Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Achieving Gender Parity in the United Nations (UN) System is Possible

At the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, the nations of the world set the goal a of 50/50 gender distribution at all levels of employment within the UN Secretariat by 2000[1].  Thirteen years after this deadline, the UN is far behind in reaching its goal.  According to a June 2009 report issued by the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues, the percentage of women at the most senior positions, Under-Secretary-General and Assistant Secretary-General, are 22.2 percent and 22.8 percent  respectively[2].  Moreover, at the highest level of the Organization, the world has yet to see a female Secretary-General.  The UN can achieve gender parity through enacting flexible working arrangements and policies promoting work-life balance, improving accountability, and implementing real time monitoring, accompanied by adequate funding for each of these endeavors.

The UN must prioritize its commitment to gender parity for a number of reasons, most notably for the purpose of striving for gender equality and for the organizational benefits associated with gender diversity.  Gender parity is inherently necessary to actualize gender equality, a stated goal of the UN in its charter and the Millennium Development Goals.  As one of the world’s foremost norm setting bodies, the UN itself must first abide by its high standards to truly promote gender equality around the world.  Studies from Catalyst and McKinsey demonstrate that increasing the number of female decision makers at the table correlates with improved collaboration and productivity.

A significant impediment to achieving gender parity results from societal pressure for women to be the parent primarily responsible for child and elderly care.  For example, many women leave the workforce for an extended period of time because they are unable to balance raising a family while maintaining a demanding career. As is common practice in the private sector, the UN can create opportunities for employees to telecommute, use flextime, participate in a compressed workweek, or job share arrangements.  To implement these policies successfully, the UN must provide training for staff of all levels about how such flexible working arrangements can be utilized.  To get rid of the stigma associated with taking leave, the UN should remove the requirement for an employee to state the purpose of the leave, and be a model for not having to file a reason. Lastly, the UN can also provide daycare solutions such as onsite facilities, pre-negotiated contracts with daycare providers, and childcare subsidies that are accessible to all.  

Monitoring, reporting and accountability are imperative to achieving gender parity.  Accountability must be broken down to the individual manager and unit level.  The mere existence of potentially effective policies such as flexible working arrangements does not suffice when they are not wholly implemented as a socially acceptable option for employees to utilize. The UN should track requests for flexible working arrangements that come in, as well as the percentage accepted and declined by managers. How well a manager is performing in relation to gender parity as well as their gender sensitivity needs to be a competency for their promotion.

Current statistics on gender representation in the UN exist predominately only as snapshot reports.  Most agencies do not have computerized gender statistics in real time, demonstrating the impact of a given recruitment, selection, promotion, or retirement on a given level or in a given department. To be more useful to managers and to correct distributional imbalances within large departments, monitoring should gradually be refined and further broken down to the divisional level.  In addition, few departments collect data on a number of other key issues affecting their staff’s ability to juggle work-life balance, such as the number of staff members who head single parent households or have problems concerning childcare or care of aging parents. 

Achieving gender parity is absolutely possibleThe System-Wide Action Plan of 2012 (UN SWAP) is a great move in the right direction.  Political will can be strengthened, policies can be formulated and more rigorously implemented, and organizational culture can be positively altered.   Flexible working arrangements and family friendly policies will reduce women’s attrition from the UN by allowing them to achieve a better work-life balance.  Promoting managers on a basis of their performance in regards to gender parity will increase their personal accountability to the issue.  Additionally, real time monitoring of gender-disaggregated data will allow the UN to respond to problems as they arise. By facilitating gender parity, the UN will be aligned to achieve other key goals such as productivity, efficiency, and coherence as well as truly live up to the high values it espouses.

More info: UN Office of the Focal Point for Women 

[1] Resolution 50/164 of 22 December 1995
[2] A/63/364. Report of the Secretary- General on Improvement of the Status of Women in the United Nations System. February 2010.

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