Men in suits and ties always seem to own the world. As of January 1, 2021, nearly 6% of elected heads of state (9 out of 152) and 6.7% of heads of government (13 out of 193) were women.
Can this balance of power change? In any case, the UN office seems to be taking firm steps towards equality. Especially in Geneva, Switzerland, where women took until March 6, 1960 to obtain the right to vote and stand for election.
Now, since May 2019, the Russian economist, journalist and diplomat Tatiana Valovaia has held the post of Director General of UN Geneva, a historic first in the UN world.
It is not the only large institution chaired by a woman. On March 1, Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the first woman – and the first African woman – to take the reins of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its 625 employees.
Her appointment comes five months after Jamaican Pamela Coke-Hamilton, chosen to head the International Trade Center (CIC). With 120 employees, CIC’s mission is to help small and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries develop their export activities.
This far-reaching egalitarian achievement seems far from over. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) may also soon have a woman at its head. It has already done so, in fact, on an interim basis. “This goal has not yet been fully achieved, but it is likely that the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Portuguese António Guterres, is inclined to nominate a woman for UNCTAD. Since coming to power four years ago, he has really promoted this cause. I would not be surprised if his successor was a woman, “said Isabelle Durant, the former Belgian deputy prime minister who, since February 15, has been the interim secretary general of Unctad, with 480 employees.
A director in search of gender equality
For Guterres, gender equality at the UN must be achieved urgently: “This is one of my personal priorities. It is a moral duty and an operational necessity. The meaningful inclusion of women in decision-making increases efficiency and productivity, it helps to offer new perspectives and solutions, free up more resources and strengthen initiatives in the three pillars of our work “.
These are of course not just words, as 53% of Guterres’ Under-Secretaries General are women, and he frequently nominates candidates for the highest positions. But is it just a facade, hiding the big picture? How are women represented in the lower ranks of the UN?
In 2017, men made up 55.9% of the organization’s staff, while 44.1% were women – in 2003, this number was only 36.3%. It is clear that progress has been made towards parity, even though men are still largely dominant in senior civil servant positions, occupying 66.3% of them. Considering an economic sector generally associated with men, in UNCTAD women represent 31% of the staff at the senior management level and 34% of all staff.
“There is still room for improvement, and I’m working hard to promote things to every rookie,” said Isabelle Durant. Contrary to what we often hear, she believes that there is no shortage of female talents in the economic sector. It is an unconscious bias that generates more men than women in the recruitment process. “Leadership is not only male strength, it is also knowing how to unite your teams, show empathy and respect.”
Presence of women at the WTO
Another example of this current trend towards feminization, the Director General of the WTO who has just appointed, on May 4, two women in her team of four vice-presidents: the American Angela Ellard and the Costa Rican Anabel González. Once again, this is a novelty in the institution.
“This underscores my commitment to strengthening our organization with talented leaders while achieving gender balance in leadership positions,” said Okonjo-Iweala.
Other heads of international organizations include UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, a Ugandan aeronautical engineer appointed in 2020.
The rise of these women has helped revitalize the image of Geneva International – and its important multilateral negotiations -, whose role has been called into question by the United States. The United Nations system has been committed to promoting gender equality for years. Since 2015, the UN has stepped up the pace by adopting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals: a fifth of them advocate for gender equality.
Women in the post-Covid response
All of these appointments are “more than just a sign”, according to the acting secretary general of Unctad. “A woman does not negotiate in the same way, she pays more attention to ensuring that everything is done within the confines of the place where the arguments are taking place,” said Isabelle Durant.
“In addition, in general, we women have more freedom in the way we choose to work. As we have no legacy from the past, we have everything to prove. We have carte blanche, but they expect us to stumble. “
This is all the more true when it comes to the current management of the Covid-19 crisis, because the pandemic tends to deepen and accentuate existing inequalities.
Further explanations from Durant, who made his debut in politics with the Belgian Greens in the early 1990s: “Women must be involved in the reaction to Covid. It is not only a question of GDP, it is also a issue of human capital and sociability. more with the community; they can bring their personal touch through greater involvement in the care economy. Women and women’s organizations must be included at the center of decisions related to Covid. And, of course, in a broader sense in general.
The High Level Political Forum, held annually in July in New York, reviews progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality.
The United Nations can count on a staunch defender of equality in the figure of Secretary General Guterres. But also to Valovaia: “As the first female Director General of the United Nations Office at Geneva and having worked for many years in male-dominated spheres, my goal is that women and men have equal opportunities. in my organization and beyond. It is obvious that we will not achieve any of our goals if half of humanity is left behind. “
The words of Blaise Matthey, director of the Federation of Roman Enterprises in Geneva, an organization of Swiss exporters, suggests that there is a similar sentiment in the economic sector. “The more a company is diversified (gender, ages, origins), the better its performance.”
This report is published as part of the “Towards Equality” project, an international and collaborative initiative that brings together 15 media outlets to present the challenges and solutions to achieve gender equality.