Michael Møller, during the official launch of the Geneva Gender Champions network on 1 July 2015 © UN PHOTO / Jean-Marc Ferré

UN Memories: Why I founded the International Gender Champions
As gender equality remains a distant reality, engaging international decision-makers is essential to set us on the right path
1 Nov 2023

From 2013 to 2019, Michael Møller served as the 12th Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva. During his time in office, he co-founded the International Gender Champions, a leadership network bringing together international decision-makers to break down gender barriers.

“The idea of creating the International Gender Champions began with an eye-opening report by the World Economic Forum, stating a disheartening number: if we were to continue with business as usual, so the report said, gender parity would not be reached for another 274 years. As Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG) and as a concerned citizen, this number struck me as utterly unacceptable. What could we do, I wondered, to set us on a different path?

I struck up a conversation with the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Ambassador Pamela Hamamoto, and Caitlin Kraft-Buchman, CEO and Founder of Women@TheTable. I was fortunate that these two exceptional and visionary leaders not only shared my determination to change the status quo but were also willing to actively contribute with financial and operational support. After multiple conversations and brainstorming sessions, the idea of the International Gender Champions (IGC) was born. We agreed that if we were to catalyze change, we needed to engage with leaders who could wield significant influence. Engaging a demographic with such busy schedules and vast portfolios, however, meant that we needed to design a compelling, but easy solution: easy to understand, easy to implement, easy to measure and hold people to account.

With these guiding principles in mind, we set out to craft the IGC core model: at its heart, we devised a Panel Parity Pledge, a resolute commitment applying to all members of the network, requiring leaders to never again participate in single-gender panels, events or discussions. Each Champion would also be tasked with implementing two personal annual commitments tailored to their specific organizational context. These commitments were designed to incentivize leaders to weave gender equality into the fabric of their institution. Whether through the implementation of gender policies, the promotion of work-life balance, or the provision of facilities for breast- and bottle-feeding, these were practical actions aimed at promoting inclusive, accommodating and family-friendly workplaces for all.

We started reaching out to international leaders in Geneva and were pleasantly surprised by how quickly our initiative gained traction. Whether it was during speeches, interviews or casual conversations, we made it a point to keep the conversation going. Many leaders had not previously dedicated much thought to gender equality or the needs of their female staff members previously. Sporting our emblematic IGC pins like proud badges, we were like salespeople, tirelessly convincing people of the necessity of our cause and gently nudging them to take action. Soon, a critical mass of Champions emerged and it became a matter of personal and institutional pride to participate in our initiative. Being a Gender Champion was no longer just a label, it became an expectation for senior leaders to accept their responsibility in role-modeling an urgently needed change.

Personally, I decided to make my commitments as a Gender Champion about introducing the first gender policy in the UN Geneva. In a collaborative effort, we created a strong policy framework, which was later adopted by many other organizations. Based on the feedback I received, this policy not only changed the way we hired, but it also changed the way our female staff perceived their work environment. In a workplace that made equity and inclusion an organizational priority; women felt seen. Within a couple of years, we managed to achieve almost 50:50 representation among our staff and appointed gender focal points within all departments. Reaffirming my commitment as a Gender Champion on a daily basis sometimes required vigilance. Walking into a meeting room in the Palais and seeing only men on the panel, I would walk straight out of the room again. I informed organizers of men-only events that not only would I not attend their event, but also that they would not be allowed to use rooms on the UNOG premises unless they ensured that both men and women participated meaningfully in their event.

Championing equality through a set of beliefs © IGC archives

While these measures might seem a bit drastic, they helped accelerate progress towards gender parity. Our initiative was now solidly anchored within International Geneva and soon started gaining traction beyond. The Geneva Auto Show, a rather masculine event, saw the male Head of Government give space to one of his female colleagues to open the event. The head of a big private sector company, inspired by IGC, decided to change his company’s recruitment policy to hire pregnant women, and was rewarded with extraordinary levels of staff productivity, loyalty and retention. Our initiative was now firmly on the map, and the buzz we had created continued to propel us forward. We expanded, opening chapters in various countries and UN duty stations. Alumni Champions, who had finished their term in Geneva and went on to serve in new roles and contexts, carried our mission with them. When the current Secretary-General – who had already joined the network in his capacity as UN High Commissioner for Refugees – was elected, he brought the initiative with him to New York and made gender parity a system-wide priority. Within a couple of years, senior UN leadership was more gender equal than it had ever been.

Reflecting on these first years of the IGC, I still find myself surprised at how our initiative evolved from an idea brainstormed by three people to a movement that quickly became unstoppable. With more financial backing, we might have achieved even more, even faster. But what we lacked in financial means, we made up for with passion and commitment, creating a meaningful impact in the pursuit of gender equality as we went along. To sustain and build on these gains in the future, I hope to see the IGC and UN Women collaborate even more closely to amplify their impact. I want to encourage all Gender Champions to harness the potential of social media and digital communications to continue expanding the initiative’s reach and create a chain of positive messaging for gender equality. I also hope to see more active involvement and partnerships with youth agents of change to help build a future generation of leaders for gender equality and promote intergenerational learning and exchange.

As the IGC has matured, I believe that its mission can extend its reach much further. Gender equality should not be confined to the realms of the UN or the diplomacy hubs of New York, Geneva, Vienna and the like. It is a principle that can, and should, transcend geographical boundaries and permeate the various segments of our societies. IGC has the potential to not only go global geographically, but also to become a force for change in diverse sectors, including the private sector.

Our world is in turmoil and there are numerous pressing issues, including major existential problems, competing for our attention as leaders. But it is imperative that we recognize that we cannot hope to find solutions to these global challenges unless we ensure that women, constituting half of humanity, are fully engaged, contributing, and thriving in the conversations and efforts to address these issues. Gender equality is not just a matter of equity, it is a practical necessity. We cannot stop advocating for gender equality in practical, action-oriented ways. When we discuss how to ensure a better future for all, we often encounter two constraints in large bureaucratic structures such as the UN: a reluctance to take risks and an aversion to failure. But you cannot have change without taking risk or failing. We must break out of our bureaucratic comfort zones and look ahead to discern that bold action is required to reach our destination. Gender equality plays a pivotal role in shaping our collective future, and achieving it means collaborating, being innovative, taking (smart) risks and conceiving audacious solutions to move the needle forward as quickly as we can.” 

* Michael Møller is the former Director-General of UNOG and co-founder of the International Gender Champions.
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