Number of UN women leaders grew under Guterres, with some caveats

A scene from the United Nations Observance of International Women’s Day, held in the U.N. General Assembly Hall. Photo by: UN Women / Ryan Brown / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — The number of women appointed to top positions within the United Nations has jumped dramatically during U.N. chief António Guterres’ tenure, but the disproportionate representation of Western Europeans and North Americans has remained relatively high over the last 25 years, according to new data by New York University’s Center for International Cooperation.

While women made up 19% of senior U.N. appointments in 1995, they made up 62% of these high-level appointments in 2020. Women from Western Europe and North America made up 48% of the appointments in 1995, and by 2020 they made up more than 38% of the senior positions. Women from Africa made up 42% of the senior appointments in 2020, compared to the 23% of top roles they filled in 1995.

“There have been great gains in the selection of women at the assistant secretary-general level, but you see most of those women are coming from North America and Europe. There are gains being made by women, but which women, and is it a diverse group and representative?”

— Paige Arthur, deputy director, NYU Center for International Cooperation

“Things are looking up with where we were even five years ago, but it has taken persistence and time to get this far,” said Ameerah Haq, former U.N. under-secretary-general for the department of field support, speaking during a webinar hosted by CIC on Thursday.

The new digital dashboard offers a window into the “very politically sensitive” U.N. appointments, on which the U.N. does not release detailed public information, according to Paige Arthur, CIC deputy director and director of prevention and peacebuilding program. The NYU organization began the data collection process in 2016 by reviewing individual U.N. press releases that announce top appointments in development, humanitarian work, and peacekeeping operations.

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“These are sensitive positions, and that is one reason why we think they don’t publish the same quality of data for these positions as they do for the regular staff. In a way, it would be great if they did. One would hope over time they would make this data public,” Arthur said.

At the start of his tenure in January 2017, Guterres pledged to appoint equal numbers of men and women to top positions at the U.N., which has long been dominated by men across all professional levels. Women held 33% of senior positions in 2016, a figure that grew to 56% by 2017.

Overall, women made up 41% of the U.N. system’s international staff as of September 2020, but parity dropped off as staffers advanced from entry-level positions. While women make up 55% of nearly entry-level P-2 positions, they compose 36% of D-2 positions, the highest level for a career staffer.

“You can see the attrition starting at the P-3 level and it goes up and up,” Arthur explained. She noted that, overall, the CIC data reveals that when it comes to gender parity, “things are moving in the right direction,” at least at the highest level of the U.N.  

“There is enormous change you see under secretary-general Guterres, and we know that he is deeply committed to this, but when you compare his term to the previous SGs, across the entire U.N., it is dramatically different,” Arthur said.

The regional disparities offer a more nuanced picture of U.N. appointments, Arthur explained.

“You see that there have been great gains in the selection of women at the assistant secretary-general level, but you see most of those women are coming from North America and Europe. There are gains being made by women, but which women, and is it a diverse group and representative? I don’t think that is being discussed anywhere and we would like to see that,” Arthur said.  

Toxic workplace cultures, inflexible working arrangements, and the value placed on serving in hardship duty stations all play a role in the persistence of gender disparities within the U.N. system, U.N. experts explained during the webinar.

Future CIC data analysis will address questions of women’s educational pathways to senior levels at the U.N., in addition to marriage status, number of children, and age. Women are less likely than male appointees to note their marital status or other family information in the U.N. press releases, according to Arthur.  

“Family constraints are a looming, large consideration. We know from surveys, women [within the U.N.] over 40 are more likely to have fewer children, and higher rates of divorce than their male counterparts,” said Anne Marie Goetz, a professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.  

It remains challenging to appoint women generals to U.N. peacekeeping missions, according to Jean-Pierre Lacroix, U.N. under-secretary-general for peace operations, given that “there are not many countries with female generals,” he explained. The proportion of female to male U.N. peacekeeping generals is 41 to 59, according to Lacroix.

The lack of upward mobility and professional movement in the U.N. system is another “one of the major problems of the U.N.,” Lacroix said.

“Bottom line, we have to consider appointments not on an individual basis, but in terms of looking at the group,” Lacroix said.

Devex, with support from our partner UN Women, is exploring how data is being used to inform policy and advocacy to advance gender equality. Gender data is crucial to make every woman and girl count. Visit the Focus on: Gender Data page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women.

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.