Twitter proved more effective than papal smoke signals in getting out the results of the first straw poll of candidates aspiring to be the ninth secretary-general of the United Nations. This is one reason that although some confidentiality is desirable in what is currently a recruitment process rather than an election, the 1 for 7 Billion campaign has joined the President of the General Assembly in calling for greater transparency.
With only one woman, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, among the top-five candidates, the reported results were disappointing to everyone, myself included, who would love to see the UN appoint its first female secretary-general. The top candidate to emerge from the July 21 straw poll by the UN Security Council was António Guterres of Portugal, with none of the 15 council members “discouraging” him.
Yet the first round of a straw poll is usually different from the next round, especially when the permanent council members will request colored ballots and their votes will become obvious. (The next poll is to occur on Aug. 5.)
As one Eastern European diplomat said, “It’s an ongoing game.”
Not only has no woman ever held the job of secretary-general, but just three of the 31 formal candidates in previous selections have been female: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit of India in 1953, Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway in 1991 and Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia in 2006.
The lack of female candidates in the UN’s history of choosing a secretary-general shows how flawed the selection process has been and makes the UN seem like it has a glass ceiling on par with the Vatican, despite its mandate to promote equality. The 1 for 7 Billion group campaigned hard for women to be nominated — there is no shortage of high-caliber picks within and outside the UN system. We also called for selection criteria not to be skewed toward men, for example, by putting too much weight on experience in fields that are still male-dominated.
So it is fantastic that half of the 12 candidates vying to replace Ban Ki-moon are female. The presence of six women campaigning for the job has already had an effect. In the General Assembly public dialogues with the candidates held this spring and in the United Nations Association-UK’s debates, candidates — the men in particular — have fallen over themselves to demonstrate their commitment to gender equality, albeit in narrow terms of senior management within the UN.
But should a woman be chosen, no matter what? Some tweeters think so.
“Guterres is prob best but after 8 men, we need a woman,” is a typical response to last week’s results, seemingly prioritizing gender over merit. To be clear, I don’t carry the flag for any candidate. This person is implying that Guterres is the best person for the job, except for his being male.
A woman on the 38th floor of the UN Secretariat would convey a powerful symbol as women’s rights are threatened all over the world, from Afghanistan to the United States. But as important as it is to inspire women and girls, being a symbol is not enough. There are female leaders who have chosen to focus on gender equality but also plenty of women — Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of Britain, springs to mind — who did little, if anything, to support women in practical or policy terms.
The argument that any woman, whoever she might be, is guaranteed to bring a fresh perspective to the role is spurious. So, too, is the notion that women are inherently more peaceful and consensual. These are no less gender stereotypes than saying that women cannot be strong, decisive leaders.
If we really care about gender equality and women’s empowerment, we should be pushing for a feminist secretary-general, someone who will be more than a symbol. We should support the person who convinces us that she or he will work tirelessly to protect women’s rights, tackle discrimination and gender-based violence and engage men and boys in this fight.
We should press candidates on their track records, ask them for concrete proposals on how to remove barriers in and outside the UN system and how they plan to make headway with less-progressive states. And we should call for their answers to be given as much weight as to questions on, say, how to further the Sustainable Development Goals. This is an area where the secretary-general really can have influence internally through management reform and externally by speaking out, for starters.
And if we care about the UN, we should surely be pushing for the best possible person to be leading the world body at this time of tremendous global uncertainty. It would be an insult to any candidate — especially the qualified, capable women — to be appointed for any other reason.
This is an opinion essay.
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Natalie Samarasinghe is the global director of advocacy for the Open Society Foundations. Previously, she was the executive director of the United Nations Association-UK, the first woman to have this role, and a co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign. She has degrees in human rights and modern history from Oxford University and the London School of Economics.