Why qualified women are being passed over for top UN job

Although six women entered the race for secretary-general, none is favored in the straw polls so far. A female chief could help empower women in key areas such as development, education, and health.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Argentina's Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, seen here addressing the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 19, 2016, is the leading female candidate for UN secretary-general, but only tied for fourth in the straw polls.

This was supposed to be the year that a woman was finally elected to run the United Nations, after seven decades of men at the helm of the world’s foremost diplomatic organization.

With six females among the dozen candidates who earlier this year announced aspirations to succeed South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary-general, supporters of electing a woman thought that, at the very least, one or two of the female contenders would emerge among the favorites.

That was especially likely, they added, since several of the women candidates were widely considered to be among the most qualified in the field of 12. 

Instead, 2016 seems almost certain not to go down as the year of the woman at the UN.

If anything, this year’s election to replace Mr. Ban will more likely underscore the male-dominated political and economic systems that most of the world’s women still live under, women’s advocates say.

As women have failed to place anywhere near the top in recent Security Council straw polls meant to winnow down the candidate list, these advocates have expressed their dismay at what they see as blatant disregard for half the world’s population.

Moreover, again electing a man to the post will highlight the long distance the UN has to go before nearing a two-decade goal of gender equity, they add.

“There is a great deal of frustration as we come to realize the existence of a glass ceiling even at the UN,” says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, the agency tasked with promoting gender equality globally. “There are qualified women candidates, but like so many women around the world, they are hitting that glass ceiling.”

Why a female leader matters

Having a woman secretary-general matters because so many of the issues the occupant of the office focuses on – development, education, health, among them – are areas where women hold the keys to progress, many global development experts say.

At the same time, a woman serving as the world’s top diplomat would be an important symbol of progress to the world’s women, the advocates add.

But such arguments do not appear to be holding much sway. The poor reception of female candidates was confirmed Monday, when the latest of the Security Council straw polls had men placing in the first, second, and third slots. The best showing by a woman candidate was tying for fourth with a man.

That result almost certainly dooms any chance of electing a woman as secretary-general this time around, unless a surprise female candidate were to come forward to settle what some UN experts say could be a deadlocked election in October.

But the sinking of what just a few months ago were high hopes for seeing a woman become the UN’s ninth secretary-general suggests to many that the global organization has a long way to go when it comes to women.

“The pool of female candidates included some of the most competent women we’ve seen on the world stage, so I’m befuddled as to why they haven’t been ranked more highly,” says Melissa Labonte, a professor of political science at New York’s Fordham University and an expert in UN issues. “Either these women are being judged by a different standard, or we're seeing that the patriarchy of the UN system is alive and well.”

Big power horse-trading

As has always been the case over the UN’s 70 years of existence, the election of a secretary-general is determined by a mix of spoken and unspoken rules, with everything from geography to a candidate’s (and his country’s) geopolitical orientation taken into account. The 15-member council settles on a candidate whose name is submitted to the General Assembly of nations for a rubber-stamp approval.

But the reality is that the main horse-trading goes on among the council’s five permanent and veto-wielding members – the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom – with the US and Russia the “first among equals” who essentially determine which candidates go nowhere and which one emerges to become the winner.

A woman could still emerge as a consensus candidate, UN experts say, but with the next vote set for Oct. 5, time is running short.

In Monday’s straw poll, former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, until recently the head of the UN’s refugee agency, came out on top, just as he had in the previous four polls. He received 12 favorable votes, with nine being the minimum a candidate needs in the final voting to win the position.

No Security Council member publicly endorsed a female candidate, which disappointed proponents of electing a woman. The candidate the US is thought to favor now, Argentina’s Foreign Minister (and Ban’s former chief of staff) Susana Malcorra, is the woman who placed in that fourth-place tie.

Earlier speculation ran high that President Obama favored the Costa Rican Christiana Figueres, a UN official who played a crucial role in securing the Paris Climate Agreement signed earlier this year. But Ms. Figueres dropped out of the running after poor showings in initial polls.

Russia is thought to have its own favorite female candidate – the head of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Bulgarian Irina Bokova. But both veto-wielding powers are thought to consider the other’s preferred female candidate a no-go. 

A priority one more time?

Russia has been open with its view that it’s time for an Eastern European to become secretary-general. That could ultimately play to the advantage of another Bulgarian woman candidate, the European Union budget commissioner Kristalina Georgieva. But it remains doubtful that Moscow would go with Ms. Georgieva, UN specialists say, since her current job puts her in charge of sanctions the EU has imposed on Russia over Ukraine.

Mr. Guterres, the front-runner, says he would make it his priority to name women to half the UN’s top positions, and would place an emphasis on addressing global issues with women’s needs and priorities in mind.

But advocates of putting a woman at the top of the UN say the days of stating such priorities are past and it’s now time to act.

“The 50-50 goal for gender parity should just be obvious, but the truth is they haven’t even come close,’ says Dr. Labonte. Noting that the number of women in senior positions has dropped in Ban’s second five-year term – and that only one woman, the US’s Samantha Power, serves as ambassador among the Security Council’s 15 countries – she says it’s time for more than just words.

“The reality is that these women are confronting a deeply entrenched mind-set within the UN that achieving gender parity takes time, that in the meantime women need to settle for next best,” she says. “In 2016, it’s past time for that thinking to end.” 

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