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30/09/2016

Will the next UN Secretary-General be a woman?

Development Policy

Will the next UN Secretary-General be a woman?

Irina Bokova will likely become the UN’s new Secretary-General in 2017. [Georgi Gotev]

Mary Robinson, Nicholas Kristof and other global experts share their thoughts on the potential repercussions of a female UN secretary general. The Guardian reports.

The next secretary general of the United Nations will inherit the “most impossible job in the world”. He or she must reinvigorate the 70-year-old institution envisioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The stakes are high: by 2050, 3 billion more people will inhabit the planet, threatening the resource balance and creating more tension and violence worldwide. A supranational institution promoting cooperation and peace, and bridging both geographic and gender divides, will be increasingly needed.

“Because the secretary general is speaking in the interest of 7 billion people, he or she needs to be able to mobilise the world’s public opinion behind the institution,” explains Edward Mortimer, former director of communications for Kofi Annan, who was secretary general from 1997 to 2006. For this purpose, the UN leader needs to possess a strong independent personality with solid values, ethics and determination. He or she has to be a “bully pulpit”, keep bringing issues to the Security Council, and embody what the UN stands for: peace, security, human rights and development.

In April 2015, Equality Now initiated a campaign to promote gender equality in the selection process. After 20,000 letters were sent to key decision makers, the General Assembly drafted a resolution highlighting gender equality, and the final resolution will be published in September.

Currently, the Security Council carries out the selection process behind closed doors before presenting its candidate to the general assembly. The selection process is opaque, non-democratic and politicised, which reduces the chances of achieving gender equality.

Beginning in the 1990s, the UN’s tacit principle of regional rotation encourages fair representation among the different regions of the world. Previous UN leaders were chosen in this spirit. Fairness and diversity should now be openly extended to gender. “If we had to eliminate half of the world’s population, we would considerably reduce our chances of finding the best secretary general,” says British ambassador Matthew Rycroft. And there is no shortage of female candidates.

“We can’t use the excuse that there aren’t enough qualified women to choose from,” argues Jean Krasno, a Yale professor and UN expert. The Woman Secretary General campaign she chairs produced a list of outstanding women from all regions, including the next potential region – Eastern Europe – with Irina Bokova, the head of Unesco, and Kristalina Ivanova Georgieva, economist and EU commissioner at the top of the list [both are Bulgarian. The official candidate of the Bulgarian government is Bokova]. Also on the list are Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, Michelle Bachelet, the president of Chile and former head of UN Women, and Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and head of UNDP.

A recent Guardian poll found that 96% of respondents believe it’s time to have a female secretary general. And there are more women in power than ever before: the once indefensible connection between masculinity and leadership is breaking.

In 1960, Sri Lanka had the first woman prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and in Argentina in 1974 Isabel Perón became the first female president. In the last decade, however, unprecedented growth in the number of women in positions of high power has occurred and is spreading around the globe. As of January 2015, 10 women are currently heads of state and 14 are heads of government, including Angela Merkel, the fourth most powerful leader in the world.

Led by Ban Ki-moon, the UN already has engaged in a large campaign around gender equality. The next UN leader should reflect these policies. A woman fulfilling this role would function as a role model for the world. Recent statistics indicate that as of January 2015, only 22% of all national parliamentarians were female, a slow increase from 11.3% in 1995.

“It matters for women empowerment globally,” says Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, former high commissioner for human rights, and a member of the Elders, an independent group of global leaders. “Women very often have a different way of leading, which could reinvigorate the United Nations as a whole, because there is more listening, being inclusive and working in practical ways to resolve problems. These are the kind of attributes that can very much help strengthen the role of secretary-general.”

Krasno agrees that women offer a different perspective. “What women bring to the table is the knowledge of women. And that makes a difference in policymaking,” she says. This sentiment is confirmed by Dina Kawar, Jordanian ambassador and president of the security council. “I certainly think of women differently than my male colleagues. When it comes to women refugees for example, I have a more intimate understanding of their challenges.” And in positions of leadership, women are pragmatic, she adds. “When they reach the top, women see it as a beginning and not an end.”

But for some, women leaders do not always accomplish much for gender equality. Margaret Thatcher is often used to illustrate this point.

“While a woman secretary general would be a symbolic achievement, I’m not sure how much it would matter at the grassroots level around the world,” says Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and women’s empowerment advocate who co-authored the book Half the Sky. “One thing we’ve seen is that women leaders aren’t always great for ordinary women,” he adds. “In the Philippines, for example, women presidents have resisted family-planning access for women, while male presidents have pushed those rights. And in Bangladesh, you have a female prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, who has been trying to undermine Grameen Bank, a huge force for women.”

However, women in power are influential role models. Even those who do not implement a strong feminine agenda still advance the cause for women. While it has been 20 years since Thatcher left office in the United Kingdom, all those who grew up with her as a leader can now envision a female prime minister.

By giving themselves permission to lead, they pave the way for gender equality in politics and reduce the gender gap in political ambition. “A woman as secretary general would send a strong signal of progress,” says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of UN Women. “It would be a further step towards achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

“Negotiation, collaboration, and deliberation, are all typically considered more feminine qualities,” says political scientist Farida Jalazai. With her colleague Mona Lena Krook, they noted the validity of the role model effect. In fact, 15 countries have now had more than one female leader. Trends like these are helping to weaken the male stranglehold on leadership.

“We want the best candidate. But I like the fact that after eight men, there is a leaning towards a woman,” says Robinson. “In women’s and girls’ eyes, the symbolic empowerment of a woman top official, with responsibilities in peace, stability, and development, is fundamental. It has a great psychological impact.”