Change of culture? Gender and Intergovernmental Organisations

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Image: Opening of the 64th session of the Commission of the Status of Women. Image credit: UN Women/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Since the 1980s, along with concepts such as human rights, democracy and international cooperation, gender equality has become a liberal norm that is central to many intergovernmental organisations. As exemplified by the United Nations (UN), these organisations form a part of the fabric of global governance, and some of them aim to further liberal norms across the globe. Gender equality, standing for equal treatment and opportunities between genders, is a normative aim in the UN’s external interventions, as well as an internal organisational goal – a duality that this blog explores in detail.

Gender equality and Intergovernmental Organisations

Gender is a broad concept that captures, among much else, relations between individuals and groups. These can be defined with regard to sexual differences, economic positions, biological constitutions and/or ethnic and racial collectivities, for example.[i] Gender equality is a concept that seeks to alleviate differential treatment based on differences such as these, while pursuing equal opportunities and consideration for all genders. From a global perspective, such an aim remains out of reach – with the World Economic Forum estimating in the Global Gender Gap Report 2022 that gender inequalities will remain for at least another 132 years. Linear progress is not being made, rather, backlashes against gender equality remain a concern: this estimation represents an increase in inequality that has been put down to COVID–19 as in 2018, the same institution estimated a gender gap duration of 108 years.[ii]

the World Economic Forum estimate that gender inequalities will remain for at least another 132 years

Recognising these disparities, some intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) represent actors that promote gender equality in the international arena. Not all IGOs are among their number, however, as observed by Jonas Tallberg, Magnus Lundgren and Thomas Sommerer: ‘For example, the UN, African Union (AU), and Commonwealth, among others, have full-fledged policies on gender equality, while others like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) do not.’[iii] A cross-cutting normative triumph for gender equality is yet to emerge in global governance: For example, the World Trade Organization, the world’s largest international economic organisation that represents 98 per cent of the world’s trade,[iv] appointed its first female director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, only last year.

In 1997, Bob Reinalda accredited the historical transitions to gender equality and women’s emancipatory policies made by the European Union (EU) and the UN to feminae in machina, meaning women’s political action. This reference modified the plot device in Greek drama of deus ex machina, referring to a solution to an apparently unsolvable problem that unexpectedly ‘falls from the sky’. Indeed, changes in this area have taken place to a large extent because of women’s activism and social pressure, which has changed IGOs’ male-dominated arenas. Also in the 1990s, Teresa Rees segregated three IGO strategies how the normative commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment was brought into practice.[v] The first focused on equal treatment, with the implication that no individual should have fewer human rights or opportunities than any other; alongside this came a rationale for the right to equal pay for equal work. The second focused on positive action, meaning the adoption of specific actions on behalf of women. This could also take the form of positive discrimination, such as affirmative-action preferences and quotas. The third was gender mainstreaming, calling for the systematic incorporation of gender issues throughout institutions and policies.

These strategies can still be identified across several IGOs that are, or claim to be, interested in advancing gender equality, but there remain disparities in how IGOs operationalise their normative commitments. Gender equality represents liberal thought, which, in essence, is a political doctrine. Furthermore, organisational politics that affect the realisation of gender equality remain in place. Some scholars note that IGOs, including the UN, replicate patterns from nation-state politics, for example by nominating men as senior executives who hold the most political power.[vi] Jeffrey Feltman notes that ‘[a]s a former UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs (2012–2018), I was a direct beneficiary of political influence over UN hiring’, and also that other IGOs, such as the African Union (AU), the European Union (EU) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) suffer from political influence in the same way.[vii]

gender equality represents liberal thought, which, in essence, is a political doctrine

‘We the peoples: A renewed social contract anchored in human rights’ – Women-focused agenda at the UN

UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ visionary statement ‘Our Common Agenda’,[viii] launched in 2021, captures his vision for future global cooperation over the next 25 years. His statement embodied a ‘renewed social contract anchored in human rights’, placing women and girls as its central focus. It argues, for example, for the repeal of gender-discriminatory laws across UN member states, the facilitation of women’s economic inclusion globally and the promotion of gender parity – inclusive of quotas and special measures. This indicates that the UN’s gender equality and women’s empowerment work is aimed in two directions: outward, towards member states, and inward, affecting intra-organisational dynamics.

