Search for Next UN Secretary-General Brings Gender Issues to Fore

Earlier this month, the British outpost of women’s lifestyle magazine Elle released a video showing the juxtaposition of scenes from the entertainment industry, politics, sports, and the military as they are versus with the men removed from the photo. Unsurprisingly, the military photo depicted only one or two females left standing, revealing the sorry state of high-level equal representation across the board. The images have since gone viral, proving themselves to be a powerful visual to accompany the staggering levels of disproportionate leadership, especially in international politics.

Image courtesy of United Nations © 2005, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of United Nations © 2005, some rights reserved.

Two of these images were from the headquarters of the world’s premier (albeit frustratingly bureaucratic and ineffective) intergovernmental organization, the United Nations (UN), who will next year be led by a new Secretary-General. Well in advance of this process, those in the press and politics have begun to speculate as to whether this election cycle will be the first to select a woman to occupy what the current office-holder has called the “most impossible job in the world”.[1] Especially considering that this year marked the 70th annual meeting of the UN General Assembly, the calls for a female leader of an organization that counts 193 states as members and presides over 7 billion of the world’s inhabitants (roughly 3.5 billion females, according to Fisher’s Principle) have been little refuted. However, as recurring criticisms of the selection process start to crop up and candidate’s names mentioned begin to number in the dozens, it becomes necessary to ask what the likely effects are of historic female leader at the highest level and how far that will extend to the ongoing fight for gender equality worldwide.

When Ban Ki-Moon’s second term as Secretary-General comes to a close, an election will be held to conclude at the end of 2016. The process adheres to the few and vague rules outlined in the organization’s Charter, proceeding without formal campaigns or debates, amounting to what Simon Chesterman of the National University of Singapore has called “the lowest common denominator of what the P5 finds acceptable.”[2] To avoid additional centralization of power, individuals from the Permanent Five member-states comprising the Security Council are not considered in favour of other nations. Candidates need not even be endorsed by their own national governments or have publicly stated their intention to run; the process is not only less-than-democratic and opaque but almost totally fuelled by rumor and political strong-arming. Previous UN leaders have been chosen after anonymous straw polls, with an emphasis on rotation between regions to remain fair and diverse. Why should half of the world’s population not be given the same treatment?

Though some argue that it will be harder to source a female candidate since gender representation is so poor within diplomatic and international political circles at all levels. Furthermore, they argue that to preference women despite qualifications would be unfair. To preempt these fabricated claims, Professor Jean Krasno of Yale University who specializes in UN affairs has launched the Women Secretary General campaign, arguing simply that “We have had 8 male Secretary-Generals and our 9th should be a woman” and has offered a comprehensive list of outstanding women from around the world. Krasno has insisted, “We can’t use the excuse that there aren’t enough qualified women to choose from.”[3] On the list are Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF who has garnered much publicity throughout the Eurozone debt crisis; Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and head of the UN Development Programme; and Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile and former head of UN Women. The next potential region in the rotation cycle is Eastern Europe, so two Bulgarians, Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, and Kristalina Ivanova Georgieva, Vice-President of the European Commission could become formidable candidates. Also from Eastern Europe is Croatian Vesna Pusić, national Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, who has been nominated for the candidacy by her government. Though the posturing and speculation has been ongoing for years now, so far there have been limited announcements. Because each Secrurity Council member wields veto power, and judging from the current state of uncoordinated military action in Syria and the enflamed tensions between the US and China made clear by the ongoing dispute over the South China Sea, the powerful member-states will not come to consensus without political and protracted contestation. For this reason, potential candidates do have reason to be wary.

Others argue that a female leader of the UN would amount to little more than a public relations stunt to obscure the failures of UN initiatives to achieve gender balance and end violence against women worldwide.  A female figurehead cannot fix systemic inequality and an ongoing “old boy’s club” mentality within the organization, the argument goes. Though Ban Ki-Moon has dedicated efforts to campaigns to fight gender inequality, including the HeForShe campaign spearheaded by actress Emma Watson, the symbolic nature of choosing a woman as UN Secretary-General would make good on much of this rhetoric. Also, though the new 2015 Sustainable Development Goals intend to pick up where the Millennium Goals left off in “promoting gender equality and empowering women”, some have questioned the efficacy in the UN’s development plan. Citing failures of the Millennium Goals, they say it ignores structural constraints and focuses on lofty ends at the expense of practical, short-term gains. One of the Millennium Goals, for instance, had aimed to “Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education, no later than 2015” but concluded this year that “disparities remain among regions in all levels of education, particularly for the most excluded and marginalized”.[4]

Whether a female leader would actually do a better job of achieving the new gender-related development goals is to be seen. However, in terms of the advancement of the fifth Sustainable Development Goal towards gender equality, towards which the UN plans to focus on gendered discrimination in the labour market, the prevalence of sexual violence and exploitation, and lack of political representation, commitment to equality within its own leadership would certainly bolster the legitimacy of the UN in achieving these ends.[5]

This week marked the fifteen-year anniversary of the adoption of the UNSC Resolution 1325 which declared its intention to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations efforts to create international peace and security. However, though it is a truism that there are more women in positions of power than ever before, and the “glass ceiling” is far from untarnished, the field of International Relations and its vocations still do have significant progress to make to close the gender gap, and the debate over the gender of the Secretary-General-to-be could be a valuable opportunity to highlight these persistent inequalities at all levels. The international average of women in governments has improved but stagnates around 20 per cent—still a far cry from equal representation.[6] Only recently in 2014 did women fill one-third of the seats in a UN Security Council meeting, a much-touted first, but only four out of five of the permanent members of the Council have appointed a woman as their top diplomat, and just over 15 per cent of ambassadors to the UN are female.[7] Though these may be record numbers, there is clearly much progress still to be made. In foreign policy-related positions at think tanks, universities, the military, and the private sector, fewer than 30 per cent of senior positions are held by females, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.[8] Gender equality is too often regarded as a ‘soft’ issue that deserves only secondary consideration to ‘hard’ issues of security and statecraft, but it is clear that at all levels progress has been slow in closing the gender gap, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt the cause for the powerful voice of the UN to proclaim that the time for prioritizing these issues is nigh.

Though this discourse often provides opportunities for real advancement, one must mind the real danger of reliance on gender tropes and essentialisms. From those who argue that women make fundamentally different or more peaceful decision-makers, these ideas further entrench stereotypes about the inherent qualities of females. They counterproductively go to bolster the argument that women are incapable of serving the office to a standard as high as male predecessors. Though research has made clear that peace talks are more likely to succeed if they include women, it is not that women possess a certain worldview but actually that the inclusion of a more accurate representation of our diverse humanity will create outcomes better suited for the world, or as Anne-Marie Slaughter concluded in her infamous Atlantic essay ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’[9], ‘Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.’

The question is not whether a woman in general would succeed in the position, as the UN is already deeply committed in theory to the equal potential for both genders. Rather, it is which woman should be the overdue successor to lead an organization representing human achievement and cooperation in the most meaningful of ways. As Krasno has argued, focusing on the myriad of suitable candidates and their qualifications is in itself sufficient proof that qualified individuals of all genders are vying for the role. It may be true that a female Secretary-General will not overnight revolutionize world politics or stubborn inequalities worldwide, but it is indeed fair to ask the organization, if they are truly prepared to again efface their own values and refuse to take the lead in empowering women even at the highest level: why not?










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