All eyes are on Guterres as he appoints several women to top UN posts

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / U.N.

Nearly one month after António Guterres took the reins as United Nations secretary-general, signs point to him making good on one of his first promises: appointing equal numbers of women and men to top posts.

Balancing U.N. leadership will align the organization with the human rights and gender equality mission it promotes. But Guterres, the former head of the U.N. Refugee Agency, is also facing added pressure from civil society and member states observing his early steps.  

“The U.N. at its core is an old boys network. The data bear that out. As you walk the corridors of the Secretariat building you can see this,” said Melissa Labonte, an associate dean for strategic initiatives at Fordham University, who studies gender parity and U.N. leadership. “The landscape of diplomacy is still very much a man's world… there just have not been enough women moving up through the ranks to populate the highest [U.N.] positions and the men who have dominated those ranks have closed them out.”

The secretary-general has announced that five out of his first nine appointments are women. This roster includes Amina Mohammed, Nigeria’s former environment minister, who will serve as his deputy secretary-general; Kyung-wha Kang, former assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, will fill the new role of special advisor on policy; and Ursula Mueller, previously of the World Bank Group, will take over as the assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs in the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Mohammed’s selection is not particularly novel: there have been two other women deputy secretary-generals since the 1990s. But Mohammed is “not a sidekick,” says Shazia Rafi, a member of the civil society coalition WomanSG, who has worked with Mohammed on SDGs. “She has a very strong personality, she has strong ideas and she is going to be an equal partner.”

Only 13 out of 46 of former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s senior appointees in 2016 were women. In 1996, the General Assembly adopted a resolution for the U.N. to have women and men holding equal numbers of managerial and decision-making positions by 2000. While women recently made up 63.6 percent of entry-level U.N. positions, their participation dipped by nearly 40 percent once they reached top positions.

It’s partially a question of numbers, at least on the surface. The more senior the post at the U.N., the greater the chance that a man holds it — a correlation that persisted during the years of Kofi Annan and was amplified during Ban’s tenure, when women made up only 21 percent of senior U.N. positions, including 80 assistant secretary-general and 79 under secretary-general positions.

The recent selection process of the U.N. secretary-general, however, highlights deep-rooted, structural problems — such as lack of transparency in nominations by member states — that can hurt the bid for gender parity, many observers say. This impetus is pushing parallel groups of countries, civil society and U.N. staff to ensure Guterres keeps his team’s word of “insisting” on gender parity.

The Group of Friends for Gender Parity is a coalition of 68 member states that has emerged and grown from a failed campaign last year to elect a first woman secretary-general. At one point, seven women were in the race, including Helen Clark, the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme.

“We will have to see, we will have to have to watch. The good thing with the Group of Friends is that we are all united in this one thing, to push and to tell the secretary-general that we have an eye on this and we will be watching him,” said May-Elin Stener, the deputy permanent representative of Norway’s mission to the U.N., an active participant in the coalition that meets every few months.

“On the other side I think also that as member states, we need to be watching ourselves, because it is also important those candidate pursuing on behalf, of our country, or our region, that we make sure we also think about gender parity.”

Following the Security Council’s selection of Guterres, the ninth male secretary-general, U.N. gender equality observers and activists are using the momentum for the first female U.N. leader to further a broad, growing movement that is pushing for a U.N. feminist agenda.

Guterres has spoken often of his commitment to gender equality. But his record on sexual and reproductive health — opposing legalization of abortion — as prime minister of Portugal has called some U.N. observers to question how he will follow through as secretary-general.

“It has energized women’s groups certainly to see a strong, credible female candidate standing there in front of 130 plus governments answering questions. That in itself was quite an amazing process,” said Rafi, referring to the interviews candidates participated in last year. “But this is a very difficult moment for all of us. In the U.S. you had a very competent woman running and losing against a very incompetent man. We are not at a moment where women are too heartened by what they see.”

WomanSG, once a champion for a female secretary-general, re-branded after Guterres won and shared a list of potential candidates with the secretary-general’s transition team before he took office this month.

The civil society group floated names of people ranging from assistant secretary-generals, to women figures who were U.N. outsiders but would likely rise quickly if given the chance, says Jean Krasno, an organizer of WomanSG and professor at City College of New York. The profile was broad, notes Labronte.

“We made sure we were not looking for just SG-type women, but women who had really demonstrated their ability to handle the complexities of global governance and ability. This is one of the reasons why Guterres himself felt, ‘OK, I am not going to use the term Binders full of women.’ That is just not what we were doing,” Labonte said. “What we were trying to demonstrate is that there are just are not enough qualified women candidates.”

Ultimately, though, much of the selection process comes back to member states, who nominate people in a back-door process, during which the number, gender, or nationality of candidates for a position is not made public. And as long as the process remains informal, this type of transparency is unlikely, Stener says.

Other options could also be considered, including tasking the U.N.’s Office of Human Resources Management with finding female candidates, or holding U.N. hiring managers accountable for not promoting women.

For now, Rafi says, Guterres is “very cognizant of the pressure.”

“Every trickle leads to the ocean. I want the system to change.”

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About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.