the University of Geneva’s Global Studies Institute, stressed that hiring women may not necessarily deliver the expected results. “The question of whether they will represent women or not is a trick question because you never know how they will behave within the system,” she said.

Others say that women cannot be placed into a monolithic category and their other identities – nationality, class, caste, age or sexual orientation – cannot be ignored.

“It is important to foster an inclusive and enabling work environment, which recognises that gender interacts with other social identities,” Hannah Reinl, senior project manager at International Gender Champions, a leadership network representing decision-makers from UN member states, told Geneva Solutions.

Read more: A hundred years of striving for equality at global bodies

“This includes building an awareness of the systemic inequities that permeate workplaces and tackling overlapping forms of discrimination to promote a work culture where employees feel empowered and psychologically safe.”

The importance of gender parity goes beyond the business case for gender-balanced organisations, Reinl explained. “The UN has a moral imperative to leave no one behind.”

Seeking representation

With women currently making up 44 per cent of the organisation’s international staff overall, according to the UN Secretariat Gender Parity Dashboard, falling short of the body’s parity target, Piguet said more needs to be done to enable women to enter the workforce. “Like at any other public or private organisation, the UN still needs to make great efforts to allow women to enter under the best possible conditions, including protection against sexual harassment and making things easier for women for family leave.”

Representation of women rises to 49.5 per cent when focussing on headquarters locations like New York and Geneva, while at other UN offices, the proportion remained at 41.2 per cent.

Meanwhile, a UN survey showed that 50 per cent of respondents felt that the Covid-19 pandemic had slowed down gender parity progress, showcasing how fragile progress on gender equality can be.

“We’re going past just counting the number of women to questioning what are these traditional loci of power and how can you help distribute that power more equally, in a more productive way,”  Caitlin Kraft-Buchman, CEO and founder of Women at the Table, a Geneva-based civil society organisation that co-founded International Gender Champions, told Geneva Solutions.

“If power remains in one particular locus, it will not help as many people. We also want to change the system so that more people are able to engage, from different regions, from different lived experiences,” Kraft-Buchman said.

“This lived experience is going to enrich not only the decisions that are being made but also the debates that lead up to those decisions.”

Additional reporting by Paula Dupraz-Dobias.