UN Photo/Mark Garten

For the first time, Women Outnumber Men in Senior Posts at a UN Agency

Something looked very different when the Director General of the World Health Organization introduced his senior leadership team this week.

Nine out of the fourteen posts will be filled by women.

In the announcement, the head of the World Health Program Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that “The team represents 14 countries, including all WHO regions, and is more than 60% women, reflecting my deep-held belief that we need top talent, gender equity and a geographically diverse set of perspectives to fulfill our mission to keep the world safe.”

He is right to be proud. The World Health Organization is the last agency one would expect to have a gender balance problem. Equal opportunity for health across gender is one of the core missions of the WHO. It is a priority in all its programs. However, the WHO is also a large bureaucracy, hindered by the same processes and social factors that any large bureaucracy faces. It is as slow to change as any organization.

That means that the leadership of WHO has been mostly male for a long time. Of the eight director generals in the history of the WHO, only two have been women. Dr. Tedros’s majority-female leadership team appears to be the first of its kind. When the previous DG, Margaret Chan, took over, men were appointed to four of her seven senior leadership positions, along with an additional five special advisors – all of whom were male.

WHO is not the only global health giant with a gender problem in its leadership ranks. There are two women on the ten-member senior executive team at the Gates Foundation. Only six out of the 18 executive team members at UNAIDS are female, and just three of ten at the UN Development Program. Three of UNICEF’s six senior leaders are female. (Meanwhile, The UN Population Fund’s head and Deputy are both women. Two of the top three leaders at UN Women are, well, women.)

The need for Gender Parity at Top UN Posts is Becoming More Widely Accepted

Unlike many other organizations, the UN both collects and publishes demographic data on its staff composition. The data shows that the UN has many women in the lower ranks and they get fewer and fewer in more senior positions.  And problem got worse from 2012 to 2016.

2016 UN Demographics report, table 27. USG=Under Secretary General;ASG = Assistant Secretary General


There was profound disappointment in some quarters last year when the Security Council did not break the international glass ceiling and select a female Secretary General (and there were several in the running.) Still, from the start Antonio Guterres has made gender equality in senior appointments a central plank of management reforms he is implementing at the UN. When he was sworn in, he pledged to respect gender parity from the start in all appointments to the Senior Management Group and the Chief Executives Board. “By the end of my mandate, we should reach full gender parity at the Under-Secretary-General and Assistant Secretary-General levels, including special representatives and special envoys,” he said.  His own senior executive team, appointed just after he was sworn in, including the Deputy Secretary General, Chef de Cabinet and Senior Policy Advisor, are all women.

A majority-female team should not be a big deal. Not in 2017, and certainly not in global health. The fact remains that it is. WHO has taken a big step forward in choosing the best candidates for the big jobs. We can hope it’s the new face of the UN system as a whole.

Meet the New WHO Leadership Team:

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Deputy Director-General for Programmes. She has over 30 years of experience in clinical care and research. Most recently, she was Secretary of the Department of Health Research and Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research.

Jane Ellison, Deputy Director-General for Corporate Operations. From 2014-2016, she led Britain’s Ebola response as Public Health Minister. Most recently, she was Special Parliamentary Adviser to the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer, Chef de Cabinet. He has a background in HIV and epidemiology, and was most recently WHO representative in China.

Dr. Naoko Yamamoto, Assistant Director-General for Universal Health Coverage and Health Systems Cluster. She comes from the Japanese Ministry of Health, and her most recent focus has been universal health care.

Professor Lubna A. Al-Ansary, Assistant Director-General for Metrics and Measurement. She is a professor of family medicine from Saudi Arabia with a background in evidence-based medicine.

Dr. Svetlana Akselrod, Assistant Director-General for Noncommunicable Diseases andMental Health. She was mostly recently coordinator at the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, and has an MD and a PhD in public health.

Ambassador Michèle Boccoz, Assistant Director-General for External Relations. She is an experienced civil servant and most recently served as the French Government’s Ambassador for the fight against HIV/AIDS and communicable diseases.

Dr. Ranieri Guerra, Assistant Director-General for Special Initiatives. He comes from the Italian Ministry of Health, and has deep experience in preventive health and health and humanitarian emergencies.

Dr. Ren Minghui, Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases. He was WHO Assistant Director-General for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases since January 2016 and is continuing this work under his new title Assistant Director General for Communicable Diseases. Prior to WHO, he was with the Ministry of Health of China.

Dr. Mariângela Batista Galvão Simão, Assistant Director-General for Drug Access, Vaccines and Pharmaceuticals. She comes from UNAIDS and the Brazilian Ministry of Health, and has an MD and an MSC in public health.

Dr. Princess Nothemba (Nono) Simelela, Assistant Director-General for Family, Women, Children and Adolescents. She served as Special Advisor to the Vice President of the Republic of South Africa, and has more than 30 years of experience as an obstetrician, academic, advocate and government official.

Mr. Stewart Simonson, Assistant Director-General for General Management. His background is in corporate governance, risk management and administration, and he has degrees in law and political science.

Dr. Joy St John, Assistant Director-General for Climate and Other Determinants of Health. She spent more than ten years as Chief Medical Officer of Barbados, and has degrees in medicine and public health.