Symposium on Gender Representation: Time to Double our Efforts – New Report Creates an Exceptional Opportunity to Break the Glass Ceiling for Women in International Justice

Symposium on Gender Representation: Time to Double our Efforts – New Report Creates an Exceptional Opportunity to Break the Glass Ceiling for Women in International Justice

[Viviana Krsticevic is a member of the GQUAL Secretariat and the Executive Director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL).]

Women are underrepresented in international decision-making, particularly in international courts and monitoring bodies. These are not minor positions. International courts and monitoring bodies shape international and domestic dynamics, inter alia, determining borders, defining the scope of rights, promoting accountability for international crimes, and shaping the responsibility of businesses and other non-state actors. They are also the public face of international organizations and of international justice. The legitimacy of these institutions and of their judgments thus stems not only from their decisions, but also from their very composition. Crucially, the composition of international courts and monitoring bodies, by the example that sets, risks de facto legitimizing women’s exclusion from the public sphere. Can an international human rights court convincingly rule on the need for public policy to ensure gender discrimination and equality when its own composition has historically excluded women?

In the face of persistent inequality, we may have an exceptional opportunity to shatter the glass ceiling for international representation in the coming years. As the contributors to this symposium explored, the groundbreaking report adopted by the Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council (the “AC Report”) in June 2021 has extensively reviewed the historical and current data of several organs and human rights mechanisms, confirming the underrepresentation of women and suggesting multi-level and multi-actor paths forward. The AC Report underscores the importance of balanced representation on these public-facing bodies of the United Nations, and highlights strong legal and policy arguments for committing to parity and equality. It includes the insights of the Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women and of the Working Group on Discrimination of Women in Law and Practice.  It also reviews the doctrines, jurisprudence, and best practices developed by a multitude of regional and universal organs, States, experts, judges, and civil society organizations. Drawing upon these findings, the document offers a clear roadmap that has been backed by an important number of States, institutions, and civil society actors based on several legal and policy considerations, as reflected in the posts by different stakeholders in this symposium.

Moreover, the AC Report comes on the heels of several recent initiatives to increase women’s access to decision-making positions. In 2021, the United Nations Secretary General announced that gender parity had been reached for the highest staff positions of the organization. Several policy statements and international commitments in recent years have reaffirmed the importance of women’s participation in decision-making for reasons of equality, representation, peace, and sustainable development. Clear examples are SDG 5 regarding gender equality, and Res. 1325 adopted by the Security Council. Additionally, civil society-led initiatives, such as the GQUAL Campaign, have reiterated that equal representation in international justice is both important and feasible.

Still, glass ceilings are difficult to break even in the midst of important international consensus. The conscious and unconscious biases of decision makers, the stereotypes, the informal influence networks, the domestic and international dynamics of policymaking, the lack of scrutiny of many of these choices, insufficient information, and several other barriers all play a role in reproducing processes and decisions that ultimately result in women’s underrepresentation in most international courts and monitoring bodies. The call at this juncture is to turn up the heat and break the glass ceiling.

The task ahead also requires purposeful and concerted work to achieve the social, legal, and policy changes that will allows us to obtain and sustain gender equality in international justice. To this end, the AC Report provides an important tool to act upon some critical levers of change.  The report’s institutional roadmap for addressing the underrepresentation of women, which was validated and enriched by the Human Rights Council (HRC) and backed by many experts, institutions, and governments, and supported by a wide range of domestic and international actors, can create the necessary impetus and synergies to ensure a more representative international justice system. 

The excellent contributions made during this symposium highlight five areas where the AC Report can help catalyze change in the gender composition of international justice: information, networks, pledges, legal standards, and institutional changes. 

  1. Information, knowledge, and debate

Shattering the glass ceiling requires more timely information, analysis, and targeted discussions around gender representation in international bodies, both domestically and internationally. Asking who is at the table and why, whether women are adequately represented, and how to fix underrepresentation is key to achieving progress.

The AC Report reveals critical information about the underrepresentation of women across UN bodies and mechanisms, providing an objective basis to discuss the actions needed for improvement. Moreover, it also calls on States to produce and disseminate relevant information domestically to highlight the importance of the issue, to help identify and motivate candidates, and to secure transparent public nomination processes. It also asks the HRC, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Consultative Group, and States to increase their commitment to women’s representation and actively reach out to potential candidates to ensure that they are aware of the opportunities available to them.

To move forward, we need more information, knowledge production, and debate. Distributing timely information about available vacancies and nomination and selection processes to key networks nationally and internationally; highlighting key positions to achieve parity on international bodies; analyzing the results of particular elections; identifying and correcting gender stereotypes and roles in selection processes; researching the causes of underrepresentation; ensuring that information and debates reach those who can ensure that monitoring systems are in place, and that in policy goals are sustained in each election; these are just a few relevant actions that should be taken in this area.

  • Networks

Supporting change requires sustained action. Oftentimes, networks amplify and complement domestic and international institutions’ efforts to foster gender equality in international representation. Thus, several of the goals set by the AC Report will be best served by the synergies created by institutional and State actions, with the complementary work of formal and informal networks.

