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Exploring the Intersection of Gender and Geographic Diversity in the Workplace

5 March 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

two people of different races link hands in hand shake

This week the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee starts its programme of work for the resumed spring session, and one of the key issues it will consider is human resources management. Human resources issues are normally reviewed every two years with a corresponding resolution giving the Secretary-General direction on the topics considered. However, in recent years, human resources has become particularly controversial with the Fifth Committee and there has been no agreement on a resolution since 2017.

One topic that has struggled to find agreement amongst member states is diversity, in particular gender and geographic balance.

For that reason, we spotlight the issue this week. While there has been a lot of discussion of the importance of integrating diversity and inclusion principles into human resources management across the UN, the discussions of the issue in governance mechanisms illustrate that there is no clear consensus on what all this means from a policy or practice perspective. Part of the challenge lies in that human resources policies are anchored in the UN Charter, agreed in 1945, which stresses that recruitment should be based on merit, efficiency, competence and integrity and reflect an ‘equitable geographic balance’. It makes no mention of other forms of diversity in recruitment, such as race, disability, gender, and certainly not sexual orientation or gender identity. The policy challenge that this creates is how to integrate different forms of diversity - which ones should be included, are some more important than other and how do they fit together? Different perspectives on these questions among member states became a key point of disagreement when in 2018 and 2019 the UN Secretary-General (SG) requested the authority to change staffing rules to make it easier for field missions to recruit women. The aim was to support implementation of the UN system-wide Gender Parity Strategy which was a priority of the newly appointed SG. Unfortunately, as a fascinating case study by Dr. Hannah Davies points out, the way in which the report was presented and the resulting discussion among member states ended up pitting the issue of gender parity against geographic balance as two seemingly competing issues. Not surprisingly, there was no agreement amongst member states on how to proceed. Interestingly, also in 2018, the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC), perhaps anticipating these tensions, agreed to expand the diversity component of its human resources framework, emphasizing that:

"the issue of diversity should not be viewed as favouring any one group over another. Stressing any one of the facets of diversity could detract from one or more of the others and therefore should be avoided." – ICSC (A/73/30)

In hindsight, it is perhaps somewhat ironic that the General Assembly was able to endorse this report. As in past reform reports from this SG, the current reports on the way forward for Human Resources reforms and the related progress report (A/77/590 ,and A/77/590 Add.1) set out diversity as one of three key pillars of the Human Resources framework going forward. The definition of diversity is anchored in that of the ICSC which states:

"Staff composition throughout the organizations of the United Nations common system should reflect a workforce that is diverse from a variety of perspectives (including equitable geographical distribution and gender balance, as well as cultural, generational and multilingual perspectives and the perspectives of persons with disabilities), and this diversity should be embraced in decision-making to strengthen the performance of the organizations." – ICSC (A/73/30)

During the ICSC’s discussions on this definition in 2018, various staff unions stressed the importance of including sexual orientation and gender identity as an element of diversity. This is not explicitly referenced in the definition - although nor is it explicitly excluded. The ICSC’s proposed four indicators to measure implementation are equally vague, calling for 1) establishment of policies ensuring equal treatment of staff; 2) regular monitoring of diversity metrics (without listing anything beyond the example of geographical distribution and gender parity); 3) adoption of policies covering all forms of discrimination and harassment; and 4) allocation of adequate resources for outreach. The lack of specificity therefore allows - and in fact requires - significant interpretation by human resources and senior management of UN entities on what to measure and how. The risk however is that different interpretations can lead to incoherence on goals and what is being measured - and once again to the perception of some form of competition between different profiles or types of diversity. In the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions’ (ACABQ) review of the SG’s human resources reports (A/77/728), however, an interesting issue is raised somewhat in the margins that can reduce some of these risks: intersectionality. Intersectionality is the recognition that human beings have diverse elements of their identity and that these overlap, i.e. persons with disability are either male or female and of different national and ethnic backgrounds, which taken together can create overlapping systems of disadvantage. While intersectionality is not explicitly referenced in the SG’s report, the concept clearly underlies the Office of Human Resources’ (OHR) commitment to:

