The Cable

Can Antonio Guterres Finally Break the U.N.’s Glass Ceiling?

The U.N. struggles to practice what it preaches on women’s empowerment. Can the new secretary general break the institution’s glass ceiling?


The U.N. champions women’s equality worldwide. But within its own ranks, the gender divide is stark, leaving incoming Secretary General Antonio Guterres to repair a damaged legacy.

He’s already trying. On Thursday, the secretary general-designate announced three of his top cabinet officials — all women: Amina J. Mohammed of Nigeria as the next deputy secretary-general, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti of Brazil as his cabinet chief, and Kyung-wha Kang of the Republic of Korea in a newly-created role as special advisor on policy.

Guterres pledged to push gender parity for an institution that has never seen a top female leader in its 71 years of existence — despite ardent campaigns for one. Outgoing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said in August that it was “high time” for a female secretary general to become his successor. But seven women were rejected from the job before Portuguese Antonio Guterres was chosen as the ninth (male) secretary general, leaving many advocacy groups and diplomats frustrated.

“‘You don’t have a chance if you’re a woman,’” Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, who was for a brief time the frontrunner to become next U.N. secretary general, reportedly said during a dinner in New York for female foreign ministers in September. ‘It’s not a glass ceiling; it’s a steel ceiling.’”

In a speech before the U.N. general assembly in October, Antonio Guterres said, “I have long been aware of the hurdles women face in society, in the family and in the workplace just because of their gender,” he said. “The protection and the empowerment of women and girls will continue to be a priority commitment for me.”

Guterres’ announcement on Thursday “sounds like a flying start,” former senior U.N. official Karin Landgren told Foreign Policy. But she says the gender gap at the U.N. is still a major issue.

The numbers speak for themselves. As of December, 32 of the 45 of the U.N.’s senior most postings are held by men (though that is a significant improvement from 2015 when men held a full 92 percent of senior UN staff positions, according to the New York University Center on International Cooperation).

“The proportions are an improvement on last year, when the numbers were astonishingly bad,” Landgren said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere good enough.”

Indeed, as of 2016, 424 men have chaired the U.N.’s six primary committees, compared to 28 women; 68 men, meanwhile, have served as U.N. General Assembly president, compared to just three women, according to one study. Not helping the matter, the U.N. recently found itself mired in an embarrassing PR fiasco after temporarily appointing the fictional and scantily-clad superhero Wonder Woman as honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls, then ‘firing’ her not two months later.

Ban-Ki Moon pushed for more diverse U.N. leadership during his nearly decade-long tenure as secretary general, according to his deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq. Ban oversaw the U.N.’s creation of U.N. Women, the organization’s global champion of gender equality, for starters. He also “made it clear he was trying very hard to promote women at the highest levels” Haq told FP, citing the high number of female U.N. special representatives Ban appointed.

Still, Haq conceded the U.N. struggled with women representation. “The figures don’t lie,” he said.

And despite Guterres’ pledges and first round of senior appointments, the U.N. has developed a habit of breaking promises on gender parity over the decades.

In 1996, the U.N. pledged to achieve 50-50 gender parity in the institution’s top roles by 2000. That commitment failed, and subsequent resolutions have vaguely called for parity “in the very near future.” In 2012, Ban boasted that the U.N.’s “top humanitarian official, high commissioner for human rights, our top development official, our head of management, our top doctor, top lawyer, even our top cop, all are women.”

But four years later, all those posts were held by men again. Haq told FP that Ban “appointed more women to head U.N. peacekeeping missions than all other previous secretaries general combined.” But Landgren says that still amounts to only three of the U.N.’s 16 peacekeeping missions, down from a highwater mark of five just eighteen months ago.

The U.N. also made a “big push” for more diverse peacekeeping forces themselves, said Landgren. It’s top priority, in part because male-dominated U.N. peacekeeping forces have been mired in sexual assault scandals with the populations they were purportedly meant to protect, such as in the Central African Republic. Many security experts argue that including women in peacekeeping and conflict resolution leads to more sustainable outcomes.

As of August, 2016, only 4,226 of the U.N.’s total 101,167 peacekeeping troops were women. But involving women in peacekeeping and conflict resolution is a key ingredient to long-term success, according to the U.N.’s own research.

“The U.N. tried…to ensure there were more women in police units,” Haq said. And Liberia serves as a prime example of how this can lead to success, he added. The U.N.’s Liberia mission at one point had two all-female police units that “were a remarkable inspiration to women in Liberia,” said Landgren, who used to lead the Liberian peacekeeping mission. The all-female units resulted in a decrease in crime rates, coupled with an increase in reporting gender-based violence that may have otherwise gone unnoticed, according to the U.N. Foundation.

The responsibility for gender disparity doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of the U.N.; member states bear some blame as well. The lack of diversity in peacekeeping forces stems “from obvious reasons,” Landgren said. Worldwide, men comprise a bulk of militaries and police forces, leaving the U.N. with limited member state personnel from which to draw.

Even within headquarters, Ban Ki Moon and his successor may have less say in their appointments than many realize. “The secretary general comes under very heavy lobbying by governments for senior appointments,” Landgren said. “My impression is that that lobbying takes place overwhelmingly for male candidates.”

Guterres, while pledging to diversify the top echelons of the international body once he takes office, may face these same pressures. “As long as he can be lobbied, senior appointments can become a currency between the secretary general and member states,” Landgren said, meaning that diversity could still take a backseat to politics.

That makes Thursday’s appointments all the more important, she said.

“It simply doesn’t look credible for an organization to be talking about the value of [gender diversity] but not show that that through its own actions.”

Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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