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UN Says it Shattered Glass Ceilings Creating a Carpet of Shards

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 8 2016 (IPS) - In the 1960s, when gender discrimination was widespread at the United Nations, there was a story doing the rounds of a woman candidate who had applied for a mid-level professional job in the UN Secretariat.

She was armed with a Master’s Degree from an American university and perhaps eminently qualified for the job she was seeking. But at the end of the interview, she was asked: “But can you type?”

In a chauvinistic male-dominated Secretariat of a bygone era, women were being stereotyped and earmarked mostly for secretarial jobs while the men held all, of most, of the decision-making jobs in the UN hierarchy.

Last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cited a famous memoir, appropriately titled “Never Learn to Type,” written by Dame Margaret Anstee, a former senior UN official.

Anstee, who served at the United Nations for over four decades (1952–93) was the first woman to break the glass ceiling and rise to the rank of Under-Secretary-General (in 1987) and appointed head of a UN peacekeeping mission.

At that time, Ban said, most of the jobs available for women was that of a secretary, endlessly pounding on typewriters (and perhaps picking up coffee from the cafeteria for their male bosses).

“So you have to know how to type,” said the Secretary-General, who described Anstee’s book as “quite inspiring and moving.”

But the United Nations has come a long way since the days of gender discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s: a landmark international conference on women in Mexico in 1975 and the adoption in December 1977 of a General Assembly resolution declaring an annual “UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.”

The secretary-general claimed he appointed the first-ever female Force Commander of UN troops and pushed women’s representation at the upper levels of the Organization to “historic highs.”

Women are now leaders at the heart of peace and security — a realm that was once the exclusive province of men, he noted.

“When I arrived at the United Nations (in January 2007), there were no women leading our peace missions in the field. Now, nearly a quarter of all United Nations missions are headed by women — far from enough, but still a vast improvement.”

“I have signed nearly 150 letters of appointment to women in positions as Assistant Secretary-General or Under-Secretary-General. Some came from top Government offices with international renown, others have moved on to leadership positions in their home countries. All helped me prove how often a woman is the best person for a job.”

To ensure this very real progress is lasting, he said, the UN has built a new framework that holds the entire United Nations system accountable.

“Where once gender equality was seen as a laudable idea, now it is a firm policy. Before, gender sensitivity training was optional; now it is mandatory for ever-greater numbers of United Nations staff. In the past, only a handful of United Nations budgets tracked resources for gender equality and women’s empowerment; now this is standard for nearly one in three, and counting,” he said.

“I changed the landscape,” he said last week.

Still, the General Assembly, the highest policy making body at the UN, has elected only three women Presidents: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit of India (1953), Angie Brooks of Liberia (1969) and Sheikha Haya Rashed al-Khalifa of Bahrain (2006). The rest, 67 in all, were men.

But there hasn’t been a single woman as UN Secretary-General since the founding of the Organization over 70 years ago. Currently, there is a campaign to ensure that the next UN chief be a woman. But whether this will be a political reality is anybody’s guess.

In a message on International Women’s Day, March 8, the Secretary-General warned women still continue to be victims of the world order (or disorder).

“Maternal mortality is one of many preventable perils. All too often, female babies are subjected to genital mutilation. Girls are attacked on their way to school. Women’s bodies are used ss battlefields in wars. Widows are shunned and impoverished.”

He said “we can only address these problems by empowering women as agents of change.” For more than nine years, he said, “I have put this philosophy into practice.”

“We have shattered so many glass ceilings we created a carpet of shards. Now we are sweeping away the assumptions and biases of the past so women can advance across new frontiers,” he added.

UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said the UN’s post-2015 development agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals include a specific goal to achieve gender equality.

This goal aims to end discrimination and violence against women and girls and ensure equal participation and opportunities in all spheres of life. Important provisions for women’s empowerment are also included in most of the other goals.

In conjunction with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, more than 90 governments have answered UN Women’s call for action to “Step It Up for Gender Equality”.

She said heads of State and Government have pledged concrete and measurable actions to crack some of the fundamental barriers to the achievement of gender equality in their countries.

“We draw strength from this solidarity as we face world events such as severe population displacement, extreme violence against women and girls, and extensive instability and crises in many regions.”

“To arrive at the future we want, we cannot leave anyone behind. We have to start with those who are the least regarded. These are largely women and girls, although in poor and troubled areas, they can also include boys and men.”

She pointed out that women and girls are critical to finding sustainable solutions to the challenges of poverty, inequality and the recovery of the communities hardest hit by conflicts, disasters and displacements.

“They are at the frontline of the outbreaks of threatening new epidemics, such as Zika virus disease or the impact of climate change, and at the same time are the bulwark to protect their families, work for peace, and ensure sustainable economic growth and social change.”

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