"develop an integrated framework that accounts for the Secretariat’s workforce diversity characteristics simultaneously and holistically, as opposed to distinctively or sequentially." – (A/77/590, para. 15)

Intersectionality was then explicitly raised in discussion with the ACABQ as a means of integrating youth perspectives into the (albeit) separate Geographic Diversity, Gender and Disability Inclusion Strategies (A/77/728, para 36). Applying an intersectional lens to diversity discussions allows for a more nuanced strategic and operational understanding of challenges and potential solutions. In the article by Dr. Davies, she analyses UN Secretariat data both from the lens of gender and geographic balance simultaneously, allowing her to conclude that:

"there is a higher concentration of women from developed countries in the professional staff of the Secretariat. The ten countries that have the most female professional staff account for 58 percent of all female professional staff in the United Nations." – H. Davies, Nationality versus Gender? The Administrative Politics of Gender Parity in the United Nations and the Implementation of SCR1325, 2021

This type of data allows the debate to focus not on whether gender or geography is more important, but rather what concrete strategies can be put in place to attract and recruit more women from underrepresented and unrepresented countries, thereby addressing the diversity concerns of a variety of member states and regional groups. Implementing an intersectional approach is not easy, as UNICEF and UNDP have found out in evaluating their programmatic efforts to implement intersectional approaches. Evaluations considered by both Executive Boards in recent weeks have highlighted challenges which can provide valuable lessons for the application of intersectional approaches to workforce diversity. UNICEF’s formative evaluation found that:

"The Strategic Plan theory of change emphatically states that intersectionality is a critical driver of success in the new Strategic Plan. However, at present, UNICEF is not sufficiently ready at a conceptual, tool, measurement, operational or programme experience level." – UNICEF, Evaluability assessment and formative evaluation of the UNICEF positioning to achieve the UNICEF Strategic Plan, 2022–2025

UNDP highlights a similar challenge noting that:

"criteria for prioritization of specific populations have been unclear and the intersectional approach inconsistently applied due to limited guidance, lack of data and unwelcoming political environments." – Independent Evaluation Office of UNDP, Formative Evaluation of the Integration by UNDP of the Principles of "Leaving No One Behind"

(See our 6 Feb newsletter for more detail on the Principles of Leaving No One Behind).

We therefore propose some potential actions for our readers who may be engaged in the gender versus geography debate or implementation planning in coming weeks:

  1. Member states and regional groups may want to consider applying an intersectional lens to their positions and discussions as these may highlight potential areas of agreement on diversity issues, including gender and geographic balance.

  2. Setting up new data systems is never easy and practitioners working on data collection should give due consideration to governance discussions and positions of a wide variety of member states to better anticipate what diversity metrics to include for now and in the future as discussions on diversity evolve.

  3. Given the lack of consensus and specificity in diversity definitions which is likely to continue defining the debates for some time, heads of UN entities should have a thorough understanding of their specific diversity challenges and work with human resources professionals to determine whether intersectional approaches allow for more targeted strategies. Intersectional approaches may be useful where they can demonstrate measurable impact and help clarify to governing bodies why a particular tailored strategy was developed. HR professionals may want to seek out lessons learnt from other UN entities and organizations who have experience in implementing intersectional approaches.

  4. Data collection, analysis and transparency is key for effective implementation, as are clear guidance and tools to support those responsible for implementation of diversity and/or intersectionality at all levels.

  5. Practitioners may also want to consider initiating timely formative evaluations, that take place while implementation of new diversity strategies or intersectional approaches are still in early stages. These can help organizational learning and course corrections while data mechanisms, guidance or other tools are in development or testing phases.

(N.B. Links to the SG’s reports and the ACABQ reports can be found under the relevant agenda items in the Fifth Committee’s programme of work.)


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