Under new leadership, the United Nations is finally taking measures to redress its long recognized failure to promote women’s leadership of the institution. Until now, women have never held more than 24% of high-level UN positions, despite a commitment made over 20 years ago to achieve gender parity in senior posts by the year 2000, and, when that failed, a subsequent commitment to do so by 2015.
Antonio Guterres, who assumed the role of Secretary-General on January 1st, campaigned as a champion of gender equality and upon taking the oath of office promised to make gender-parity within the 44,000-person Secretariat a priority.
Now some are determined to hold Secretary-General Guterres accountable for his promises.
The UN Feminist Network, a group of UN employees dedicated to advancing gender equality within the UN system, defined an agenda for the new Secretary-General. Among other demands, it calls on him to appoint a feminist as his deputy and to establish an action plan and timeline for achieving gender parity across the UN system through fast-track management and mentorship programs for female staff and creating more opportunities for their upward mobility. Historically, the challenge of taking on assignments in countries with high security risks while raising young children has held back more women than men from gaining the experience they need to grow into leadership positions. One solution they propose is shorter-term hardship posts.
Mr. Guterres has not yet specified whether he will adopt the entirety of this agenda or demands put forth by other gender equality advocates. However, his legacy at the UN refugee agency, where he largely established gender parity in senior managerial and decision making positions, leave many optimistic. So too does his acknowledgment of letting it slip in mid-level and entry-level positions, a mistake he vows not to repeat.
In the meantime, he has appointed three women to top posts, including one as his-second in command.
Meet the new appointees:
Amina Mohammed (born 1961) of Nigeria, the new Deputy Secretary-General, will manage Secretariat operations and coordinate activities and programs. Throughout her career in development she has held prominent positions within the UN, the Nigerian government, the private sector, and civil society. Highlights include advising three successive Nigerian presidents on poverty reduction, private sector reform, and sustainable development initiatives designed to help Nigeria meet its Millennium Development Goals. Later in her capacity as Special Advisor to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, she was instrumental in bringing about the UN’s 15-year blueprint for development known as the Sustainable Development Goals, which launched in 2015. Most recently, as Minister of the Environment, she lead Nigeria’s climate action.
Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti (born 1954) of Brazil, the new Chef de Cabinet, will coordinate senior staff and work behind the scenes to solve problems, mediate disputes, and take measures on issues before they are brought to the Secretary-General, whom she will also serve as an advisor. A career diplomat since 1976, she has held many high-level positions within Brazil’s ministry of Foreign Affairs, most recently serving as Ambassador to Germany and Permanent Representative to the UN.
Kyung-wha Kang (born 1955) of the Republic of Korea, fills the newly created position of Senior Advisor on Policy tasked with linking reform of the UN’s peace and security architecture with reform of its development system to strengthen the institution’s crisis prevention capacities. The mandate corresponds to Guterres’s vision to shift the UN’s approach from responding to crises to preventing them through early detection and preemptive action. Since joining the UN in 2007, Ms. Kyung-wha Kang has earned the respect of many colleagues through her leadership on human rights and humanitarian affairs. Prior to that, she served in Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including as Permanent Representative to the UN during which time she chaired the Commission on the Status of Women.
All three women will serve on a high-level body of leaders from across UN departments and programs that shapes policy and addresses emerging challenges. They bring the total number of women in this group, known as the Senior Management Group, to 16 out of 42. More women are expected to be appointed to this group and other leadership positions between now and the end of March when the contracts of some of the previous Secretary-General’s appointees expire.
With these appointments, Guterres has started to deliver on his promise to remedy the gross gender imbalances in UN leadership. If he maintains this level of commitment throughout his tenure, it would go a long way towards helping the UN practice what it preaches about the importance of creating “an environment in which every woman can […] live up to her full potential.”