What the U.N. Can Learn From Los Angeles About Gender Parity

PHOTO: UN WOMEN/RYAN BROWN VIA CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE. March 24, 2017. The closing of the 61st session on the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in New York City.

Everyone knows that the United Nations struggles with sexism. Whether it’s the horrific rape, sexual abuse and exploitation of girls by UN peacekeeping forces, the under-resourcing of U.N. Women (the agency established in 2010 as a global champion for women and girls), or the longstanding underrepresentation of women in U.N. leadership — the organization struggles.

At the same time all of this is happening, the U.N. is a global leader in advocating for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Ever since Hillary Clinton declared, “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights,” at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the U.N. has put its focus on women’s rights.

By the time the conference closed, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action — considered the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights — was put into place. It called for a world where every woman and girl could exercise her freedoms and choices, and realize her rights, including living free from violence, going to school, earning equal pay for equal work, and participating in leadership and decision-making.

As an outgrowth of this platform for action, in 1996, the U.N. General Assembly made a commitment to achieve gender parity in managerial and decision-making roles within the organization itself by year 2000.

Unfortunately, they did not make that goal. So, in 2000, they re-set their commitment to 50/50 gender parity in senior and policy-making levels with a target date of “the near future.” Hmmmmm….

Almost every year since, the General Assembly has reaffirmed this gender parity commitment.

And have they gotten there?

Not even close.

As of June 2016, women held just 34 of the 159 Assistant Secretaries-General and Under-Secretaries-General positions. That’s only 21 percent.

Sound familiar?

The U.N. is not alone in this underrepresentation of women. This same underrepresentation of women in leadership plagues the business world, science, technology, media, academia, medicine and politics, among others.

The difference with the U.N. is that it is an organization that has a declared mission to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls the world over. How can it do this without taking care of its own house first?

Two weeks ago, as a first-time delegate, I attended the U.N.’s 61st Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York. The Commission provides an opportunity for leaders in gender equality and women’s empowerment to influence the U.N. agenda. It’s the largest annual gathering of the international women’s movement at the U.N.

When I first received confirmation of my attendance as a first-time delegate, I was very excited. I immediately logged onto the U.N. website to learn more about the schedule of events. There, on the Commission page, I was greeted by a video of a man, Ambassador Antonio de Aguilar Patriota of Brazil.

At first, I was confused. Why is there a man greeting me for the Commission on the Status of Women?

And then I realized that he was the Chair of the Commission. I was floored by this.

How could the U.N. put a man in this position when they are trying to promote the advancement of women and girls? What does this say to women and girls?

It reminded me of what had happened just months before at the U.N. when they appointed Wonder Woman as an Honorary Ambassador to be the face of a campaign for the empowerment of women and girls.

I found this appointment tone deaf and humiliating. Why not appoint a real, live woman to this position? It was especially stinging as it came on the heels of the United Nations rejecting seven female candidates for the Secretary-General position after a well-supported campaign to finally have a woman at the helm of the U.N. for the first time.

Not typically a complainer on social media, I took to Twitter to call out U.N. Women and the U.N., in the most respectful way I could under the circumstances.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one speaking out about this. Thousands of feminists were doing the same, including an employee of the United Nations who started an anonymous petition to remove Wonder Woman.

This petition garnered 600 signatures within the U.N. itself, indicating the widespread internal opposition to this appointment.

Fortunately, the appointment of this comic book character ended two months after the protests. Interestingly, a spokesman for the U.N., Jeffrey Brez, disputed that the campaign had ended early as a result of the protest, citing other honorary ambassadorships with much shorter tenures.

Either way, it was clear that the U.N. leaders in the position to make this appointment were not in tune with the real needs and concerns of women and girls.

I was feeling the same way about the selection of Ambassador Antonio de Aguilar Patriota as the Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women. As wonderful as he is, I really could not get over the fact that the U.N. would have a man lead this Commission.

As I sat at the U.N. on the first day of the Commission, you can imagine my dismay when the first four speakers to address the Commission were all men.

Yes, that’s right. All men.

One after the other. Thirty-five minutes in, I had not yet heard the voice of one woman.

I must admit that my blood was boiling. Whaatttttt??? How in the world did they get away with this? Who thought of this? Why didn’t U.N. Women do something about this? Could they have been compliant? Yikes!