As may also be seen from these examples, gender in the UN organisational context often captures a binary of women/girls and men/boys, with the main emphasis on the former.[ix] When men and boys are included in the UN’s institutional gender language, they are often regarded as gatekeepers towards realisation of gender equality or as groups that should be targeted with interventions that support women’s empowerment measures. This is perhaps most evident in the programmatic documentation of the UN’s entity for gender equality and women’s empowerment, UN Women. In terms of its size, operational reach and annual budget, UN Women is the world’s leading international organisation focusing on gender equality and women’s empowerment.[x] In its annual ‘Gender Snapshot’ for 2022, published together with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and detailing ‘Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals’,[xi] the word ‘women’ appears 209 times and the word ‘girls’ 110 times, compared with the word ‘men’ 21 times and the word ‘boys’ 6 times. It could be argued that this emphasis exposes a male assumption for the UN: otherness, distinctiveness and signification owing to gender rest on women and girls, wherein neutrality, generality and a non-specific nature mark the male gender. If gender as a concept translates to mainly ‘women’ in practice, the notion of men is treated as a social norm – ‘not an identity, not a particularising quality, because it is everything. Therefore, men/masculinity is no gender because it is all genders.’[xii]

An alternative – or complementary, depending on the point of view – rationale to the focus on women and girls is the global disparity in gender equality, with a significant burden borne by the female gender. In terms of killings, male homicides dominate the statistics, but those of female homicides are particularly motivated by gender (and thus termed ‘femicide’): on average, five women or girls were killed every hour by someone in their own family in 2021.[xiii] Globally, women earn 37 percent less than men for similar professional roles, while 88 countries have laws that restrict women’s, not men’s, employment, thus affecting an estimated 1.6 billion women.[xiv] Out of 195 countries in the world, only 13 have women as head of state, with 15 having a woman as the head of government.[xv] Gendered notions such as these seem abundant, indicating that external interventions with woman- and girl-specific lenses can be justified.

five women or girls were killed every hour by someone in their own family in 2021

Internally, the UN embodies a gendered struggle of its own. The Secretary-General’s report from 2021 on the status of women in the UN system showcases that whereas gender parity advancements have been made, particularly at UN Headquarters level, women are over-represented at the lowest levels of professional hierarchies, while men progressively dominate mid- to senior management.[xvi] There is also a notable challenge in the security sector and in UN Mission settings: the United Nations Department for Safety and Security (UNDSS), the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) are among examples with the direst gender parity statistics.[xvii]

The UN is therefore facing a dilemma. Whereas it can be perceived as a normative proponent of gender equality, particularly women’s empowerment, internally it captures various elements of gender inequality. The current Secretary-General’s ‘System-Wide Strategy on Gender Parity’ sets a goal for gender parity in the organisation by 2028.[xviii] This ambitious goal embodies a public commitment to advance gender equality within the UN system, thus positioning the organisation differently in its requests for gender equality amongst its member states. Another pressing matter is that of culture. If and when the UN is able to reach a quantitative balance in terms of gender representation and parity, are qualitative aspects – for example, the opportunity to have meaningful and fulfilling roles, to lead, to be promoted and to have staff voices heard regardless of gender – realised too?