Networks can accelerate the changes that we want to see at a global scale, reach women from underrepresented backgrounds, sustain a proactive advocacy agenda, and bring more voices to the debate. For example, following up on HRC Res. 41/6, the GQUAL Campaign has joined forces with the Institute for African Women in Law and facilitated regional consultations with current and former judges of international tribunals, ambassadors, academics, and members of civil society from the African region as well as from Latin America and the Caribbean. The Campaign has also fostered a diverse global network focused primarily on awareness-raising, information, research, advocacy, and proposals to promote gender equality in international representation. As a result, several networks have included equality in international positions as a component of their advocacy. In the Americas, human rights organizations have supported transparent selection processes that foster gender equality; the International Association of Women Judges has engaged in global debates promoting gender equality in international representation; many academics have joined networks and have promoted scholarship on the issue.

Additionally, networks are important for supporting potential candidates. They can facilitate outreach to a broader set of candidates, create rosters of qualified professionals, identify or support the diverse needs of women to access and work in international positions across regions, and develop tools and foster spaces where potential candidates can learn from the experience of mandate holders, among other contributions.

  • Pledges, directives, guidelines, and policies  

Personal and institutional commitments to supporting gender equality in international representation are crucial to achieving the goal. The information analyzed by the GQUAL Campaign and the AC Report reaffirms that underrepresentation is pervasive, and gender parity in the composition of several organs has been backsliding in recent years. 

Specific individual and institutional commitments to taking gender into account when reaching out to and crafting lists of potential nominees as well as in selection processes, in order to ensure equal opportunity and gender parity, are key to achieving and sustaining equality. Thus, pledges such as those promoted by the Gender Champions, the GQUAL Campaign, or Arbitral Women, along with individual commitments such as that of the UN Secretary General, and directives and policies pursuing the same goals, are all critical. In this spirit, the AC Report makes clear the need to explicitly include gender balance as a criterion in nomination and selection processes, and to consider gender as a key selection guideline for Special Procedures. The report also notes the relevance of gender-conscious foreign policies. Moreover, several authors highlighted the importance of HRC resolutions, and guidance from UN policies.

The AC Report, equality campaigns, and institutional actors all recognize that bringing in different stakeholders and getting them involved in promoting both formal and personal commitments is key to ensuring equality.

  • Legal standards

If the foundation of some of the policies, practices, and norms promoting gender equality was grounded in legal obligations, we would have a better chance of successfully changing the picture of women’s international representation. In this respect, as widely covered in this symposium, international law, monitoring bodies, and academics have helped analyze the scope of the legal obligations supporting equal access to international bodies. This task was also taken on by the AC Report, which grounds the need to break the glass ceiling in the right to equality and non-discrimination (particularly in considerations of substantive, procedural, and transformative equality), in the right to equality in international representation, and in the right to equal opportunity in employment. The further development of domestic and international legal standards will strengthen some of our policy goals by helping to justify some key choices, enabling litigation for institutional changes, supporting legal and practice changes, etc. One notable example of the tasks ahead is CEDAW’s drafting and approval of a General Comment on the equal participation of women in UN bodies.

  • Institutional changes

Last but not least, authors in this symposium and the AC Report all confirm that the main formal bottleneck for equality in international representation is the lack of formal, transparent domestic nomination processes that take gender into account, along with the absence of normative and institutional measures at the international level ensuring whether equality goals are fulfilled. In short, a critical problem is that not enough women are nominated to fill less than 500 positions worldwide. This happens because not enough women are put forward as candidates by States, States do not take gender into account when voting, and international selection processes are not built to guarantee that women are fairly represented.  

Thus, the AC Report provides a set of practical suggestions to ensure transparent domestic processes that include guidelines on gender equality, and outlines a few measures that various United Nations organs should take. For example, should existing and future international human rights treaties include processes to promote gender parity in their respective monitoring bodies, as highlighted by Ruiz Gayol?


The wonderful contributions to this symposium show that now is the time to double our efforts to ensure gender representation in international justice. The recommendations of the AC Report, the consensus of actors at different levels, and the strength of the claim for equal access from a multiplicity of actors working domestically and internationally all create hope for sustainable movement toward gender equality in international justice. As Judge Odio Benito stated, it is the time for women, once and for all.

We are hopeful that changing the picture of international justice, as the AC Report proposes, will be a step forward to ensure a more equitable world. Moving toward gender parity will positively influence other initiatives for equality and fairness in justice systems beyond the United Nations, reaching domestic courts, regional human rights courts and mechanisms, panels of experts, and hybrid tribunals.

Let’s continue with many more students, professors, judges, diplomats, writers, journalists, government officials, involved in this pursuit. It is time to turn up the heat to break the glass ceiling. Join #Changethepicture

[A note of gratitude to Sara Luzzatto, American University WCL student, who assisted with the organization and editorial review of several posts for this symposium.]

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