Scoring the U.N. Secretary-General’s Feminist Agenda

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was elected after considerable public and inter-organizational pressure had been placed on the U.N. to appoint its first female leader and take a more feminist stance in its approach to foreign policy. Guterres, in response, had pledged to be a champion for gender equality and for women’s rights; today, the Feminist U.N. Campaign released a report card giving his efforts a C+.

“Secretary-General Guterres is making important strides and continues to be a genuine champion for gender equality,” said Lyric Thompson, Director of Advocacy and Policy at the International Center for Research on Women, which released the report on behalf of the Feminist U.N. Campaign. “But his most visible progress has been limited to only a couple of issues, not embracing the full-fledged women’s rights agenda we called for.”

The Feminist U.N. Campaign—comprised of former U.N. staffers, women’s rights organizations and advocates from civil society—offered a series of recommendations to Guterres in December 2016 in the form of a 100-day agenda that would set the course for the U.N. to undertake a more feminist course of action. One year later, pulling data from in-depth interviews with academics and U.N. staff and a survey of 118 organizations from over 40 countries, the organization has evaluated the Secretary-General’s progress on advancing that agenda. The report tracks progress and evaluates Gueterres across six key areas: the development and implementation of a feminist agenda for the Secretary-General to advance during his term, strong implementation and accountability for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), transparent and accountable financing for gender equality, women’s leadership throughout the System and protections for women’s rights within it, stronger (and more feminist) women’s rights institutions and forums in the Body, and increased freedom of information in the U.N. System.

Gueterres earned a 30 percent his weighted score for articulating and implementing a feminist leadership agenda. The subsequent five sections each contributed 14 percent of the Secretary-General’s final score. He scored highest (88 percent, or a B+ letter grade) for “Utilizing Feminist Leadership Parity and Rights Protections”—a recognition of his appointment of Amina J. Mohammed as deputy secretary-general; the creation of a new role, senior agenda advisor, which is held by Nahla Vajii; and the addition of the Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of U.N. Women, to the Executive Committee, which sets the U.N.’s policy agenda. The Secretary-General’s lowest scores came in the areas of “Ensuring Feminist Implementation and Accountability for the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals” (67 percent, or a D+) and promoting “the Freedom of Information in the U.N. System” (68 percent, also a D+).

Report authors note that the Secretary-General is being held to a higher standard than his predecessors due to his explicit commitment to fostering greater gender equity at the U.N.—and applauded him for making important strides during his first year in office. “Secretary-General Guterres’s first year has honored his promise to develop a women’s rights agenda, and has assembled an excellent team of female leaders who are going to help him achieve it,” said Thompson. “Going into his second year, we hope to see momentum gathering behind his commitments to date and increasing uptake of our recommendations in women’s rights issues he hasn’t yet addressed.”


Lauren Young is a Ms. contributor. She has a Master’s Degree in European and Russian Studies from Yale University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and Russian Civilization from Smith College. Follow her on @thatlaurenyoung.