I work at a UN agency where the middle management is full of intelligent, fiery and outspoken women, who no doubt should be promoted to senior management within a few years. But part of me wonders how many will actually get there?
With only a handful of senior positions at my agency currently filled by women, I struggle to see what career progression there is for women at the top of their game here.
It’s not just my agency. In 2016, while women made up the majority of entry level staff at the UN, their representation as a percentage of the workforce continued to drop steadily the more senior the role. Less than one in three director level positions were occupied by women, and only one in five assistant director generals or undersecretary generals were women. This is despite the fact that almost 20 years ago, the UN made a commitment to achieving gender parity in managerial and decision-making roles (pdf) by the year 2000. Those at the top have repeatedly promised change, but these words rarely translate into action. Take former secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s regular assertions of progress in appointing women to high office that were then refuted by data that showed 84% of his appointments to top posts in 2015 were male. If progress in appointing women to the most senior positions continues at its current rate, one writer predicted it would take 112 years to reach gender parity.
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I was disappointed but not surprised when we were saddled with yet another man. To his credit, the new secretary general António Guterres immediately pledged gender parity in senior appointments across the UN. But as with Ban’s statement, this begs another question: why is it that we still need male endorsement for women to be considered equally worthy to men?
Campaigns such as #HeForShe are valuable in garnering male support but reiterate this sense of female inferiority. Much like the failure of trickle-down economics, “trickle-down gender” doesn’t work.
At the UN, we consistently advocate for gender equality to governments and populations worldwide. But hypocritically, we ourselves are riddled with loud, incompetent men in senior positions. I am beyond frustrated, for example, when I consider our head of agency – a lovely and kind man but one who is totally unaware of the office-wide breakdown his leadership has created, where zero collaboration between departments has become the norm. What we need is a real manager – not someone whose strengths are schmoozing and giving self-congratulatory presentations. While men are still able to coast to the top, any woman in a management position is always held to a higher standard and would not be able to get away with this kind of poor management.
I have struggled to prove myself as a woman of colour in development. Being undermined and undervalued, even when consistently producing quality work, means I am often in a state of constant anxiety at work. Even less qualified and newly hired men are provided with more assumed respect from the get-go. As women, and especially as women of colour, we have to work twice as hard to be thought of as half as good.
According to a Harvard Business Review article “the main reason for the uneven sex ratio [in senior management roles at companies] is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, because we commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women.”
On a global level, we have been deceived into thinking that those who are the loudest are the ones with the most to say. And if we want to be heard, we must shed our most valuable trait: listening.
It is time that the criteria for leadership within development agencies be changed. Individuals need to be rewarded and promoted for their competence, ability to listen and willingness to collaborate, instead of their arrogance, ability to pontificate and readiness to work alone.
All too often in this sector, women are seen as less knowledgeable, less entitled to success, and if they work in the field, are seen as egotistically, putting themselves or their families in danger – an accusation men rarely, if ever, face. I’m sick of going to all-male panels (often themselves a byproduct of the lack of women in senior positions), which then reinforce the idea that men are the only people worth listening to in development.
Of course, I know development is not the only sector with a gender inequality problem at a senior management level, nor is the UN the only perpetrator. But as development workers, we are held to a higher standard than other industries, for good reason. Development will never be successful when the same power structures we seek to tackle in society, are embedded within our own agencies. We cannot stand on our soapboxes until we actually practise what we preach: women’s inclusion at all levels of decision-making.
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