Baby Steps Toward a Feminist United Nations

Women’s rights advocates are holding Secretary-General António Guterres accountable.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. (Luiz Rampelotto/NurPhoto via Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. (Luiz Rampelotto/NurPhoto via Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)

Back in 2016, when the hunt for a new United Nations secretary-general was on and we had a notion there might be a woman at the helm of the body for the first time in history, a group of women’s rights advocates, academics, and U.N. watchers, including the International Center for Research on Women, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and Gender at Work, drafted a blue-sky vision for a more feminist United Nations. That vision document eventually became the platform of a full-fledged Feminist U.N. Campaign, which pushed for a future secretary-general to take up our agenda. When the Portuguese politician and former high commissioner for refugees António Guterres won the post instead, he promised that he could still be a feminist leader and asked civil society to hold him to that promise. We happily took him up on it.

What, in practice, has this really meant? Is this secretary-general’s feminism rhetorical or radical? Has he taken on the patriarchal power structures of the United Nations in order to enable a more feminist space, or was that promise just words for a leader who is astute in the arts of identity politics?

Over the course of 2018, the International Center for Research on Women began to assess the secretary-general’s efforts to advance gender equality and women’s rights within the U.N. system. We interviewed experts within the U.N. system, academia, and the broader women’s movement, and we surveyed nearly 100 civil society organizations in more than 40 countries around the world. We analyzed his speeches, tracked his tweets, and reviewed reports and memos to world leaders and his senior staff.

And at the end of it all, as of 2018, we can report some good news: The secretary-general’s assertions are being matched with actions. He is making slow but steady progress across our agenda. Most of that effort has been focused on achieving gender parity in U.N. leadership and responding to the #MeToo—or in the case of the United Nations, #AidToo—movement.

But we’ve also learned that fostering gender equality in an enormous bureaucracy that has long run on a deep patriarchal culture will take a lot more than good speeches or even good new policies.

Let’s start with the good. Back in 2016 the Feminist U.N. Campaign recommended a number of things, including setting parity targets across the U.N. staffs and outlining a strategy for how the institution would achieve them. And, indeed, when it came to staffing his cabinet, the secretary-general was swift to bring parity into the highest levels. He has set equality targets and benchmarks for both staff levels over which he has direct control and even those for which he does not. Further, he has created a website where he is publicly tracking progress and is on track or ahead of schedule to achieve the goals he has set. This degree of accountability and transparency is impressive.

Yet sadly, his efforts face worrying backlash within the United Nations, triggered by concerns that increasing the numbers of women in key roles comes at the same time as reform efforts that could reduce overall staff size and therefore endanger men in what used to be assured positions of power and permanence. Some staff union representatives, including the president of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (which represents more than 60,000 U.N. staff) have even expressed opposition to the gender parity effort, arguing that when it comes to personnel decisions, gender is now taking priority over merit and competence. But this hardly rings true when there are many competent women who could be hired and promoted from within and outside the system. Even so, gender parity simply isn’t a solution to all ills.

Again, the good: In 2018, Guterres took a number of direct actions to respond to the #MeToo moment at the U.N., including creating a task force, conducting a review of human resources policies, installing a sexual harassment hotline, issuing a prevalence survey throughout the system, and advancing a model policy all agencies in the bureaucracy can use. He appointed Jane Connors as U.N. advocate for the rights of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse and established the Chief Executives Board Task Force on Sexual Harassment, convened by Undersecretary-General Jan Beagle.

In 2017, at the first town hall he hosted with women’s rights advocates, Guterres expressed support for an independent mechanism to avoid the conflict of interest of the United Nations policing itself. And yet, these days, no one on his staff or cabinet seems to remember that commitment. It remains clear that immunity and privilege still scuttle efforts to give meaning to the often-invoked “zero-tolerance policy.” One need look no further than what happened with UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe, whom a November 2018 Independent Expert Panel report found had “failed to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power in UNAIDS.” Fast-forward to the present, and Sidibe remains at the helm of the agency until June 2019 when he will step down without sanction, calling into serious questions the supposed “zero-tolerance policy.”

Similarly, this past December, the head of the International Civil Service Commission, Kingston Rhodes, resigned (with fanfare, even!)—allowing him to avoid facing charges of creating a hostile work environment for women, which first surfaced in November 2017. Guterres himself has reportedly acknowledged those allegations as “credible,” yet he demurred to weigh in further, citing jurisdictional issues outside his control. This followed an investigation by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services that was not made public, although the accusations against Rhodes were well known and had been articulated in a letter from survivors to the secretary-general himself.

The ongoing immunity for those at the top alongside anemic assertions of jurisdictional issues by those in power, while touting a zero-tolerance policy, rings hollow. Furthermore, many of those who have taken on roles with the Task Force or reporting and investigations processes are doing this on top of already stretched portfolios, with limited resources to respond to the scale of the issue at hand. Taken together, while the secretary-general talks a good game, it’s unclear whether he will be able to drive sustainable action to address sexual harassment and abuse in the face of entrenched resistance and opaque processes.

In addition to policies and task forces, we learn a lot about an institution’s values through their budgets. Over the past two years we have watched men in power around the world—from heads of governments to leaders of corporations and international organizations—talk about gender equality and #MeToo, but rarely have they enacted radical change: not on questions of equal pay for women nor on equal budgets for gender ministries. The United Nations is no exception. UN Women has never achieved half the budget it was promised, and the U.N. system does not even consistently track expenditures on gender in other agencies and entities.

The secretary-general established a High-Level Task Force on Financing for Gender Equality, but it too has limited resources—certainly nowhere near the resources dedicated to the task force that gave us the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. We still haven’t seen a list of members, terms of reference, or mandate.

That brings us to the question of transparency and freedom of information within the U.N. system: It is very hard to find any information about budgets and hiring, donors, or private sector funders in what is a large and many-tentacled institution—even for those working within the institution.

At least we have a secretary-general who is listening. When we published our first review last year, we gave him a C+. We were immediately bombarded with tweets from his office with links to statements and stories about progress he was making.

In an era of rising nationalist and misogynist movements, amid crackdowns on women’s human rights defenders and attempts by governments to undermine the rules-based international order, Secretary-General Guterres’s responsiveness to the Feminist U.N. Campaign is a rare example of a global leader standing firmly in solidarity with the global feminist movement, holding himself accountable to civil society. If we were to evaluate any of his predecessors, each each would fail miserably. But a poor baseline does not mean that the end goal should be less ambitious—rather, it illustrates the urgency of the case for transformation, radical in a system that rewards and entrenches the status quo.

As Guterres’s tenure progresses, we expect to see both more change on the agenda he has rhetorically committed to—and also that his task will only get harder. Indeed, this will take longer than the tenure of any one secretary-general. Though it’s unprecedented to call yourself a feminist and say you’re going to take on the patriarchal culture in the United Nations, it’s still easier to say it than actually do it. But leadership can be used to challenge entrenched power and effect real change, and we have great hopes and expectations for that change within and through the U.N.

Lyric Thompson, Teresa Casale, and Lila O’Brien-Milne are co-authors of  Progress Under Threat,” a report card on the secretary-general’s second year from the Feminist U.N. Campaign.

Lyric Thompson is the director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women. Twitter: @lyricthompson

As a policy advocate for the International Center for Research on Women, Teresa Casale leads the organization’s advocacy portfolio on issues related to women, peace and security, and women’s economic empowerment. She serves as the vice chair of the U.S. Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security, and manages the Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment and Equality. Twitter: @TeresaIsabelleC

Lila O’Brien-Milne is a project associate at the International Center for Research on Women. Twitter: @NoCapesLila