4th report card on U.N. Secretary-General reveals increased attention to gender equality amid global pandemic

Press Release Subtitle

Guterres’s 2020 scores improve as part of full-court press on gender in U.N.’s COVID-19 response, but progress on other priorities lags.

Press Release Date

26 January 2021

Press Release Author

Lindsay Bigda, Communications Specialist, ICRW

(JANUARY 26, 2021)—Despite the turbulence of 2020, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres maintained and even increased his commitment to gender equality during his fourth year in office. According to an annual report card released by the Feminist U.N. Campaign, the Secretary-General earned a ‘B’ overall—his highest grade to date.

“Though gender is often deprioritized in moments of crisis, we saw just the opposite in 2020,” said Spogmay Ahmed, a global policy advocate with ICRW and the report’s main author. “Our analysis found that the Secretary-General provided strong leadership in the context of the pandemic, including by mandating attention to gender in his new COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund. At the same time, we also saw lost momentum in other important areas of our agenda.”

The Campaign drafted a feminist vision for the United Nations in late 2016, and has graded the Secretary-General on his performance toward that vision each year following his declaration of himself as a “feminist” as he took the helm at the United Nations. Since 2017, it has measured the extent to which the Secretary-General advanced progress on six priority proposals for a more gender-equitable world and U.N. system.

This year’s report finds continued advancement on the Secretary-General’s performance setting and implementing a feminist agenda, achieving gender parity and supporting gender in SDG implementation. He included a focus on gender in more of his speeches, and his rhetoric also grew more substantive, incorporating feminist analysis of the power and institutional dynamics underpinning discrimination.

However, scores went down in two areas: financing for gender equality and enabling a feminist transformation for the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and UN Women. Guterres’s leadership fell short on his High-Level Task Force on Financing for Gender Equality, which failed to meet with its expert advisory group or release any information with regard to its findings or recommendations. And as U.N. processes and events moved online in 2020, the report notes that “civic space seemed more constricted than ever”—reflecting a missed opportunity to expand and diversify civil society engagement in a virtual world.

Notably, there was a lack of rhetorical attention and new updates in 2020 with regard to rooting out sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse—an earlier priority for Guterres. UN Women’s executive tasked with this agenda, Purna Sen, even stepped down from her position in August, claiming these issues were “put on the back burner.”

“We now have enough data to see trend lines, and these lines show that Secretary-General Guterres is talking the talk and walking much of the walk,” said Lyric Thompson, ICRW’s Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy and another report author. “He has made significant strides in both rhetoric and action, but work remains to improve transparency and financing for gender equality—and to root out abuse and harassment at the U.N.” 

Several women’s rights milestones that were postponed in 2020 are now set for 2021: The Generation Equality Forum will take place in March and June, and the Commission on the Status of Women will convene virtually to do much of the business that was lost last year. 

“The stage is set to strengthen the U.N.’s gender equality architecture and make 2021 the banner year we hoped 2020 would be,” said Thompson. “During the last year of his term—and an election year at that—Secretary-General Guterres has an opportunity to cement four years of progress, make a final push on those areas where it has been out of reach, and champion efforts to promote as expansive and inclusive participation of civil society as possible.” 

About the Feminist U.N. Campaign

The Feminist U.N. Campaignspearheaded by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)brings together leading feminist thinkers in civil society, philanthropy, academia and former U.N. staff around a shared agenda for women’s rights and gender equality at the United Nations. 

Amid unprecedented public and member-state demand for feminist leadership of the United Nations (U.N.), the Campaign released its flagship report in 2016 [LINK] delineating an agenda for then incoming Secretary-General Guterres. 

The Campaign adapted these recommendations into an initial 100-day framework, as well as actions the Secretary-General could implement over the course of his five-year term. These include six key points: (1) articulate and implement a feminist leadership agenda, (2) ensure feminist implementation and accountability for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), (3) finance for gender equality, (4) utilize feminist leadership through parity and rights protections, (5) enable a feminist transformation for the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and UN Women, and (6) promote the freedom of information in the U.N. system. 

Each year following, the Campaign has issued a report card grading the Secretary-General’s progress against this agenda:

  • In 2017, the SG received a C+ in 2017 following his first year in office. He scored highly in his efforts to achieve gender parity and respond to violence and sex-based harassment in the U.N. system. But he lagged behind in fostering greater freedom of information, ensuring feminist implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and transforming key gender equality institutions and convenings—like UN Women and the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)—into stronger, more inclusive bodies and resources within the wider U.N. system.
  • In 2018, The Campaign recognized his efforts with a grade of ‘B-’, up from ‘C+’ at the end of his first year. Guterres again scored highly in promoting gender parity and prioritizing the elimination of violence, discrimination and abuse in the U.N. system, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo and #AidToo movements. However, progress still lagged, most notably in the underfunding of gender equality initiatives and actors.
  • The SG again received a ‘B-’ In 2019, as the Campaign noted “a year of incremental progress” with “no measurable increase or decrease” compared to the previous year. Guterres scored highly on efforts to advance gender parity in U.N. leadership but lower on rights protections, where momentum slowed in addressing sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse within the U.N.
  • In 2020, the SG received a ‘B,’ his highest grade to date—reflecting, most notably, his leadership on gender equality amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Lindsay Bigda, Communications Specialist, ICRW: [email protected] | 207-385-7924

Mission Statement:

ICRW is the premier applied research institute focused on women and girls. In 2016, ICRW merged with the U.S. research organization Re:Gender (formerly the National Council for Research on Women) to create a global research platform.Headquartered in Washington, DC, with regional offices in India and Uganda, ICRW provides research and analysis to inform programs and policies that promote gender equality and help alleviate poverty.