Women Leaders Needed in the WTO

Women Leaders Needed in the WTO

The Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment is a stepping stone on the road to advancing gender equality and the economic empowerment of women in the World Trade Organization (WTO). The best way to achieve gender equality in an organization is to change the leadership at the top so that it represents the population and changes the culture of decision making and policy thinking.

In the United Nations, Secretary-General António Guterres is fast-tracking implementation of SDG 5 with a system-wide strategy on gender parity. Management reform is integral to that strategy. He has already transformed the Senior Management Group with his gender-equal appointments. By the end of his mandate, he has pledged full gender parity at top levels at the UN.

“Gender parity … is an urgent need and a personal priority. Its a moral duty and an operational necessity. The meaningful inclusion of women in decision-making increases effectiveness and productivity, brings new perspectives and solutions to the table, unlocks greater resources, and strengthens efforts across all … of our work.

                                                                                          UN Secretary-General António Guterres

While the WTO has recently achieved gender equality in the professional and administrative staff of its Secretariat, the number of women serving as senior managers, chairs of WTO governing bodies, panelists, chairs of panels, and Appellate Body members is distressingly low.

Real change cannot take place without gender parity in positions of leadership and authority in the WTO. Tokenism will not accomplish the key goals of gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. Retrenchment is also an ever-present concern.

Surprisingly, the story of women’s representation in leadership positions has not improved appreciably over the past 23 years since the WTO was established. While the WTO Secretariat has made important strides in employing more women in administrative and professional positions, women have not moved into senior management positions in significant numbers.

In 2016, the top managers of the WTO Secretariat were all male: the Director-General and 3 deputy directors-general. Out of 20 directors in 2016, only 3 were women. Ministerial conferences, councils, committees, and other bodies have an even more disappointing track record of failing to appoint women.

The following are the gender statistics for the key WTO governing bodies from 1995 to 2016:

  • Ministerial conferences: 10 chairs, 2 women
  • General Council: 22 chairs, 2 women
  • Dispute Settlement Body: 23 chairs, 2 women
  • Council for Trade in Goods: 25 chairs, 2 women
  • Council for Trade in Services: 24 chairs, 4 women
  • Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights: 23 chairs, 3 women

Trade negotiations are often hailed as the primary function of the WTO. Male dominance in the leadership of the key negotiating bodies is striking. In the Doha Round since 2002, the chairs of the Trade Negotiations Committee have all been men, as have the chairs of the negotiations on agriculture, cotton, market access, rules, dispute settlement, and trade facilitation. The only negotiations in which there have been any women chairs are TRIPS (1 of 8 chairs), Trade and Environment (3 of 8 chairs) and the Committee on Trade and Development (1 of 8 chairs).

WTO dispute settlement is referred to as the “jewel in the crown” of the WTO. Today, the Director-General, supported by the Secretariat, appoints some or all panelists. From 1995–2016, out of the 276 individuals selected to serve, only 40 (14%) were women. Out of 268 panels composed in that period, only 16 (6%) were chaired by women. In the Appellate Body, only 5 of the 25 appointed to serve have been women.

Today, there are numerous highly qualified women in international trade. WTO members, the Director-General, and the Secretariat must make more of an effort to select women for leadership, decision making, arbitral, and other positions of authority in the WTO. Here are seven recommendations:

  1. The importance of gender should be considered in the next appointment of a Director-General. There were excellent female candidates from Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the 2013 Director-General selection process.
  2. The Director-General and senior management must take steps to appoint women to director and deputy director-general positions in the WTO Secretariat.
  3. WTO members must consider gender when appointing chairs of councils and committees.
  4. WTO members must consider gender when selecting chairs of the Trade Negotiations Committee and negotiating groups. The record to date is abysmal.
  5. WTO members must consider gender when appointing members of the Appellate Body. Competence and qualifications should take precedence over politics.
  6. The Director-General can, and must, appoint more women panelists in WTO dispute settlement cases. A woman should be appointed to the Secretariat charged with assisting the Director-General with this task.
  7. The Director-General should investigate and report to WTO members on why there are so few women directors in the Secretariat. The study could also examine the process for appointing deputy directors-general and compare the WTO process with other international organizations.

Action must be taken now to increase the number of women in leadership roles at the WTO. Decision making is its lifeblood. Appointing more women to senior management positions will help to change the culture of the Secretariat, making it a more collegial, diverse, inclusive, and healthy workplace for both men and women. The members negotiate the rules in the governing bodies while panels and the Appellate Body interpret and apply those rules in resolving disputes. Very few women have been entrusted by the members with the responsibility of chairing a WTO governing body, the privilege of deciding a dispute settlement case, or the honour of being a member of the Appellate Body. It is time that changed, and time that women are given a real voice in decision making in the WTO.

If the UN can do it, surely the WTO can, too.

A longer version of this blog was first published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation in the Reshaping Trade through Women’s Economic Empowerment series and special report, and is republished here with permission.


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