Gender – Changing the world of IGOs

IGOs such as the UN have been changing since the 1980s in terms of awakening to and potentially absorbing the liberal norm of gender equality: a long and progressive journey has taken place since the UN Decade for Women took place between 1975 and 1985. In terms of equal representation – which includes gender and other intersectional notions, such as those of ethnicity, age, dis/ability and class – the world of IGOs is far from perfect. Whereas limited research is currently available on the effect of gender (or more specifically, women’s) emancipation in the not-for-profit world, potential trajectories for these gendered changes in IGOs may be found in the parallel for-profit sector. For example, Kevin Stainback, Sibyl Kleiner and Sheryl Skaggs find that in the context of corporative/international business organisations, women as corporate leaders are, more than male leaders, able to disrupt gender segregation also at lower levels of the organisations, in positions that are often over-represented by women.[xix] Therefore, a question remains. Can the diversification of IGOs, and in particular diversification of their leadership, lead to the ‘undoing’ of gender or lessen its significance in the internal world of IGOs? We wait to find out.

This blog forms part of the Humanitarian Diplomacy project, led by Antonio De Lauri at the Chr. Michelsen Institute


[i] N. Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation (London: SAGE Publications, 2002).

[ii] World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report, 2022 report available at, 2021 report with COVID-19 reference available at, and 2018 report available at,skills%20gender%20gaps%20related%20to%20Artificial%20Intelligence%20%28AI%29.

[iii] J. Tallberg, M. Lundberg and T. Sommerer, ‘Why International Organizations Commit to Liberal Norms’, International Studies Quarterly 64 (2020): 626–640, 627.

[iv] The World Trade Organization, The WTO, available at

[v] T. Rees, Mainstreaming Equality in the European Union: Education, Training and Labor Market Policies (New York: Routledge, 1998).

[vi] See, for example, K. Haack, ‘Gaining Access to the “World’s Largest Men’s Club”: Women Leading UN Agencies’, Global Society: Journal of Interdisciplinary International Relations 28:2 (2014): 217–240; see also K. Haack, Women’s Access, Representation and Leadership in the United Nations (Cham: Springer Nature, 2022).

[vii] J. Feltman. ‘Restoring (Some) Impartiality to UN Senior Appointments’, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs 39 (2020), available at

[viii] The UN Secretary-General, ’Our Common Agenda’, launched 10 September 2021, available at

[ix] S. Turunen, Humanitarian Diplomacy at the United Nations. University of Bergen, Norway, Doctoral thesis (2022), available at S. Turunen, ‘“Have You Been Recruited Because You Are a Woman or Because You Are Good?” Gendered Humanitarian Diplomats at the United Nations’, Diplomatica 5:1 (forthcoming 2023).

[x] Established in its current format in July 2010, UN Women operates across Africa, the Americas, Arab states, Asia, the Pacific and Europe. As for its latest available annual budget from 2021, the organisation received funding worth over USD 550 million to support its work for women and girls worldwide. See UN Women, ‘Where We Are’, available at and UN Women, ‘Contribution Trends’, available at

[xi] UN Women, ‘Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The Gender Snapshot 2022’, available at

[xii] C. Haywood and M. Mac an Ghaill, Men and Masculinities: Theory, Research and Social Practice (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2003).

[xiii] UN Office on Drugs and Crime and UN Women, ‘Gender-Related Killings of Women and Girls: Improving Data to Improve Responses to Femicide/Feminicide’. 2022, available at

[xiv] World Economic Forum, ’Gender Inequality: 6 Surprising Facts about the Global Gender Pay Gap’, 8 March 2022, available at

[xv] UN Women, ’Facts and Figures: Women’s Leadership and Political Participation’, September 2022, available at

[xvi] UN General Assembly, Seventy-Sixth Session, A/76/115, Report of the Secretary-General, Improvement in the Status of Women in the United Nations System, available at

[xvii] UN, ‘The United Nations Secretariat Gender Parity Dash Board’, 9 December 2022, available at

[xviii] UN, ‘United for Gender Parity: Strategy’. 6 October 2017, available at

[xix] K. Stainback, S. Kleiner and S. Skaggs, ’Women in Power: Undoing or Redoing the Gendered Organization?’, Gender & Society 30:1 (2016): 109-135.