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Why Feminists Shouldn’t Say the Next UN Secretary-General Must Be a Woman

Natalia Gherman
Natalia Gherman, left, the UN secretary-general candidate from Moldova, participating in public hearings on April 13, 2016. OPGA/PAN

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.

Natalie Samarasinghe, the author.
Natalie Samarasinghe, the author.

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.

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4 thoughts on “Why Feminists Shouldn’t Say the Next UN Secretary-General Must Be a Woman”

    • Being a man or a woman is not the real problem but the problem consists of knowing why 8eight past UN leaders are male and 0 zero woman as UN secretary general until now.

      Reply
  1. I take issue with Natalie Samarasinghe’s article, “Why Feminists Shouldn’t Say the Next UN Secretary-General Must Be a Woman.”

    By definition a “feminist” is a person, man or woman, who believes that women and men should have equal opportunity. The unfortunate, false but lingering perception of “feminist” is a woman burning her bra and storming the barricades while questioning why the world needs men anyway.

    In an Inter Press Service article by Lynda Rowlands, titled “Feminism Slowly Gaining Support at United Nations,” publish on July 21, 2016, Samarasinghe acknowledges that the word “feminist” is not explicitly used at the UN because it remains controversial. So why use the word “feminist” in the headline of her PassBlue essay? Could it be to advance her false argument that “feminists” are demanding a woman SG at any cost, qualified or not; in other words, “Yes, Virginia, we know there’s never been a woman SG, but the men candidates were better, and you didn’t expect us to pick a woman just because she’s a woman, did you?”

    This is an empty argument that one might expect from a young woman who may never have encountered a glass ceiling that needed breaking, because women of her mother’s generation had done the cracking for her. (And I want to assure all the young women out there who truly get gender equality that I know you’re there and I don’t mean you!) While for a number of reasons, not least her accomplishments, I doubt that this represents the author’s experience (I don’t know her age), her approach gives the impression of one so secure about gender equality she feels the right to reproach so-called “feminists” for their perceived quest for gender precedence in choosing the next SG at all cost.

    Granted there may be some (I don’t know any) who believe, to quote from her essay, “a woman [should] be chosen, no matter what,” or that “being a symbol is enough,” or “whoever she might be, is guaranteed to bring a fresh perspective to the role” or that “women are inherently more peaceful and consensual,” or that “[Antonio] Guterres is prob best but after 8 men, we need a woman.” And there may also be some who believe the “selection criteria [should] not be skewed toward men, for example, by putting too much weight on experience in field that are still male-dominated.” My own view on this last statement is that among the women candidates, they are qualified in every field relevant to the job of Secretary-General and it’s specious and an insult to them to suggest otherwise.

    Whoever the author hears espousing these views, it’s certainly not most, or even many of the women and men who believe the world is way past ready for a woman SG. Most of us who believe it’s time for a woman SG are not pushing arguments such as these. We’re saying that progress in the world depends on women’s and girls’ advancement, access to opportunity and equality. We’re saying, as the author says, that it’s a “flawed selection process where only three of the 31 candidates in previous selections have been women” and where “there is no shortage of high caliber picks within and outside the UN system.”

    And many of us would posit “there is no shortage of high caliber picks among the six women candidates for the job”! The definition of affirmative action is “when the candidates are equally qualified, we must pick the candidate from the disadvantaged group.” Operative word: “equally.” But then there’s the small issue of the eyes of the beholder of the candidates’ qualifications: always subjective, and in the case of the Security Council, as much of a bastion of patriarchy as ever existed.

    Those of us who think it’s past time for a woman SG are women and men, and many of us have daughters, and sons, and we yearn for a better world for all. And we’re saying, too, to quote the author, “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.” We’re also saying that she should be selected because she is “the best possible person to be leading the world body at this time of tremendous global uncertainty.” And again, we’re saying there’s no need for a redo (second round of applicants) since “there is no shortage of high caliber picks among the six women candidates for the job” and it’s time to pick one of them!

    The author is correct when she says that it’s an ”insult to any candidate – especially the qualified, capable women – to be appointed for any other reason” than being the best person for the job. It’s also an insult to men and women everywhere who believe that after 70 years and eight males, it’s time for a woman SG for her to even suggest otherwise.

    There will be no shortage of wearers of the patriarchal mantle putting forward the author’s arguments when a male candidate is chosen as the next SG, as, sadly, that’s the direction in which we seem to be heading yet again: “We really wanted to pick a woman” they’ll say, “but Mr. So and So was simply the most qualified.”

    Sorry, but no number of faux feminist apologias will serve as justification for a failure to choose a woman this time around, proving once again that the UN Charter principle of “reaffirming faith in the equal rights of men and women” remains at the level of mere words. The time is long overripe for transforming words into deeds.

    Loraine Rickard-Martin
    Partner, Compliance and Capacity Skills International, LLC
    Former Senior Political Affairs Officer (retired 2009)
    Security Council Affairs Division, Department of Political Affairs, United Nations

    Reply
    • Loraine,

      Your comment is spot on and at the end of it all it’s the best candidate that should be settled for, male or female.

      Reply

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