Observers are wondering during UNGA week: Where are all the women?

A scene outside of United Nations headquarters during the 74th General Assembly in New York. Photo by: UN Women / Amanda Voisard / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — The online conversation held Monday was about climate change’s growing threat to national security. But Wendy Sherman, director of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership and a former U.S. diplomat, couldn’t help but mention another worrisome development trend.

“It pains me that the first 52 speakers tomorrow are all men,” Sherman said ahead of the United Nations General Assembly’s opening session Tuesday.

Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group and moderator of the online event, accidentally had his microphone on mute. "Especially in a year when the U.N. is celebrating its work on peace and security, it is truly amazing," Gowan responded after unmuting, joking that his momentary silence was a result of being “speechless” following Sherman’s remarks.

“This is incredibly frustrating — particularly this year, because we have seen countries led by women have seemed to navigate the pandemic more effectively than their male counterparts.”

— Megan Roberts, deputy director of policy planning, United Nations Foundation

The virtual transformation of the U.N. General Assembly’s opening 75th session has, in some ways, made the forums more accessible and inclusive. Without having to worry about traveling to New York for the action-packed week, many more people can attend.

“There’s no accreditation process. You just sign up for whatever side event you want to get into or watch whatever you want to watch on U.N. TV,” said Sarah Mendelson, professor at Carnegie Mellon University and former U.S. representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council. “Because of the [COVID-19] pandemic, because things are done remotely ... there is the opportunity for people to engage who couldn’t get to New York. So there is a little bit of leveling, not because of intentionality.”

But at the ministerial level, the sudden reliance on prerecorded video speeches from world leaders during the General Assembly has had another consequence: Women have a noticeably diminished presence.

As Sherman noted, the first 52 speakers during the General Assembly this week were indeed all men. On Wednesday, Jeanine Añez Chávez, interim president of Bolivia, was one of the few women leaders to speak during the GA session.

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The trend carried over into other high-level events, noted Enyseh Teimory, communications associate at the U.N. observer group United Nations Association – UK.

“I have watched the first half of the UN75 commemoration, and there was maybe one woman leader I saw... It is kind of disturbing, the lack of female voices,” Teimory told Devex.

The virtual format means that leaders like Chinese President Xi Jinping, who might typically send a delegation on his behalf, can themselves deliver their annual addresses to the General Assembly from afar. This year, U.N. chief António Guterres was the only global leader to give his speech in person at U.N. headquarters. The online proceedings also seem to dilute the number and scale of the many side events that typically happen during UNGA week, diminishing the number of diverse voices typically represented, observers say.

Only 21 countries — out of the 193 member states represented at the U.N. — currently have a female head of state or government.

“It speaks to the state of global politics. It is still very male-dominated. Normally when you would have a diversity of voices during the side events — say, the diplomats themselves, the civil society, the different stakeholders, and the diversity that would normally be around the U.N. — they offer a diversity that the main channels of power don’t have yet,” Teimory said.

There were a few public exceptions to the male-dominated forum. King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands ceded a portion of his four-minute address to U.N. youth delegate Hajar Yagkoubi.

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

Overall financing shortfalls, as well as internal U.N. confusion and pushback to some reforms have stymied progress on making the U.N. a more feminist institution, the Feminist U.N. Campaign found.

The U.N. has protocols about who speaks first during the General Assembly, based on elements like geographic balance. There was some work behind the scenes to shift the lineup and redevelop the speaker list to better represent women, according to Megan Roberts, deputy director of policy planning at the United Nations Foundation.

“I don’t know how effective that was, but it is really tough. You are seeing it at the U.N., but of course it is a much larger issue,” Roberts said. “I think it is a reminder that we all can be doing better.”

She added: “Of course, this is incredibly frustrating — particularly this year, because we have seen countries led by women have seemed to navigate the pandemic more effectively than their male counterparts. We know women and girls are bearing the brunt of the cost and the hardship of the pandemic. It is frustrating and has quite understandably caused frustration from member states.”

Michael Igoe contributed reporting to this article.

Update, September 24, 2020: This article has been updated to clarify that the nationality of the first woman speaker at a high-level UN event was unknown.

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.