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*** I wrote this for the Women’s Foreign Policy Group blog (published 19 October 2019). If you’re working in foreign policy in Washington D.C. or New York, I highly recommend their events and talks where you’ll meet and hear from an incredible network of inspiring female leaders.***

Photo: UN Peacekeepers in Bangui, Central African Republic. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe 22 October 2017

Just over a year ago, speaking at an event to celebrate women leaders at the United Nations, Secretary-General António Guterres admitted he still meets delegations almost every week that don’t include a single woman. “We live in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture, and that is still true in the United Nations,” he said.

There’s been some progress; in 2018, for the first time, the UN achieved gender parity among Resident Coordinators and the Senior Management Group. But there’s much more work needed from the bottom up, to reach a gender-equal UN.

So if you’re a woman and considering a career at the UN, my advice is that you can make it happen, there are many pathways in, and you should give it everything you’ve got, because we need you.

Here are some ideas on how to go about it, and lessons that I’ve learned working for the UN.


1.     Register as a United Nations Volunteer

Don’t be put off by the ‘volunteer’ tag. This can land you a really interesting role in peacekeeping, emergency response or longer-term development work, and it can be a solid stepping stone to a longer UN career. There’s no upper age limit and around 2,000 roles are offered each year, with a living allowance to cover basic needs. Go to UN Volunteers to read more and register in the UNV Global Talent Pool.


2.     Work as a consultant

Consultancies aren’t sustainable long-term because there’s no job security and you don’t get benefits like paid leave, sick leave and healthcare. But in the short-term, many people take consultancies to get their feet in the door, build their experience and networks, and then try to find a properly paid role. And, since these can often be short-term roles, it’s not uncommon for fewer people to apply, so strong candidates can stand out.


3.     Start with an NGO

There are many compelling reasons to work for an NGO, regardless of any future plans you may have to work for the UN. There’s a good chance you’ll be given more responsibility in a shorter space of time; you can be agile in responding to external issues; and you’ll be surrounded by colleagues who are deeply passionate about what they do.


4.     Become a Junior Professional Officer (JPO)

By the time I was researching my own career change into humanitarian and development work in my early 30s, I no longer qualified under the definition of ‘junior’. But it’s an excellent option for young professionals wanting to work for the United Nations. JPOs usually come from countries UN donor countries (although not all of them) and you generally have to be aged under 32 when you apply. You’ll get an initial one-year contract, which can be extended. See the list of participating countries here.


5.     Remember that it matters

Last month, 3,758 small blue children’s backpacks stood silently in lines on the lawn next to the United Nations. Each represents a child killed in conflict in 2018. It’s a powerful installation created by some of my UNICEF colleagues to remind world leaders of their responsibility to protect the rights of children in conflict zones, ahead of the UN General Assembly. Even the Secretary-General himself visited. My colleagues had this opportunity to influence world leaders because they work for the UN.


6.     Accept that change is slow

This is the United Nations, not a miracle machine. It takes patience, small steps and persistence to bring about change. Major achievements are usually measured over decades, so put your red shoes away, Dorothy. You can’t click your heels and create a new world tomorrow, just because you’re working for the UN.


7.     Know that it’s worth it

Yes, it can be frustrating and disappointing at times. But you’ll also have moments that inspire you; you’ll see the power of collective action; and you’ll have reason to hope that the world can become a fairer place for everyone.


So, what are you waiting for? With your talent, your ideas and your energy, you can be part of bringing gender parity to the UN. As the Secretary-General said last year, the work of recognizing the contributions that women make to the UN is not complete. Add your name to that story.