Tag Archives: Women in the UN

Women at the UN: what is at stake?

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Since Helen Clark is in the race for the next Secretary-General of the United Nations, everyone talks about gender equality at the UN (and international organizations more generally). The UN is certainly one of the places in the world where the discrepancy between the discourse of equality and its reality of gender and race based marginalization is absurd. Indeed, it needs a white woman from a high-income OECD country to make a female UN Secretary General imaginable. In 2016, the UN is still far, far away from what has become possible at the British National Student Union, namely the election of dark skinned woman of ‘Muslim’ origin (inverted commas as the category ‘Muslim’ is a really silly rubbish bin category to squeez all those people in who have not been to Brownies). Helen Clark’s female competitors (Irina Bokova from Bulgaria, Susana Malcorra from Argentina, Maria Angela Holguin from Colomba) have received much less attention from Western media even though their track record as workers for humanity is at least as good as Clark’s if not better; one wonders why…

Apart from the fact that she is from a rich country, one reason Helen Clark is so spoilt by many Western media is that she is considered to be able to promote women’s issues and equality at the UN. She herself plays the women card very loudly in her campaign by claiming that women are a force of peace or that by giving TED talks about women and leadership. She emphasises how much she has done herself to promote women in government while she was New Zealand’s prime minister and chair of the World Council of Women Leaders.

But being a woman and woman senior leader does not automatically lead to greater gender equality in an organization. The UN is a particularly stubborn place when it comes to the promotion of women. This article on the opendemocracy website has some really uncomfortable charts to show this. As the article says: “At the current rate of increase [of women in senior positions] during the current Secretary General’s tenure—from 20 percent in 2007 to 22 percent in 2015—it would take another 112 years to reach 50/50 gender parity in the UN’s senior leadership.”

In peace missions, however, the share of women has noticeably risen. In 2006, not one single mission was led by a woman. Today, the UN misisons in Haiti (Sandra Honoré), Lebanon (Sigrid Kaag), Côte d’Ivoire (Aïchatou Mindaoudou), South Sudan (Margaret Løj) and Burundi (Karen Lindgren) are headed by women. Before this there had been only one mission that had been led by a woman, the first UN peace mission in Angola under Margaret Joan Anstee (a vivid account can be found in her memoirs and Marrack Goulding’s).

Most of these women are in sort of mid-career stages and it is probable that their current position as special representative will lead to further advancement. Even though overall the share of women has not increased in UN senior management in recent years, there is a little hope that in peacebuilding, at least, women’s presence might well be just taking off. Having a female secretary general, whether Helen Clark or someone else, does intuitively make believe that the careers of these female Heads of Missions would not be stalled in the same way Anstee’s career came to an end after the Angola experience and Boutros-Ghali’s installation as Secretary General.

However, the problem is that we don’t know. Having a woman at the top of the UN might as well have no effect whatsoever on the gender gap in international organizations. To start with, the UN is not doing particularly worse than any other socio-professional or political sector; it is actually doing better than many countries, including advanced industrial countries. Worldwide women hold only 12% of seats on executive boards of major business corporations (same page). Men still earn about twice as much income as women. According to the World Bank, worldwide parliamentary representation of women has increased to 23%, however it is a bit puzzling to see particularly high representation of women in parliaments that are utterly dysfunctional (e.g. Cuba or Iran). One explanation is that some countries generously count in these statistics female representatives in parliamentary chambers that have not direct legislative powers (e.g. Bolivia which has about 50% women in its lower chamber but none in its higher parliamentary chamber). Having a female head of state or government has not had any direct impact on women’s representation in parliament as the case of Germany for instance shows. According to the UN women programme, 11 women served as Head of State and 10 served as Head of Government as of August 2015 and only 17% of ministers worldwide were women.

Compared to this, the UN is actually doing ok with its 22% of women in senior leadership positions. But this also means that there will be a hell of resistance to take active measures to further increase women’s representation at the UN. For many male-dominated organizations, one woman in a room represents already parity. The best means to increase women’s representation has been up to now the introduction of quota. However, in an organization like the UN that is already riddled and divided up by numerous formal and informal quota it is unlikely that such a proposition would get anywhere even if it were seriously on the table. There are, of course, numerous other ways of supporting promotion of women in organizations like flexible working times, child care support (which in the case of the UN should include family friendly expatriate arrangements) and active support for promotion for instance through mentoring and gender sensitive promotion structures.

It’s in this last respect that much is expected from a female UN Secretary General. However, simply having a woman at the top cannot by itself lead to better support for female colleagues; on the contrary, single women leaders have shown a tendency to frustrate junior female careers rather than to support them. This has become known as ‘queen bee’ phenomenon and a well-known plot of Hollywood films. In mild forms the queen bee effect can be seen in female leaders’ refusal to support any kind of active policies to reduce gender gaps (‘we do the same work as men’), whereas more aggressive forms can take the form of active obstruction, for instance by precisely asking more effort and better results from women colleagues. The reasons for queen bee’s existence have been explained in various forms but some research argues that it is, actually, a result of gender inequality, and not a cause.

Researchers point to two factors that determine the severity of the queen bee phenomenon: the ‘maleness’ of the organizational culture and the socio-cultural socialization of the female leaders. Simply said the more sexist an organization is the more it is likely that a woman has complied with and assimilated gender stereotypes. She will apply these sexist standards to female junior staff in order to get her own achievements acknowledged. From other contexts, we know that an organization is the more sexist and gender discriminating the more it is dominated by men only. There is, hence, a vicious circle between male dominated organizational cultures and queen bee syndrome. Unnecessary to emphasize that sexist organizational cultures are more likely to exist in settings in which gender equality is less developed and where women generally participate less in the workforce.

Consequently, one of the surest ways of breaking through the vicious circle of queen bees and male organizational culture is female leaders’ awareness of this and other stereotyping phenomena. If female senior leaders lend active support to end gender discrimination, the effect on the organization is overall positive (not only for women!). Women who come from gender egalitarian backgrounds show less incidence of the queen bee syndrome than women who were socialized in gender discriminating cultures (whether national cultures or sector-specific cultures).

Hence, when looking for a UN Secretary General who will promote female careers, the actual fact of being a woman does not by itself promise change. Rather it is necessary that this woman is committed to promote junior women and that she actively engages in combatting discriminatory culture, policies and practices. This is easier in an environment in which women are already well represented and on the rise (as it is the case of the UN in the past decade). That means, however, that women like Irina Bokova from Bulgaria where the employment rate of women is high and the income gap comparable to New Zealand (13.5% in Bulgaria, 11.8% in New Zealand), and who has two children of her own (unlikely Helen Clarke who is childless) might even be a better choice to promote women in the UN. But then, Helen Clarke is not the candidate supported by Russia…

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