Civil society groups issue Guterres a B- for gender equality work

António Guterres, United Nations secretary-general. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — Good intentions, but with incremental progress, have landed United Nations chief António Guterres another B- for his work in building a more feminist U.N., according to the Feminist U.N. Campaign, a coalition of leading women’s rights and civil society groups.

The campaign issued its third annual report card Friday, awarding Guterres the same overall grade that he received in 2019 for implementing a feminist leadership agenda and enabling finance for gender equality, among other areas of action.

“This year is going to be most important to see Guterres rise to the occasion that 2020 is for women's rights.”

— Lyric Thompson, director of policy and advocacy, International Center for Research on Women

While Guterres himself continues to display a commitment to feminism — he gave three times as many speeches focusing on gender in 2019 compared with 2018 — financing shortfalls and internal pushback on reforms have crippled progress, said Lyric Thompson, director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women and a co-author of the report card.

“I think Guterres is trying to deliver on what he said he was going to. There are still areas where we're looking for action from him where he's not doing things. But where he said he would do things, he is certainly trying, by all appearances,” Thompson said.

“But in the context of a larger, severe funding shortfall and actual organized internal opposition, particularly on a parity piece, I would imagine that Guterres is pushing just as hard but not getting as far. And that, I think, is worrying and sobering,” Thompson continued.

Guterres scored highest on his efforts to achieve gender parity within the U.N. and lowest on his work to promote freedom of information in the U.N. system. The campaign conducted an online survey, an analysis of Guterres’ speeches and social media, and interviews with U.N. employees and civil society.

Guterres, the former head of the U.N. Refugee Agency, began a five-year term as secretary-general in 2017, with the goal of achieving gender parity across the U.N. at the top of his agenda. Progress on this ambition has kept pace with previous years, as parity was again met at the top levels of U.N. leadership. But women continue to hold fewer positions than men at middle-management levels.

Last year, Guterres issued a memo saying that if any U.N. agency or office has not yet achieved gender parity and hires a male candidate over a competent female candidate, it must send an explanation to his office. Another 2019 measure included new guidelines for an “enabling” workplace environment that supports workplace flexibility and family needs.

But two versions of the guidelines exist — with the longer version covering additional issues of recruitment, talent management, and implementation — leading to confusion over their integration. And there has been internal pushback on the new human resources requirements for gender parity. According to the report card, multiple interviewees “expressed that equal numbers do not necessarily mean women have more power, which is at the heart of true equality.”

The new measures also have a communications problem, Thompson said.

“There is a perception gap between people who are working internally on some of these initiatives and other people who say, ‘We never heard of it. What are you talking about?’ In order for this to have the intended impact, people need to know about it and then it needs to work,” Thompson said.

The report card shows that work to address sexual harassment in the U.N. system — another priority for Guterres at the start of his term — has continued, though at a slower pace. The authors call for him to “double down” on actions such as implementing standard disciplinary measures and offering protections from retaliation.

They also call for Guterres to make internal processes, reports, and data on gender and sexual harassment public, including findings from the high-level task force on financing for gender equality.

“It’s so hard to even get the data, and nobody has heard anything about it. And I don't find that surprising, given the financial picture that the U.N. is in,” Thompson said.

2020 is expected to be an important year for women’s equality: The U.N.’s 75th anniversary is set to highlight the global organization’s progress and shortcomings, while the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action will be reviewed during the annual Commission on the Status of Women meeting in March.

“The pushback we have seen on the agenda offers a very good kind of microcosm view of something we're seeing on a larger global stage of really well-organized and overt opposition to women's rights and gender equality agenda,” Thompson said. “For me, this year is going to be most important to see Guterres rise to the occasion that 2020 is for women's rights.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. 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.