At 70, is it time for a woman?

Helen Clark and Michelle Bachelet at Side Event: Women’s Political Participation. Making Gender Equality in Politics a Reality
Helen Clark and Michelle Bachelet at Side Event: Women’s Political Participation. Making Gender Equality in Politics a Reality

At seventy years old, the United Nations has had eight Secretaries-General – all men. As Ban Ki-Moon’s tenure comes to an end, there is a growing sense in New York that it is time for a woman to lead the world body. For the first time since its conception, almost 25 per cent of member states of the UN believe that the next Secretary-General should be a woman. Forty-two countries have signed a document declaring ,“the time has come for a woman to hold the highest position.” The movement has powerful backers, with the new Group of Friends in Favour of a Woman for Secretary-General including two of the largest contributors to the UN budget, Japan and Germany.

Until now, the five permanent members of the Security Council have bargained behind closed doors to pick from a shortlist of candidates that is not formally publicised. Given none of the five permanent members of the Security Council have joined the Group of Friends, this historically opaque process meant the push for a female Secretary-General was always an uphill battle.

However, there are moves in the right direction. On Friday, the UN General Assembly voted unanimously to make the secretive selection process more open and transparent. The resolution adopted by consensus will allow the body of 193 member states to see basic information about all candidates, including their resumes. They will also have the chance to meet and question candidates. The resolution also stresses the need for “gender and geographical balance while meeting the highest possible requirements” and invites all countries “to consider presenting women as candidates.”

Along with the campaign to select a female Secretary-General, have come the arguments that the next leader of the UN should be chosen on merit alone. Russia’s ambassador the UN has openly declared that men should not be discriminated against in the process. However, advocates such as Dr Jean Krasno, a Yale professor and UN expert, argues that “we can’t use the excuse that there aren’t enough qualified women to choose from.” Indeed, the Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary-General, chaired by Krasno, has compiled a list of outstanding women qualified for the job of Secretary-General. Some of the names most frequently raised include Irina Bokova, head of UNESCO; Kristalina Ivanova Georgieva, an economist and EU Commissioner; Michelle Bachelet, the President of Chile and former head of UN Women; and Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and current head of UNDP.

In addition to being highly qualified, these women could bring a different perspective to the table. According to 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.”

Merit should undoubtedly be the deciding factor in the selection of the next Secretary-General; however, the positive message that choosing a female Secretary-General would send to women and girls around the world cannot be ignored. While the UN is home to agencies such as UN Women, and advocates for gender equality in all streams of its work – women hold less than a quarter of the highest positions within the organisation. A female Secretary-General would tell the world the UN practices what it preaches. Mary Robinson summed it up when she said, “In women’s and girl’s eyes, the symbolic empowerment of a women top official, with responsibilities in peace, stability and development, is fundamental. It has a great psychological impact.”