The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

How can we ensure that our global institutions do not disregard half of humanity?  Current structures of global governance do not offer women a role equal to men in decision-making, nor do they show any clear signs of consistently supporting the challenges that women face around the world. Change will take more than simple gender parity in institutional staffing – we need global institutions that embrace a feminist agenda, and actively fight misogyny everywhere. 

As the UN’s ninth Secretary-General, Antonios Guterres, prepares to take up office on January 1, 2017, he is being flooded with advice on repurposing the UN to respond to 21st century challenges. Women’s leadership and participation – and an institutional capacity to promote gender equality – has to be at the core of these proposals.

The rank sexism that triumphed in the 2016 US presidential election campaign,  contributing to a global tide of belligerent nationalism, racism and xenophobia, rings a strident alarm to which multilateralism must respond. Misogyny cannot be ignored or framed as just a problem for unfortunate women in distant poor countries. It is a mobilizational tool linked to racism and isolationism of the kind that undermines multilateral cooperation. This is obvious from the fact that violent extremists make women’s social and sexual subordination foundational to state building – to the point of bureaucratizing the sale of women as sex slaves, as ISIS has done with Yazidi women.

Research has established that in countries where autonomous feminist organizations function freely, governments are able to combat violence against women, and are also more likely to find peaceful solutions to internal and external disputes. Indeed, the level of violence against women in any country is a better predictor of national propensity to engage in armed conflict than is national wealth, the quality of democracy, the nature of the dominant religious system, or region. Misogyny is not a side show.  It is a driver of destructive decision-making.  Combatting misogyny cannot be postponed until after peace, climate change or disarmament negotiations are over. As the anti-war activist Cynthia Enloe says: ‘”later” is a patriarchal time-zone’. Postponement has been the fate of women’s rights in multilateral institutions from the start, and it has to stop.

The future of multilateralism must include not just a ‘best intentions’ commitment to gender parity in staffing and gender equality in objectives, but mandatory steps towards those goals.

Gender parity in staffing is not the way this will be achieved. It is a common mistake to conflate gender balance with an institutional orientation to gender equality. Though gender parity is desirable for its own sake, it is sexist to assume that all women share – by virtue of their sex – a commitment to women’s rights, or a capacity to promote equality. Gender balance in staffing and leadership has been justified on substantive grounds (women will bring gender equality perspectives), or on efficiency grounds (women reduce risk-taking behavior and improve the quality of decision-making), or on justice grounds (we should combat the discrimination that prevents qualified women from being recruited). The reliability of the first two justifications Is still in question, since there are still too few contexts with more than a token number of women in power to know what difference they make. But if combatting misogyny is an objective (and it must be) of multilateralism, then what multilateral institutions need, well beyond gender parity in staffing, are clear mandates to promote gender equality, well-resourced gender equality institutional engines positioned within the power core, and accountability systems that prevent failures to advance the gender equality mandate. These accountability systems must be monitored by women around the world, women fighting for gender equality. Without engagement from women on the ground, gender parity in staffing is an elitist project and gender-sensitive institutional architecture will not effectively address sexism.

Women’s movements have historically put great faith in multilateralism, seeing international institutions as arenas in which to circumvent  domestic patriarchies, securing international commitments to women’s rights that would be inconceivable at home. But institutions such as the League of Nations and the UN, the IMF and the World Bank, as well as regional groups such as the OECD, the EU or the African Union, have historically treated gender equality as a marginal project, assigning a small underfunded institutional unit to women as a post-foundational afterthought.  At the League of Nations, for instance, gender – or specifically, trafficking in women – was lumped in its Fifth Committee along with opium, refugees, relief after earthquakes, alcoholism, and the protection of children. The highly experienced foreign policy expert Helena Swanwick lamented, when she joined the 1924 UK delegation to the League, that she would be confined to that committee simply because she was a woman, calling it ‘a rag-bag of miseries and forlorn hopes’.  The UN made history in 2010 by merging its four tiny and competing gender units into an operational agency, UN Women, but this has been constrained from inception by inadequate funding.  

2016 saw not only the dashing of hopes for the first woman president of the US – a country that ranks an unimpressive 99th in the world in terms of numbers of women in its legislature – but also the failure of the UN to appoint its first woman Secretary-General in spite of exceptionally well-qualified women constituting for the first time the majority of nominees for the post. Within the UN, 2015 and 2016 also saw revelations that the proportion of women amongst senior managers in the Secretariat had fallen from a ‘high’ of 24% in 2012 to less than 22% today, with fresh appointments to these positions in 2015 being 84% male. For feminists within the system, it is no surprise. The UN General Assembly pledged in 1990 to elevate the proportion of women in senior management to 25% by 1995. When that goal was not achieved, it resolved in 1996 to achieve a 50-50 gender balance in all posts by 2000. That date came and went without comment. The engine behind these demands had been the UN’s global women’s conferences of 1975, 1980, 1985 and 1995. 2015 was the expected date for the Fifth World Conference on women – but tentative efforts to get the ball rolling in 2012 were snuffed by fears that the darkening global environment for women’s rights might roll back normative achievements.

The future of multilateralism must include not just a ‘best intentions’ commitment to gender parity in staffing and gender equality in objectives, but mandatory steps towards those goals. This is not an elitist project of finding jobs for the girls. It is about placing feminists in powerful positions, and making gender equality an institutional priority. This is why the campaigns to elect a woman Secretary General to the UN stressed that they wanted to see a feminist at the helm. The true test for male multilateral leaders who self-identify as feminist, such as Mr. Guterres, will be the extent to which they continue to insist on women’s rights even when it is politically inexpedient, which it often is. Misogyny anywhere affects people everywhere. That is the definition of an issue needing a multilateral solution.

Anne Marie Goetz

Anne Marie Goetz is a Clinical Professor at the Center for Global Affairs, School of Professional Studies, New York University. She was formerly Chief Advisor on Peace and Security at UN Women. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Cambridge, and is a regular commentator on women and international affairs.