Feminist Leadership at the UN

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What is the current state of feminist leadership and progress advancing gender equality at the United Nations? The election of a new Secretary-General in 2016 opened an avenue for the UN to implement an agenda that puts gender equality and women’s rights at the heart of everything it does. However, even after two decades of women, peace, and security policy development and commitments, women’s representation at all decision-making levels in peace and security matters lags due to structural barriers, lack of access to political arenas, and even threats to women who attempt to participate in these processes.

A March 14th IPI policy forum in partnership with the International Center for the Research on Women, the Feminist UN Campaign, and Save The Children amplified perspectives on progress as well as remaining challenges to removing barriers to gender equality and feminist leadership at national, regional, and global levels. The discussion brought together experts from member states, UN leadership, and civil society, and focused on concrete actions that can shift the balance of power at the UN and encourage all multilateral institutions to be more inclusive.

IPI Senior Fellow Sarah Taylor opened the discussion by pointing to the context: the annual Commission on the Status of Women and International Women’s Day. A significant focus of discussion, she said, was “concerns around the multilateral system, and the pushback on women’s status.” This is why a discussion on feminist leadership at the UN is so important, she said, because it is about how to “ensure that the UN–across the street and in its global work–lives up to its promise as a bulwark against that erosion of women’s rights, and is indeed a home for feminist leadership.”

What does it mean to be a feminist leader? Katja Pehrman, a Senior Advisor at UN Women, said that it is about linking ideology and action. “A feminist leader is not only a champion of gender equality, but has the responsibility to take steps to make this a reality, and model the way forward for others.” The ultimate aim of feminist leadership, she said, is to increase women’s representation and protect women’s rights.

She noted that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ gender parity strategy posited a roadmap of recommendations and had had a “very impressive” response. For the first time in the UN’s history, there are more women than men in senior management, and there is parity among senior coordinators. All five UN regional commissions are also led by women. In addition, the Secretary-General has taken steps to combat sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment, a model for the entire UN system, Ms. Pehrman said.

Even with these enabling guidelines, it will take an estimated 703 years to reach gender parity in the working level at this current rate so more effort is necessary, she said. “Gender parity is not only about the numbers, it’s also about changing the organizational culture and the way of thinking,” she continued. “Feminist leadership is for all, and it truly benefits all of us.”

Ulrika Grandin, Senior Advisor, Feminist Foreign Policy in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, spoke about her country’s famous feminist foreign policy. “Feminism starts at home,” she said. “Internal work has been key. We have a slogan when we work with this issue— the three Rs: rights, representation, and resources.” She said that Sweden would not have been able to promote a feminist foreign policy if the government had not done gender equality work nationally first.

She pointed to reforms for daycare and taxation as platforms for pursuing the policy and elaborated upon four essential components in adapting it for the foreign service. The first, she said, was leadership; the second, ownership; the third, guidance; and the fourth, support. In the four cases, she said, gender equality should be a priority in all speeches to staff, gender should be included in the budget process, all ambassadors should be ambassadors for feminist foreign policy, and the key to creating ownership was listening to women’s ideas.

To measure progress of the Secretary-General towards building a gender-equitable UN, the International Center for the Research on Women’s (ICRW) Feminist UN Campaign put out its second Report Card on the Secretary-General’s second year in office. Its co-author, Lyric Thompson, Director of Policy and Advocacy at ICRW, highlighted the six areas for action to enhance feminist leadership at the UN. The first is to implement a feminist leadership agenda for the UN; the second, to ensure feminist implementation and accountability for the Sustainable Development Goals; the third, to spur finance for gender equality, the fourth, to utilize feminist leadership; the fifth, to enable a feminist transformation for the Commission on the Status of Women and UN Women; and the sixth, to promote the freedom of information in the UN System.

Ms. Thompson said she was pleasantly surprised by the Secretary-General’s willingness to engage with the comments from the report card after receiving a C+ for 2017. The 2018 report card graded him at B- and applauded his improvements while asserting there is more to accomplish. Asked what the Feminist UN campaign would like to see from the Secretary-General next, she replied, accountability for abusers who are still in power.

Words are not enough, she emphasized. “If actions aren’t changing, it isn’t feminist. It’s all about doing things differently.” The main ask for Mr. Guterres next year, she said, was that he “use the power of his pulpit to call out patriarchy, address imbalances of power, and find creative solutions for the next 25 years.”

Nora O’Connell, Associate Vice President of Public Policy and Advocacy at Save the Children, stressed the power of the UN as an agent of change. The UN “sets norms, drives funding, and has expertise on how to tackle issues,” she said. “We all recognize the UN is not the source of inequality, it’s not the root cause. But when the UN reflects the gender inequality that we see in the world, then it perpetuates that gender inequality,” she said. “When the UN invests in changing that, it can really be transformative.”

The power of the UN, she said, is that it can transform the conversation on gender equality. For example, Ms. O’Connell said she had seen progress in ending child marriage, yet this practice has continued in vulnerable families in the name of protecting girls. The UN had not been systematically collecting and publishing data on child marriage, and that, she said, has made this humanitarian crisis “completely invisible.” To change this, the UN and all stakeholders can make space for women and girls at the table in all conversations, helping create that space for women within member state governments and civil society.

A critical component to achieving equal representation is proper funding, she said. “We know all of this costs money, and there are very few women ministers of finance,” she pointed out. “While organizations on the ground know they are experts on the realities of women and girls and on what works, they are not experts on budgets, and so they are not at the table, and they don’t feel like they often have the expertise needed to even engage in those conversations.”

Nahla Valji, Senior Gender Adviser in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, made note of the progress that had been made in the context of the upcoming 75th anniversary of the UN. One example she cited was the UN’s first female head of the Department of Political Affairs and an all-female leadership team in Iraq. In particular, she said, her office was trying to change staff rules and regulations to further the equitable distribution of posts for men and women.

“We still live in a male-dominated world and culture,” she said. “Gender parity is fundamental to shifting that power imbalance: this is fundamentally about power. It is also about shifting and transforming institutions in terms of how it is we define leadership, and through that, fundamentally changing the outcomes that we achieve.”

What is important about modeling women’s leadership, she said, was that the “leadership traits we prioritize give us a certain view and perspective of the world.” Leaders too often prioritize militarization over education and development, she said, and short term economic gains over climate justice. Undervalued are the “‘feminine’ traits of collaboration, coordination, consensus, and inclusion. Not to say women are inherently these traits, but rather historically these are traits that have been excluded from how we define leadership. By having more diverse leadership, we lead to more diverse and effective outcomes for our organizations.”

She warned the audience not to conflate women and gender equality and feminism. “We should not expect all women to carry the mantle of gender equality,” she said. “Gender is not the purview of women; men have a gender as well.”

IPI Senior Fellow Sarah Taylor moderated.