UN Women: an agency for change

Yesterday saw the election of 41 United Nations member states to the executive of a new “super agency”, UN Women, to promote women’s rights.

The agency brings together four existing UN bodies into a single force under its head, Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet. Campaigners hope this will help push women’s rights up the international agenda and focus funding on one place.

Saudi Arabia’s automatic representation has inevitably drawn fire from critics who ask how the country can promote women’s rights when it does not allow its female citizens to drive or make a range of important decisions without the approval of a male relative.

Iran had incited similar ire, fuelled by the worldwide condemnation of its decision to sentence a woman convicted of adultery to death by stoning. She still awaits her ultimate fate, now reduced to a hanging sentence. Speaking with news reporters in New York earlier this week, the 2003 Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, said the possible election of Iran and Saudi Arabia would be a “joke”. The US opposed Iran’s representation on the executive, which led to Iran being replaced by East Timor.

By the UN’s Gender Empowerment Measure, neither country is highly placed, with Saudi Arabia at 59th and Iran at 88th out of 182 ranked nations.

I’m not sure trying to judge the relative merits or otherwise of these two countries’ record on equality rights is worthwhile. There is a different question, which applies to membership organisations in general. If you are going to limit membership by historic track record, where do you set those limits? Who decides what constitutes the inner circle? If equal pay were a criterion, the new agency would have a very tiny representation indeed.

The other question is more pragmatic. Are governments more likely to be persuaded to dynamic change by being part of a forward-looking debate or by being excluded? You might argue that the spotlight will now be on Saudi Arabia’s gender politics more keenly than before, strengthening the voice of the liberal minority within the country.

Yet while it remains to be seen whether UN Women can effect change, we should applaud its aims – and at least give it a fighting chance.

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen. www.ft.com/womenblog

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.