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Strategic Transformation and Gender Equality

Saniye Gülser Corat, Director, Division for Gender Equality

UNESCO’s designation of Gender Equality as one of two global priorities in 2008 put it firmly on the map within the UN system. The Organization’s Strategic Transformation process provides a valuable opportunity to address challenges that risk undermining our leadership position.


Externally, three emerging issues may have a serious effect on UNESCO’s gender equality efforts:

  • extreme ideologies are gaining ground worldwide, with fundamentalist religious groups, militias and populist governments endeavouring to roll back gender equality gains and thwart new progress.[1] UNESCO is uniquely placed to kick-start a global conversation on the gendered dimensions of extreme ideologies within the areas of our mandate;
  • a growing trend to discount the role of education in fostering girls’ and women’s empowerment and gender equality. For example, recently-published data suggests that reducing the access gap between women and men in education does not close the economic and political divide.[2] A simplistic interpretation of this message may put UNESCO’s education-related efforts (and fundraising) in jeopardy; we must counter it with evidence-based research and advocacy that demonstrate the correlation between quality education and other indicators of well-being, and ensure that gender equality considerations are not limited to participation alone, but rather mainstreamed throughout the educational process; and
  • the role of boys and men in gender equality work needs to be carefully considered, including through reflection on masculinities. Similarly, understanding gender identities and how they should be reflected in UNESCO’s gender equality efforts requires a broad and in-depth assessment.[3]

Internally, challenges include:

  • a tendency to focus on parity at the expense of substantive equality, which is overshadowing efforts to bring transformative change to UNESCO’s culture and work. For example, we single out candidates’ sex in recruitment and promotion processes, without requiring them to demonstrate an understanding of and commitment to gender equality. This has a serious impact on our capacities and the effectiveness of our advocacy efforts;
  • lack of a mechanism to ensure accountability and penalize projects [or staff members] that do not comply the requirements of gender mainstreaming. Currently, funds are not withheld from non-compliant projects and there is no consequence for staff members. The development of a budget tracking mechanism to track allocations to gender equality – requested by Member States and a UN-SWAP[4] requirement – has been delayed, with no viable solution in sight;
  • the need to go beyond narrow ‘band-aid’ responses to sexual harassment such as updating and expanding existing policies and structures. The UNESCO Secretariat must engage in an inclusive consultation process that addresses power inequalities in the broader organizational culture.


Gender mainstreaming must be an integral part of UNESCO’s Strategic Transformation process. Staff with expertise in gender equality should participate actively in this process, anchoring gender equality in the reflection from the outset, and screening proposed actions from a gender equality perspective, is necessary to achieve sustainable change to our Organization’s ethos and practices.


[1] In addition to the better-known case of Islamic fundamentalism, there is growing backlash in Central and South America, Eastern and Western Europe from conservative groups against what they call “gender ideologies”.

[2] The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017 found that the global economic participation gender gap had widened for the first time since the Index was created in 2008, while the political empowerment gender gap had stalled

[3] The advocacy of many groups, including in the UN, with the role and place of men and masculinities in gender equality work deserves a critical assessment focusing on its potential contributions as well as risks.

[4] UN System-wide Action Plan on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UNESCO