The United Nations and Women: Walking the Walk on Empowerment?

A recent court case in New York confirmed that you can’t sue United Nations officials on the basis of gender discrimination. Lucky for them. A quick look at UN practices in hiring, promotions, assignments, dispute settlement, compensation and high-level appointments suggests a clear and systematic pattern of bias against women. “If the UN were a private company located in New York City, it might have gone bankrupt years ago from paying off gender discrimination settlements,” says one UN insider, a man with long experience in these issues with only slight hyperbole.

A few statistics tell it all. Only 4 of 33 regional representatives of the Secretary General – the equivalent of UN ambassadors – are women. Rising in the UN system is a treacherous path for women: at the lowest professional levels, women make up 54 percent of all UN system jobs, but that rate drops to about 30 at mid-level ranks, and less than one in four at the upper level under-secretary general and assistant secretary general posts. The UN Office of the Focal Point for Women reports that for the prestigious posts in the Secretariat itself, rates of women’s participation are worse at every level than for the system as a whole.

Women’s associations within the UN, outside civil society groups and UN offices themselves have documented a series of discriminatory employment practices against women, including slower promotions, fewer prestigious awards or appointments, little if any accommodation for working women with children, and quicker separations. And until last summer, many of the mechanisms for redressing these grievances, as well as charges of sexual harassment, were hopelessly stacked against those filing complaints, forcing them to work through in-house structures that provided little protection from recriminations.

For an organization pledged to support global empowerment of women, this failure to walk the walk in its own house speaks volumes. It is little wonder that issues related to women – e.g., ensuring seats at the table in UN-led peace negotiations, eliminating sexual violence in conflict, or allocating post-conflict reconstruction aid to women’s priorities – are given short-shrift in policy circles. Or that nearly a decade after the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, concrete steps to empower and protect women remain largely a dream deferred for those facing abuse, displacement and alienation in wartime.

Let’s acknowledge some improvements over the past decade and accelerating under the current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, including reforms in the in-house grievance settlement system, the appointment of a women deputy secretary-general, support for a new gender entity, and a substantial increase in the portion of women appointed to senior level positions. Still, a male-dominated “old-boy” culture prevails.

For any institution, eliminating gender bias isn’t just a question of fairness or equity: it is good business practice. Why exclude half the talent pool from contributing fully to the organization’s mission? In foreign affairs, women not only bring vital skills to traditional “hard” security issues, but they also tend to broaden the dialogue and demonstrate with capacities for cooperation and compromise that are essential to diplomacy and concerns for human security that are increasingly central to international affairs.

Instead of hiding behind impunity, UN officials would be wise to learn the salutary lessons of gender bias lawsuits against the U.S. State Department. In fact, the suit filed by Alison Palmer in 1971 and a class action suit she filed with nine other women five years later and settled in 1990 has helped reform, rejuvenate and deepen the State Department and the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

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See also: UN plays a vital role in gender equality, but so do we all
Despite a fractured approach to gender issues the UN has made progress in an area where we all have moral responsibilities

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