Gender Equality in the WTO: The Need for Women Leaders

Reshaping Trade through Women's Economic Empowerment
April 11, 2018
The World Trade Organization Heads of Delegation meeting. (WTO/Cuika Foto)

Why Gender Parity in Leadership Matters

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 Sustainable Development Goal 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-balanced appointments. By the end of his mandate, he has pledged full gender parity at other top levels of the United Nations.

Women have a rich — albeit underappreciated — history of influence in the trading system. Canadian Minister of International Trade Patricia Carney negotiated the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. Former Deputy Minister of International Trade Sylvia Ostry was instrumental in launching the Uruguay Round, among her many accomplishments. The United States led the way with women trade representatives: Carla Hills, Charlene Barshefsky and Susan Schwab, as well as female deputies and general counsel. In the Uruguay Round, there was a paucity of female lead negotiators and no women chairs of negotiating groups or trade negotiation committees. The notable exception was in dispute settlement, where two women were lead negotiators (American and Canadian), and several women from developing and developed countries were negotiators.

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 in the Secretariat, 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 — having only a few women in leadership positions — will not accomplish the key goals of gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. Retrenchment is also an ever-present and real concern.

Women’s Leadership in the WTO

What is the real story on women’s participation in leadership, decision-making, arbitral and other positions of authority and influence in the WTO?

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 three Deputy Directors-General. Out of 20 directors in 2016, only three were women. To add a personal element, I was the first female director hired in the history of the WTO or General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade secretariats in 1995. 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 (two women);
  • General Council: 22 chairs (two women);
  • Dispute Settlement Body: 23 chairs (two women);
  • Council for Trade in Goods: 25 chairs (two women);
  • Council for Trade in Services: 24 chairs (four women); and
  • Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS): 23 chairs (three women).

Some of the same women who served as chairs of the General Council also acted as chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body and other councils, thus reducing the overall number of women who have served as chairs of WTO councils.

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 have been in TRIPS (one out of eight chairs), trade and environment (three out of eight chairs) and the Committee on Trade and Development (one out of eight 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 to most panels. From 1995 to 2016, out of the 276 individuals selected to serve on panels, only 40 (14 percent) were women. Out of 268 panels composed in that period, only 16 (six percent) were chaired by women. These statistics are worse than national statistics for women judges, corporate directors, or members of the legislature and for international arbitrators in other fields. With respect to the Appellate Body, only five of the 25 people who have been appointed to serve have been women.

Recommendations for Progress

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. The following are seven recommendations:

  • 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. Highly qualified women are available — WTO members must have the will to choose them.
  • The Director-General and senior management must take steps to improve the lack of women in senior roles in the WTO Secretariat. Specifically, the Director-General needs to develop a gender parity strategy for the WTO — not only for hiring administrative and professional staff, but also for Director and Deputy Director-General positions. The UN gender parity strategy could be a guide.
  • WTO members must take gender into consideration when appointing chairs of councils and committees.
  • WTO members must take gender into consideration when selecting chairs of the Trade Negotiations Committee and negotiating groups. The record to date is abysmal.
  • WTO members must take gender into consideration when appointing members of the Appellate Body. Competence and qualifications should take precedence over politics in appointing Appellate Body members; if this were the case, more women would be appointed.
  • The Director-General can, and must, appoint more women panelists in WTO dispute-settlement cases. The Secretariat recommends names to the Director-General. A woman should be appointed to the position in the Secretariat charged with assisting the Director-General with this task.
  • 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. 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. Decision making is the lifeblood of the WTO. 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.

Guterres said, “Gender parity…is an urgent need and a personal priority. It's 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."

If the United Nations can do it, surely the WTO can, too.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.