The Cable

The United Nations Just Fired Wonder Woman

The U.N. caught itself in a not very wonderful PR battle as it slips on institutional gender parity.


The job market is tough these days, even for superheroes. On Friday, the United Nations will abruptly end Wonder Woman’s tenure as honorary ambassador after controversy and protests from women’s rights organizations.

In October, the U.N. “hired” the fictional cartoon as ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. At the time, the U.N. hoped to use the superhero brand in a 2017 campaign for women and gender issues, aptly titled “Think of All the Wonders We Can Do.” So did the entertainment company that owns the Wonder Woman brand. “Wonder Woman has always been a trailblazer for women’s rights and we believe she can continue that legacy by expanding and deepening the dialogue around these critical issues,” Diane Nelson, President of DC Entertainment and of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, said when announcing Wonder Woman’s new foray into international diplomacy.

But some advocacy groups — and U.N. staff — didn’t think a fictitious and scantily clad superhero was the ideal face of global women’s empowerment. U.N. staff protested the move during the superhero’s ceremonial appointment. And a group of “concerned United Nations staff members” circulated a petition that eventually received nearly 45,000 signatures urging Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to reconsider Wonder Woman’s new job.

“It is alarming that the United Nations would consider using a character with an overtly sexualized image at a time when the headline news in United States and the world is the objectification of women and girls,” the petition read.

“The bottom line appears to be that the United Nations was unable to find a real-life woman that would be able to champion the rights of ALL women on the issue of gender equality and the fight for their empowerment,” it added.

The U.N. apparently took the hint. This week, a U.N. spokesperson said the Wonder Woman campaign would end Friday but offered no details on why the superhero got canned, nor whether another figure (from comic books or real life) would take her place.

The campaign may also have been victim to internal irritations over the U.N.’s own gender parity problems. In 2015, a study by the Global Peace Operations Review found men were selected for nearly 92 percent of the most senior U.N. staff jobs. Six women undersecretaries were replaced by men that year. Moreover, men made up 77 percent of assistant secretaries general.

The disparity “calls into question Ban’s commitment to gender parity at the top of the U.N., so evident earlier in his tenure, and leaves in tatters what was shaping up to be a solid legacy,” said Karin Landgren, the study’s author.

No woman has served as the U.N. secretary-general in the world body’s 71-year history. The incoming secretary-general, António Guterres, is the ninth man to take the post, despite public campaigns to elect the first female U.N. chief.

The United Nations is far from the only international institution with a gender gap problem. NATO has never had a female secretary-general since its inception in 1949, and men currently hold 12 of 14 of the principal positions in the institution. However, in October, the political-military alliance received its first female deputy secretary-general, State Department veteran Rose Gottemoeller.

Wonder Woman is not the first fictitious icon to delve into U.N. advocacy. On March 18, Ban appointed the Angry Birds mobile game characters honorary ambassadors for a day to help raise awareness for climate change. Apparently, air pollution really ruffled their feathers.

Photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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