by Jennifer Tierney
The colossal bureaucracy of the United Nations, with its bloated underbelly of agencies, commissions and special advisors on the most pressing international problems, is arguably the greatest Good Old Boys Club in the world. Looking at the global representatives gathered at this venerable institution, one would find it hard to believe that half the world’s population are women. Despite recent headway made in increasing the presence of women in the UN’s higher ranks, the balance has remained dramatically tipped by an overwhelmingly male majority.
This is, after all. the institution known for having a glass ceiling so low than even short women were in danger of bumping their heads. The UN has also received intense criticism in recent years for ignoring or silencing through intimidation women staff who complained of sexual harassment, assaults, even rapes by male diplomats who too often view female employees as just another goody in their overly generous packages of employment benefits.
Today, however, the growing presence, if not the influence, of women can be felt on both levels at the IN. Within the UN system, which includes the secretariats and all the agencies, women now occupy eight top-level positions, most notably, (he second most important position at the organization. Deputy Secretary General. The commissioners for human rights and for refugees are also women.
Women now head important agencies in charge of childrens’ issues (UNICEF), world food assistance (FAO). health policy (WHO) and women’s human rights (UNIFEM). A handful of special advisors, such as the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women, are also directed by women. Among country ambassadors, there will be 11 women out of a total of 185 by the end of the year.
Given their minority status, women in both tiers of the UN have developed a keen sense of networking to keep women’s rights at the top of the agenda in policy and within the halls of the IN itself. They meet together as a kind of solidarity posse, the brainchild of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she was the U.S. Ambassador to the UN. The group regularly invites other leading women within the UN system to figure out ways to press for better appointments for women. “We felt there was an absence of women in key political areas.” said Penny Wensley, the permanent representative to the Australian Mission to the UN, commenting on how women in high-ranking positions are concentrated in areas relating to social issues, as opposed to international security. “We’re not asking for tokenism, we want qualified candidates to be considered.” she added. “Nor are we saying let us into your club and we’ll blend in. We have a different perspective that deserves hearing.”
There was some progress made this year with the appointment of Canada’s Deputy Minister of National Defense, Louise Frechette, as Deputy Secretary General. Women were also appointed to high-level political representations to Bosnia and Cyprus. But despite heavy lobbying, there were no women inspectors on the mission sent to Iraq to investigate the chemical weapons supply. And women are not even a shadow in such important areas as the departments of political affairs and peacekeeping.
Some women take matters into their own hands. Dr. Nafis Sadik, executive director of the UN Population Fund, has almost single handedly changed the face of the agency, and to a degree, the entire UN system. Since she took the reins, the agency has promoted more women to leadership positions than any other part of the UN system. Due to Sadik’s constant insistence, 64 percent of the senior staff are women. As one of them put it. “She really changed the Old Boys Club. Now when the men see her, they rush to tell her how many women they’ve hired.”
For her part, Noeleen Heyzer, the director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) has tried to use the agency as a catalyst for policy change. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s no longer about waiting to be invited to the table,” said Heyzer. ‘”The whole international community has made particular commitments to women’s rights. For me, it’s a done deal. Now. [the issue] is the how-to of getting things done.” – J.T.
New York-based journalist Jennifer Tierney was formerly the Mexico correspondent for International Financing Review magazine. She has also written for The New York Times, The Financial Times of London, and UPL among others.