Secretary-General Guterres will 'insist' on gender parity for senior UN positions

António Guterres, U.N. Secretary-General-designate. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / U.N.

António Guterres, the incoming U.N. secretary-general, is going to appoint a woman from the “global south” to serve as his deputy-secretary general, his transition team’s spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told Devex.

Guterres, who will take office at the beginning of the new year, will also insist on ensuring that women are equally represented to all high-level U.N. positions, including under-secretary generals and assistant-secretary generals — jobs that the secretary-general fills through political appointments.

“He is very well aware of the support behind women leadership in the U.N. and he is absolutely and totally committed to implementing, as fast as he possibly can, gender parity at all levels,” Fleming said.

The United Nations has been long criticized for its failure to apply the gender equity lessons in staffing and leadership that its various agencies promote worldwide. The push for the first woman secretary-general gained momentum this fall, trending online as #SheforSG, before Guterres was ultimately selected in early October out of 10 candidates. Five of the other contenders — including UNDP’s Helen Clark and Kristalina Georgieva, the new CEO of the World Bank — were female.

Guterres — the former head of the U.N. refugee agency and prime minister of Portugal — was appointed by the General Assembly in mid-October, following a series of closed-door straw poll votes by the Security Council.

WomanSG, a civil society group that campaigned for a woman secretary-general, met in late October with Guterres. He promised them a woman would fill the second-in-command role of deputy-secretary general, a position currently held by Jan Eliasson, a Swedish diplomat. This was the only civil society meeting Guterres has so far held since his transition team formed within the past few weeks.

“My takeaway is that I was very impressed with him and I believe the way he talked about this, he is committed, honestly, to gender parity,” said Jean Krasno, an organizer of WomanSG and political science professor at City College of New York. “He is not giving it lip service. He talks in depth about it. I got the understanding he knew what the problems were and that he definitely is committed.”

Only 34.8 percent of the 40,131 U.N. Secretariat staff were women, as of June 2016. And women’s representation drops off as they climb higher up the U.N. ranks. It is a long-standing problem: the U.N. made a commitment in 1996 to achieving gender parity in managerial and decision-making roles by 2000.

While women made up 63.6 percent of entry-level U.N. positions, according to a recent U.N. demographics report, women held about 21 percent of the 80 assistant secretary-general roles and 79 under-secretary general positions. Under Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the percentage of women in high-level U.N. roles has remained stagnant, or dipped, since 2012.

The discussion between Guterres and WomanSG representatives included some of the underlying causes that prevent women from moving up the U.N. system. Someone aiming for a senior post, for example, could expect to log time in a country that presents security risks, making it difficult for women who are considering starting a family or raising children, Krasno said.

WomanSG is now focused on compiling a list of female candidates, including people from developing countries in the southern hemisphere to share with Guterres within the next few weeks.

The incoming secretary-general will not have to make all appointment decisions immediately. The contracts of most senior appointed staff were extended until the end of March 2017, a move that the new U.N. chief finds “very positive,” and likely to contribute to a smooth transition, Fleming said.

The incoming secretary-general is also looking beyond senior leadership at the U.N. to consider mid-level and entry-level staff jobs. This would mean looking at hiring practices and hiring accountability for managers overseeing people in entry- and mid-level roles.

The idea would be to ensure gender parity for the lower levels, as well, so “you don’t have a system, a situation, where at the top you are doing really well, and at the lower ranks, women aren’t moving up and being promoted,” Fleming said.

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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.