Gender parity has long been a goal in the UN. In recent years, more women have been elevated to senior positions but, by the UN’s own admission, there is still a power imbalance between men and women, and a pervasive institutional culture that privileges men and discriminates against women. It begs the question: why haven’t the women who have been promoted to leadership positions in the UN thus far been able to positively shape the UN into a more equal workplace? The answer is clear: leaders are chosen from those who subscribe to and excel under the status quo, with its bias toward personnel who do not directly challenge male hegemony. Real change will only come when the UN recognizes that the root cause of its failure to achieve gender parity is an organizational culture and work environment in which women are silenced, invalidated, and edged out.
Every woman who has ever held a top leadership position in the United Nations has been chosen by men. No female candidate -- even those appointed or elected to head the UN departments, funds, agencies, and programs that focus specifically on “ending all forms of discrimination against women” – is asked to demonstrate that she has actively worked to advance equality and address non-discrimination in her own workplace. Her verbal pledge of allegiance to women’s equal rights worldwide is more than sufficient.
I. The UN’s approach to gender equality is focused on numerical gender parity and not on larger, more critical approaches that examine the balance of authority, budgetary control, and decision-making power between women and men.
The UN has recently launched a "System-wide Strategy on Gender Parity,” and states that the “goal is not just about numbers, but about transforming the institutional culture to access and capitalize on the Organization’s full potential.” The UN attests to the need to create “a working environment that embraces equality, eradicates bias and is inclusive of all staff.” However, the data published on its website refers to percentages of women employees, with little regard for status, rank, or control of power and internal resources.
The UN’s proposed changes to its policies based on this strategy still focus on women in their stereotyped roles -- discussing work-life balance and opportunities for training and career development -- without addressing in detail the patriarchal culture that allows the continued discrimination faced by women, and which is often manifest through sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.
Despite referencing the need for institutional change, the Secretary-General has focused on 50-50 gender ratios, most recently presenting as evidence of success the fact that his senior management team has achieved gender parity.
II. A lack of gender parity is not the root problem, but a symptom of deeper discrimination against women
The reality is that the lack of gender parity in the UN is not just indicative of slow progress in achieving the goal of 50% representation of women. It is evidence that the UN is not structured in a way that is welcoming of women, recognizes their equality, and rewards and advances women for their expertise, experience, skill, and management capabilities.
The system now is bottom heavy with intelligent, educated young women who believe in the ideals of the UN, and top heavy with men. It has been that way for decades. This means that young women with all the qualifications to take on increasing levels of leadership in the system are being driven out or stifled. Statistics published by the UN reflect high rates of attrition among women who would wish to, or who have spoken out about the system’s toxic environments, their lack of recognition and opportunity, and the lack of equal protection in their UN workplaces.
III. Gender parity alone is not enough to reform a work environment that favors men as long as staff have no incentive to fight discrimination against women.
The assertion that greater representation of women will end discrimination is based on two unenlightened assumptions.
The first is that the presence of more women in an organization will discourage men from behaving badly. This reveals that gender parity is not being pursued to dismantle and replace patriarchy, but to control its most damaging effects by giving women the burden of policing men.
The second wrong assumption is that all women, including those who have risen through the ranks of patriarchal systems by assimilating sexist attitudes, will foster pro-women policies and environments. If women are promoted simply because they are women, and not for their expertise and demonstrated success in ending violations of women’s rights in their own workplaces, there is no reason to believe that they will try any harder than their male colleagues to end patriarchy. Unfortunately, in the highest ranks of the UN system, the decisions and actions of women and men are indistinguishable. In fact, female leaders are often the least likely to speak up, understanding better than most that the system rewards both women and men who remain silent in the face of patriarchal discrimination.
IV. Ending discrimination against women requires analyzing the systems that perpetuate both lack of gender parity and other measures of inequality
The UN must first recognize that an institutional culture that reflects patriarchal ideals and methods of operating would never be hospitable to women. This requires first listening to, supporting, and validating women in the mid- and lowest-grade ranks within the UN system, acknowledging that their firsthand perspectives on and knowledge about discrimination against female staff gives them unique expertise. But senior management must start by actively demonstrating that when one or many women speak out against the patriarchal culture and have strong constructive criticisms and recommendations, they are respected and rewarded rather than gagged or quietly discouraged from remaining in the system.
At the same time, reform also requires grounding analyses on expertise from outside the system. When the UN is faced with any crisis, it turns to true experts outside the system who can analyze and guide their responses. Similarly, to eradicate the entrenched culture of discrimination and patriarchy that prevents women from entering, staying in, and advancing in the UN, the organization must turn to external female experts who have successfully changed the cultures of other institutions in order to analyze and address the problem of patriarchy and discrimination in the UN.
Parity and equality will become synonymous when the UN is led by an equal number of women and men whose qualifications for their positions include concrete actions they have taken to change institutional culture. Meaningful parity will be achieved when the UN is staffed by an equal number of women and men at every level, each of whom is not only expected and encouraged to, but evaluated on their proven efforts to “actively promote the equal rights and opportunities of women in the workplace” as part of their official duties.