How Narrowing Gender Gap in Leadership Strengthens UN Peace Operations

The UN is relaunching its Senior Women Talent Pipeline in an effort to increase the number of women in its peace operations, an intiative on line with the UN Secretary General's System-Wide Strategy on Gender Parity. Improving the gender balance in mission leadership is not only a laudable but also an essential measure if the Organization is to succeed in its ongoing efforts to develop more efficient and effective field missions for future global peace and stability.

UN peace operations are in many ways standing at a crossroads. The international body has over the years successfully contributed to peace and security in many parts of the world and often for a relatively small budget price tag. That said, the context and challenges that missions face today are complex. The UN’s blue helmets often operate in conflict-ridden and dangerous contexts, at times being targeted themselves. Furthermore, reports of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers have cast a shadow on the reputation of UN missions, reputation which the Organization relies on for its political legitimacy. At the same time, the UN is under pressure to produce as efficient and cost-effective missions as possible, especially given signals from the US of significant budget cuts to UN operations. Altogether, the pressure is on for UN peace operations to be their best.

Competent and courageous leaders are key to the success of peace operations. Strong leadership will provide a peace operation with direction and ensure that all of its members work efficiently and professionally towards the same goal. Indeed, the importance of, and need to strengthen, leadership in the UN has been underlined by a number of expert reviews of the Organization’s work in peace and security. The need to increase the number of women leaders has been particularly stressed, including in the so-called HIPPO Report (High-level Independent Panel of Peace Operations) of 2015. 


Sadly, the figures of the number of women in leadership roles within the UN are quite discouraging. This is despite the fact that the area has been in focus since the 1990s. Figures from April 2017 show that women accounted for only about one quarter of the nearly 220 senior UN posts with New York as duty station. Of the current 16 peacekeeping missions, four are headed by women. However, there is hopefully reason for optimism as the new UN Secretary-General António Guterres has made it one of his goals to achieve gender parity in top UN posts within his five-year term.

The reasons cited for why the UN will profit from increasing the number of women leaders in its peace operations are numerous. First and foremost, however, enhanced gender balance in leadership will improve the performance of UN peace operations. Women must be recruited and promoted because of their skills and expertise. Looking at companies, research shows that a higher participation of women in decision-making roles leads to stronger market returns and profits.  There is also data showing that women, while fewer in numbers than their male counterparts, are rated as better overall leaders. Looking back at my own experience, I am convinced that a working environment will benefit from a mix of women and men employees, as will work results.

Gender balance must go beyond figures. Women should for example be appointed not only to jobs traditionally viewed as “softer”, but also to those viewed as “harder” and sometimes more important, such as peace and security. This is a weak area also elsewhere, with research of 3,000 companies in various countries and sectors illustrating that while the number of women on boards and in top management positions had been rising, the women were mainly found in less influential positions.

Importantly, women leaders should not be expected to bear the full burden of advancing women’s rights in the UN and host countries. This responsibility must be shared between the UN and its Member States as well as both female and male leaders within the UN system. Practical measures to encourage change could include mentorship and sponsorship programmes; “blind” recruitment; flexible working hours and family-friendly employment policies. In addition, there is a need to more closely examine why exactly women do not reach or leave the UN before reaching higher positions.

Women leaders should bear in mind though that they have a critical part to play as role models for other women aspiring to higher positions within the UN. This includes leading the way by showing that strong leadership comes in many forms, eradicating any preconceived notion of how a male or female leader should be. Ultimately, attitudes and assumptions must evolve so that the UN can fully benefit from the most capable individuals, inevitably comprising both women and men.


About the Author:

Kristina Zetterlund is Project Manager for Leadership at the Folke Bernadotte Academy; the Swedish government agency for peace, security and development. Kristina’s most recent work experience includes the Swedish Defence Research Agency and the EU mission EUCAP Nestor in Djibouti. She also has a background at the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services in New York; the Swedish Ministry of Defence; the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute in Washington; and Reuters in Hong Kong.