There have been eight secretaries-general of the United Nations since it was established seventy years ago. All of them have been men. As current United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s second term comes to an end, advocates, UN member states, and former diplomats alike are calling for the next secretary-general to be a woman.
The representation of women in leadership positions around the world has been growing steadily, but slowly. In national governments, for example, only eighteen of the world leaders are women (half of whom are their nation’s first female leader). In fact, women’s representation in leadership positions remains stubbornly low in both private and public sectors. In 2015, while the number of women in parliament has almost doubled globally since 1995, women still comprise merely 22 percent of seats in national parliaments and are unrepresented in national ministries. The private sector is no better—according to a recent report, at least in the United States, women are just 14.2 percent of the senior executives at S&P 500 companies, and out of the top 500 companies, there are only twenty-four female chief executive officers (CEOs).
International organizations are also falling short. Four of the fifteen members of the current UN Security Council are women. From 2003 to 2013, the number of women working at the United Nations increased from 36.3 percent to 41.8 percent. On the International Court of Justice, three of the 15 current judges are women. And yet, at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly, members will vote on the UN’s post-2015 sustainable development goals, which include a goal to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”
In the last decade or so, several international organizations have established programs that focus on issues confronting women and girls. The latest strategy is to mainstream gender issues throughout these organizations, rather than segregate these issues. For example, the UN established UN Women, not to establish a pink ghetto, but as a mechanism to integrate women’s issues across the UN.
But women must also be placed in positions of power. Increasingly, world leaders are recognizing that achieving gender equality is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Women’s leadership does not automatically translate into more gender-friendly outcomes, but women tend to bring different experiences and perspectives to the table, which helps reveal blind spots in decision-making. Women’s participation in leadership is also important for the legitimacy of international institutions. And research demonstrates that women tend to be more collaborative and that this— along with the different experiences women bring to decision-making—leads to better outcomes.
As I’ve noted before, in peace and security matters, the participation of women leads to more sustainable peace, less conflict, and reduced violent extremism. There is also ample evidence that empowering women and educating girls increases prosperity and are critical for sustainable development. Yet a female candidate has never been seriously and openly considered for the position of UN secretary-general.
After eight male secretaries-general, it is time for a woman candidate to at least be considered. The process of choosing the secretary-general is controversial. It has been increasingly criticized for being a nontransparent and secretive process. With no formal rules or regulations governing the selection process, in practice the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (who alone wield veto power on the council)—Britain, France, China, the United States, and Russia—chose one candidate to be recommended to the General Assembly. The process of choosing a candidate largely takes place behind closed doors, where the five permanent members discuss, debate, and chose one candidate, generally from “a middle power.”
There are hundreds of accomplished women with the experience to be the next secretary-general. A woman secretary-general would not only strengthen and demonstrate the United Nations’ commitment to advancing gender equality, but be an opportunity for the norm-setting international organization to lead by example.