Current Status of Women

Every two years, in response to a request by UN Women, the 32 UN entities provide data on staff gender balance. The latest data cover the period from 1 January 2010 to 31 December 2011.

In 2011, women made up 40.7 per cent of all professional and higher-level staff, only a small increase from 39.9 per cent in 2009. Women are better represented at headquarters locations, at 45 per cent, than at non-headquarters locations, at 36.5 per cent. They constitute a bigger share of temporary contracts, at 46.2 per cent, than contracts of one year or more, at 40.7 per cent.

The proportion of women increased in 16 entities and decreased in 11. Only the International Court of Justice, the Pan American Health Organization, the UN Population Fund, the UN Children’s Fund and UN Women achieved or exceeded overall parity.

Trends over time

Between 2000 and 2011, the proportion of women increased at an annual rate of less than one percentage point at each of the P1 to D2 levels of the UN staffing system. Unless this rate of progress improves, overall gender parity will not be achieved until 2034. A great concern is that the overall growth rate almost halved in the last reporting period, from 1.5 per cent in 2009 to 0.8 per cent in 2011.

Progress was greatest at the Under-Secretary-General level, where the proportion of women has increased by 11.8 per cent since 2000. It was also noteworthy at the P5 and D2 levels, suggesting that parity in decision-making roles is a feasible goal.

Trends by level

Overall, the proportion of women is inversely related to seniority, ranging from 60.2 per cent at the P1 level to a low of 27.4 per cent at the D2 level. Parity has only been achieved at the lowest two professional levels of the UN system (P1 and P2). Growth at the highest levels of the UN system has not automatically translated into progress at other management levels.

Three levels hold particular significance for the advancement of women.

The P3 level prepares staff for managerial responsibilities. Women comprise 45.2 per cent of staff at this level, but progress towards parity, at 0.3 per cent in the last reporting period, is the slowest in the system. The gap between the proportion of P3 and P4 level women is 5.8 percentage points, indicating barriers to women’s advancement.

The P5 level is the highest in the professional category and constitutes the launching pad for promotion to the director levels, but women hold only 33.1 per cent of these positions. The shortfall has been perpetuated by declines in women’s share of appointments and, in particular, the largest decrease in the proportion of promotions of any level, at five per cent.

The D2 level is the highest for international civil servants. A select few advance to the ungraded levels. Significant improvements have been made, with the proportion of women increasing from 18.2 per cent in 2000 to 27.4 per cent in 2011. In the past three years, however, the D2 level has had the lowest proportion of women of any level.

Since women constitute a lower attrition risk than men at this level, the gender imbalance can be attributed to recruitment and career advancement barriers. In 2011, the smallest shares of both appointments and promotions were granted to women at the D2 level (28.5 per cent and 25.5 per cent). Five entities promoted only men to vacancies at this level.

Appointments and promotions


Women’s overall share of new appointments decreased in the last reporting period and now stands at 42.1 per cent. This decline can largely be attributed to decreases at the P4, P5 and D2 levels, where the proportion of women is already low. In contrast, the proportion of women appointed at the ungraded level increased by a record 6.8 percentage points to 30.8 per cent, indicating the efficacy of strong leadership by the UN Secretary-General.

Women’s share of appointments decreased with each increase in seniority level up to the D2 level. The highest proportion of female appointments was at the P1 level, rising by 6.3 percentage points since 2009 to 64.1 per cent. The lowest was at the D2 level, where 35 women were appointed compared to 88 men (28.5 per cent). Women were more than twice as likely to be appointed at the lowest level than any of the four highest.

While the majority of UN entities achieved parity in new appointments overall, only eight achieved or exceeded gender balance in appointments at the higher levels. Only nine UN entities stipulate the inclusion of a woman on the list of recommended candidates.


In 2011, women were awarded 42.7 per cent of promotions, the same as in the previous reporting period. Their share of promotions decreased with every increase in staffing level, from 58.6 per cent at the P2 level to less than half that at the D2 level (25.5 per cent).

This trend is particularly problematic because there are relatively few promotions at the lower levels. For example, the combined number of women promoted at the P2 and P3 levels, the only ones where parity has been achieved in promotions, was 495, less than the 662 men promoted at the P4 level alone.

At the aggregated P5 to D2 levels, only 31.7 per cent of promotions were awarded to women, and two out of three of these levels experienced a decline between 2009 and 2011. The low proportion of female promotions at senior levels is a key reason for women’s underrepresentation there.

Some progress has been made; the number of entities that achieved or exceeded parity in overall promotions doubled from 6 in 2009 to 12 in 2011. The number awarding less than 30 per cent of promotions to women decreased from 7 to 3. Triple the number—from 2 to 6—achieved parity in senior staff promotions.


Statistics show that women separate at a slower rate than men at the P4 to ungraded levels. Women constitute a lower attrition risk at the senior management levels than men, and may yield savings for the organization. The fact that appointment expiration and resignations account for a greater share of female separations warrants further investigation to expedite progress towards gender parity. Men are taking mandatory retirement at a much faster rate, which could assist in assessments and planning to close gender gaps through staff selection processes.

Less than half of all UN entities have assessed potential staffing changes in the next five years; only half of them have factored in the numbers of men and women who would need to be hired to achieve parity, broken down by grade. Five entities have abandoned the practice of exit interviews, which could help to capture and address issues of organizational culture that may impede women’s advancement.


Location continues to be a strong predictor of female representation, with women persistently underrepresented at non-headquarters locations on all contract types (37.5 per cent compared with 46.9 per cent at headquarters). Only two entities have achieved parity at non-headquarters locations for contracts of one year or more, and women constitute a smaller proportion of both appointments and promotions at these locations.

A lower proportion of women than men separated at the P4 level and above at non-headquarters locations, suggesting that efforts to improve recruitment and career advancement will have a sustainable effect. Given that women often assume a disproportionate share of caregiving responsibilities, incentives such as time-bound mobility and reassignment and improved spouse employment could help broaden their access to opportunities outside headquarters.

Data by entity

The biennial UN Secretary-General’s Report on the Improvement of the Status of Women provides up-to-date information on female appointments, promotions and separations for every UN entity, including the UN Secretariat, and the system as a whole.