Beyond Gender Parity: Is Gender-Responsive Leadership in UN Peacekeeping the Missing Piece?

By Sarah Smith


This post first appeared on The Global Observatory.



An all-female Formed Police Unit from Bangladesh, serving with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), arrives in Port-au-Prince to assist with post-earthquake reconstruction. The group, 110-women strong, is the second all-female contingent in any UN mission in the world. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)


Despite two decades of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and countless international platforms stipulating the inclusion of women and of a gender perspective in peace and security practices, United Nations (UN) peacekeeping still has a significant gender problem. As of August 2020, women made up only 6.6 percent of all uniformed military, police, and justice and corrections personnel in missions; reports of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by peacekeepers remain prevalent; and many peacekeepers themselves report facing sexual harassment and discrimination within the UN system. In addition, there was a significant global increase in military and arms spending in 2020, which is strongly correlated with gender inequality.


Within the broader UN system and in peacekeeping specifically, leadership is integral to implementing a transformative approach that responds to—and ideally can mitigate—the gendered, racial, and class inequalities that shape both peacekeeping endeavors and global power hierarchies that lead to violence to begin with. Peacekeepers enter and work in diverse and complex spaces and there is a wealth of scholarship detailing how failing to respond to existing social, political, and economic inequalities can undermine any peace that missions are supposed to embed. For peace to be just and sustainable, peacekeeping must respond to existing inequalities; where it does not, it perpetuates unequal systems of power.


While the phrase “gender-responsive leadership” is not yet widely used, its fundamental principles have been integrated across several peacekeeping priority areas and policy frameworks, including training and mentoring programs, accountability frameworks, and data collection and monitoring. While these developments make important steps towards changing institutional cultures, gaps in implementation remain.


Moving Beyond the Numbers

Where implemented within UN peacekeeping, the concept and practice of “gender-responsive leadership” has the potential to be transformative. A gender-responsive leader is a person in an executive or management position who actively works toward equality for all women, men, and gender minorities both in the workplace and in operations. They use their existing leadership and management skills to achieve their institutional goals on gender equality, taking into account the structural and systemic issues that lead to discrimination and inequality.


Within this definition, there are important dimensions that differ from previous WPS and gender equality policies within the UN system. One is the focus on leaders. The UN’s Gender Parity Strategy has often sought to simply add more women to peacekeeping, thus placing the onus on them to change deeply hierarchical and militarized organizational cultures and often from a position of low power. Gender-responsive leadership places the responsibility on senior management to use their positions to make cultural changes.


A second important dimension is that gender-responsive leadership programs bring into focus both the internal workplace dynamics and external, operational issues. Implementation of the WPS agenda in UN peacekeeping has often been criticized for only focusing on the operational aspect, as well as for perpetuating a “saving women” narrative in relation to host communities. This is especially problematic where there is no corollary attention to the gendered and racial structures within the UN that reinforce inequalities in relation to hiring, promotion, and retention, thus limiting engagement with diverse experiences and knowledge.


This is why gender-responsive leadership is important for UN peacekeeping. In a recent issue brief, I argue that gender-responsive leadership is an important step beyond gender parity because it can lift the burden of gender sensitivity off individual women, who consistently report the double burden that falls on them as physical embodiments of gender mainstreaming in peacekeeping. By focusing on leaders, it can also work to combat the belief that women are given opportunities to meet representational goals, rather than because they have the requisite skills. One example is the use of “engagement teams” in peacekeeping, which has seen women siloed into women- and community-focused contingents with narrow roles, regardless of their areas of expertise. This practice also sees skilled women pulled from other parts of peacekeeping missions, reducing their visibility and capacity to utilize their expertise.


Beyond its importance to changing the work environment for peacekeepers, gender-responsive leadership can also assist missions in implementing their WPS mandates. For example, gender-responsive leaders could include gender experts in the mission planning process and engage with broad networks of women leaders, peacebuilders, rights defenders, and ex-combatants. When leaders systematically engage with, exert ownership over, and legitimize missions’ WPS mandates, they can help to move missions beyond ad hoc or ineffective approaches to gender mainstreaming.


Therefore, as a concept and a practice, gender-responsive leadership holds significant promise for changing organizational cultures within UN peacekeeping, and the UN has taken some early steps toward implementing the principles of gender-responsive leadership. Existing policy frameworks—such as measures to assess mission impact and the use of leadership compacts—would also benefit from better integration with gender-responsive leadership.


Closing the Gaps

Nonetheless, there are shortcomings in the UN’s approach to gender-responsive leadership and how it is implemented in training, accountability frameworks, and the collection and use of data. Looking at accountability frameworks, for instance, the language of gender-responsive leadership is increasingly appearing in leadership compacts that seek to hold peacekeeping decision-makers to account. Two examples here are the UN System-Wide Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, which provides concrete recommendations for holding leaders accountable for gender responsiveness; and the Senior Leadership Commitments for the Future of Work in the United Nations System, released by the High-Level Committee on Management (HLCM) of the UN Chief Executives in 2021.


While these frameworks suggest an increase in attention to leaders’ accountability for implementing gender-equal and non-discriminatory policies, gaps between rhetoric and reality remain. This is in part because commitments to accountability are often vague. For accountability frameworks to be successful, they must move beyond a formulaic approach and instead require consistent and concrete actions from leadership that are subject to review.


Another gap in the UN’s accountability frameworks for gender-responsive leadership is the assessment of programs by those most impacted by UN actions and policies, including diverse women’s networks in the countries hosting peace operations. This is arguably the most overlooked and imprecise element of the UN’s accountability framework and is still based mostly on UN-driven indicators.


In terms of data collection and analysis, here too there are gaps in data on gender responsiveness in peace operations. Most data collection has focused on increases in women’s representation. However, there is a relative paucity of data related to the quality of women’s promotion opportunities, their ability to effectively employ their expertise, and, most pertinent to gender-responsive leadership, their level of satisfaction in peacekeeping workplaces.


Data on the gender composition of peacekeeping forces alone does not provide the insight needed to develop gender-responsive policies. Beyond this lack of internal gender-related data, some missions still do not carry out gender analyses of the peacekeeping context or gather gender-related and gender-disaggregated data on the impact of their activities. Ultimately, support from leaders is key to enabling missions to gather substantive data, analyze it, and use it to enact change.


One final recommendation to improve the implementation of gender-responsive leadership is to incorporate more substantially an intersectional view; that is, to not only focus on a binary understanding of gender. If there is to be attention brought to structural working conditions with a view of changing these to create safe and equal work environments, then there needs to be an acknowledgment of structural conditions, barriers, and experiences that may not be primarily, or at all, shaped by gender, and not experienced primarily, or at all, by women.


In surveys of UN staff experiences in peacekeeping, for example, issues of race and racism are also prominent. Intersecting points of discrimination cannot be ameliorated through gender responsiveness alone where efforts do not take into account other structures of discrimination and power—such as those relating to race, socio-economic status, sexuality, religion, ability, and so forth. Without attention dedicated to these intersectional concerns, gender-responsive leadership can only go so far.


Dr Sarah Smith is a Research Officer at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics. She works on the Feminist International Law of Peace and Security, Gendered Peace, and Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls projects.

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