In the run up to International Women’s Day today, 8 March, we have been featuring highlighting how the UN and its Department of Political Affairs (DPA) work to include women’s participation and a gender perspective in their peace and security work. Today, we report on an effort to improve the UN’s own record of inclusion. On 6 March, the world organization’s departments dealing with peace and security – DPA, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Field Support – held a mentorship event with women leaders working in special political missions and peacekeeping operations. This was the first event of its kind, and provided a unique opportunity to reflect about the role of women in peace and security in the context of the United Nations.
The meeting -- part of the UN System-wide Strategy on Gender Parity launched in September 2017 -- brought together 12 of the 17 women currently serving as Head or Deputy Head of Mission in DPA and DPKO-led field missions, as well as 80 women staff of the three departments.
Intended to nurture female talent within the Organization, the event allowed Heads and Deputy Heads of Mission to share their experiences of leadership, as well as their views on the UN’s work culture and environment, and the challenges for women in leadership positions. One of the mentors said she was actively promoting the creation of a friendly and nurturing workplace environment in her mission to attract and retain more female staff. Participants were also able to engage in candid discussions about the obstacles to women’s professional progression and to discuss creative solutions for nurturing talent and empowering women within the Organization. In reference to leadership, one of the SRSGs mentioned the need to integrate a “gender intelligent leadership culture” in the UN; one that prioritizes caring for the community over competing for leadership.
Some of the issues addressed related to distinct forms of leadership and to the impact of gender equality in enhancing the UN’s work in the field of peace and security. Participants identified such obstacles as patterns of gender bias and unconscious bias. Participants raised the often-difficult standards applied to women leaders. In this regard, there was consensus regarding the fact that women are judged more harshly than men. The women Special Representatives of the Secretary-General (SRSGs) and Deputy SRSGs expressed a sense of responsibility to promote women and gender equality in the work place. They were also concerned about the Organization’s ability to retain female talent and the importance to support the development of mid-level cadres to build a solid pipeline.
The SRSGs and DSRSG said the launching of the Gender Parity Strategy provided also an opportunity for productive discussion. They argued that men should form part of this discussion to prevent backlash and ensure men’s understanding and commitment to the goals as a collective effort to achieve a more representative and effective UN. SRSGs and DSRSGs recalled the importance of mentorship, by men and women alike, as a professional tool for career progress.
Concerning harassment, SRSGs and DSRGs emphasized the importance of protection and accountability with the field admittedly being a more challenging environment. They all expressed an unwavering commitment to eradicate this scourge.
Participants sought guidance on a variety of professional challenges and openly raised topics such as work-life balance, the confidence gap, the impact of the field on careers, mobility, human resources’ policies as well as building and strengthening networks of women in international peace and security. One DSRSG said that having a leadership position ‘comes with a price tag’, and that for women it was important to overcome the guilt of not fitting the image of the ‘perfect wife, girlfriend, mother’. She stressed that it was hard work to get to a leadership position, but “your good work will end up paying”. Heads and Deputy Heads of Mission conveyed a message of support to the female staff in attendance and encouraged perseverance, strength and confidence.
The event served to raise awareness of gender-related issues and to discuss gender equality and the empowerment of women in the Organization. While acknowledging that challenges remained, participants and speakers were optimistic that there is now palpable momentum for change within and outside the Organization.
Title picture: Secretary-General António Guterres (fourth from left) meets with female Heads and Deputy Heads of Mission. He is flanked by his Chef de Cabinet Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti (left) and Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (right). UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe