In a report by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, to mark International Women's Day on Wednesday, it was found that while women have made steady gains in participation in parliaments, business management, the media and the academic world - the pace is still slow, even in wealthy nations.

"Serious obstacles remain that hinder women's effective participation," said the report, which called for increased participation to be translated into influence in the decision making process.

Angela Merkel was sworn in as Germany's chancellor in November; Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was inaugurated as Liberia's president in January and Michelle Bachelet is to be sworn in as Chile's president on Saturday.

Challenges

But a handful of women leaders attending a meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women said the trio's successes masked the challenges they had overcome and the arduous preparations.

Rachel Mayanja, the special UN adviser on the advancement of women, said: "Behind that progress, we can see that it takes time to get prepared, it takes time to have such awareness and openness in a society at the political level."

Women are under-represented
in the military, says Annan

Even after winning a leadership post, women leaders face harsher judgment than male leaders when they make mistakes, because they are women, Mayanja told a news conference.

Among the obstacles facing women, Annan's report said, are their under-representation in such male-dominated fields as the military and foreign affairs, and the persistence of stereotypical attitudes and behaviour towards women.

Even though more women are being elected to parliaments every year, they soon discover "the absence of gender-sensitive enabling environments" in the world's legislatures, it said.

Anne Kathrine Slungard, a director of Norwegian oil and gas group Statoil, has said that while success in business, as in politics, requires long preparations, too few young girls are entering fields of study such as business management and government.

UN lip service

Women's groups from around the world on Monday accused the United Nations of failing to seriously consider the goal of gender quality as part of its reform agenda.

Kofi Annan has been told the UN 
is going in the wrong direction 

In an open letter to Annan and member states, the  groups said: "We are disappointed and frankly outraged that gender equality and strengthening the women's machineries within the UN system ... are not addressed as a central part of the reform agenda."

The groups were attending the 50th session of the UN commission, two days before the celebration of International Women's Day.

They noted that more than 10 years after the commitment to gender parity made at the 1995 Beijing conference, "the UN is still offering only token representation of women on critical committees, high-level expert panels and in senior positions within the organisation".

"The pattern of publicly adopted commitments and statements followed by lack of implementation sets a disheartening precedent which retards the work and reputation of the United Nations and impedes the urgently needed progress of gender equality worldwide," said the letter, which was endorsed by more than 240 women from more than 50 countries and by international and regional groups.
 
Innovative leaders needed

"It takes time to have such awareness and openness in a society at the political level"

Rachel Mayanja,
Special UN adviser

June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women's Environment and Development Organisation, said: "The UN is going in the wrong direction. We need new and innovative leadership and the way to get that is by ensuring we reach 50/50 women and men in all decision-making positions."

The women's groups called for full implementation of commitments on gender equality at international and country levels made during the summit of world leaders last September.

Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership, said that "what is being called the UN 'gender architecture' is more like a shack. Women need a bigger global house if equality is ever to  become a reality."