By the fifth speaker, a woman finally came to the podium. It was U.N. Under-Secretary Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of U.N. Women. Everyone clapped and cheered for her. The room enlivened. It felt like the Commission had finally begun.

Thankfully, from there forward, it was women who spoke in the majority.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with men speaking at the Commission on the Status of Women. We need men as our allies and partners. I do, however, have a problem with a man leading the Commission and four men being given the podium before any woman. It felt infuriating and insulting to me.

Instead of getting pouty, it fired up my passion to do something about this. So, when I had an opportunity to approach Ambassador Antonio de Aguilar Patriota, the Chair of the Commission, I did.

After introducing myself and thanking him for his work on behalf of women, I asked him, with all due respect, why is the Chair of this Commission a man?

He smiled and said in a friendly manner that next year it will be a woman, explaining that they are switching back and forth. He said that having a man as the Chair is a way to show that men are allies and advocates for women’s empowerment and gender equality.

My opinion on this is that in theory this makes sense, but experientially it does not.

Having a male Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, and opening the Commission with four male speakers, does not send the message to the constituents in the room, nor to the masses, that having women in positions of influence is a priority.

How can the United Nations accomplish its goal of realizing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls when the institution itself is laden with inequality?

Perhaps the U.N. could take a cue from the City of Los Angeles.

In 2013, the recently elected Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, put gender equality and strengthening women’s leadership opportunities at the center of his administration’s work to build a better Los Angeles. He understood that a focus on these things is a critical component to the prosperity of the city.

He vowed to reach gender parity on LA’s 41 boards and commissions, including the Fire Department, the Police Department (LAPD), the Airport, the Transportation system—not just the Library and Parks and Recreation, which were typical for women.

Within six months, this goal had been reached. Women now hold 51 percent of these positions, and there are no longer any all-male commissions.

Simultaneously, Mayor Garcetti appointed two of his five deputy mayors to be women, and of the 15 new general managers he appointed, eight are women.

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when there’s a will to accomplish it,” said First Lady of Los Angeles Amy Elaine Wakeland earlier this month at the inaugural Los Angeles State of Women and Girls Address. Amy has been an outspoken partner with her husband in the city’s gender equity efforts.

In 2015, Mayor Garcetti issued an executive directive on gender equity, which called on every City department to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and directed them to study how their services affect women and girls, set goals for improvement, and measure success. He also asked the Commission on the Status of Women to order a report that could help guide policy-making around the economic, social and other inequities faced by women and girls.

The Report on the Status of Women of Girls in Los Angeles, the first of its kind, released in 2015 and was prepared by Mount Saint Mary’s University, the only women’s university in Los Angeles and one of the most diverse in the nation.

“Our progress is clear: my administration achieved gender parity on our boards and commissions for the first time in history; more women are in positions of power and influence than ever before. And we’re taking new steps to improve services for women and girls, so that we can build on the momentum that this moment in history has put before us,” said Mayor Garcetti.

There’s a lot of talk from U.N. leadership on how every one of us must do our utmost to support the equal participation of women and girls at all levels; however, actions are not staying true to words.

Before former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon left office in December, he made an appeal on behalf of the incoming Secretary General António Guterres, who he described as a true champion of women’s equality: “Please, Member States, nominate capable women to serve across the United Nations. And please appoint women to lead your delegations to our conferences and councils.”

He even went so far as to say: “We are begging for more women in our missions.”

But Ban Ki-moon’s frequent assertions of progress in appointing women to high offices were refuted by data that showed 84 percent of his appointments to top posts in 2015 were male.

According to a U.N. report, at the current rate they are going, it will take 110 years for the organization to reach gender parity in leadership. Gender equality is being honored in name, but not in practice.

To break this trend, it will require the combined efforts of both governments and U.N. leadership. Rather than talking “at” women about the importance of advancing women in leadership, the focus should be on appointing more women into positions of leadership.

It has been argued that in order to achieve gender parity you need to change the culture first. But I say, let’s change the culture by first appointing women into the positions of leadership. Match the rhetoric with action.

People will have you believe that achieving gender parity in leadership is difficult. But it’s not. If the City of Los Angeles can do this, so can any other institution or organization, including the United Nations.

This blog was first published in The Huffington Post.

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Tabby Biddle, M.S. Ed., is a women’s rights advocate, leadership coach and Leadership Ambassador with Take The Lead, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing and propelling women to take their fair and equal share of leadership across all sectors by 2025. Learn more at tabbybiddle.

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