12 Jun

The w in Power: Thoughts on a woman UN Secretary General

Problematicising a movement that is pushing for women’s leadership is not what I would like to do any day of the week but being a feminist is not a title I take on and off as I please. Being a feminist is an action- it is a daily call to unpick social norms, laws, policies and daily modes of interaction; to challenge attitudes, including my own, which legitimise the idea that woman is less than man. This year, the United Nations (UN) will select the ninth Secretary General (SG), the head of the institution, who will work to promote and ensure peace, development and human rights across the world. There has been a strong movement from governments and civil society alike, advocating for the next Secretary General to be a woman. Since the beginning of the United Nations in 1946, all eight elected Secretary Generals have been men.

Two prominent civil society campaigns in this agenda Equality Now and WomanSG have run strong advocacy campaigns promoting highly distinguished and technically qualified women candidates suitable to take up this post. While perusing the website for the #WomanSG campaign, I came across an image which left me feeling quite uncomfortable. On the homepage, sandwiched between images of the United Nations Headquarters offices, was an image of a Chadian woman, surrounded by other women and children and a quote (portrayed as coming from them) asking, ‘Who will give us a voice?’

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Source: http://www.womansg.org/ (Homepage screen of Woman SG campaign on 12 June 2016)

This typical misrepresentation of African women and children as the ‘face of poverty’ and the quote on the image, reifies the perception that women and children living in poverty do not have a voice, which is in fact wrong, as marginalised women do have both agency and a voice. The issue is rather structural inequalities (social, political and economic) which deny women the freedom to exercise their voice and their agency. What is even more problematic is that the homepage of a campaign promoting women’s agency in global political leadership simultaneously perpetuates the image of a woman as without agency, as recipients of an external ‘benevolent’ (=global North) agent which will give vulnerable women their agency. As the Overseas Development Institute paper perfectly summarises the issue with this imagery, ‘Empowerment is not something that can be done to or for women. Women are the agents of their empowerment’ and should definitely be portrayed as such.

This image raised other questions about the current advocacy movement for a woman Secretary General and whether it challenges or perpetuates the structural gender inequalities within global governance. One of the problematic areas of the campaigns is the divergence of arguments being used to frame the campaign for a woman SG. Although the outcome is a clear and direct action, there are at present two different arguments being used to frame the campaign. One argument frames the campaign as an issue of justice, in saying that selecting a woman Secretary General will address the structural gender bias which has prevented women from previously being selected. Equality Now’s campaign #timeforwomanSG primarily uses this argument with one of the founders of Equality Now, Jessica Neuwirth, stating, “it is women’s turn to be represented and so there could and should be some flexibility to be sure that a woman can be chosen for the post.”

A second and more prominent argument framing these campaigns is on the point of eligibility- women fulfil the requirements and are as equally qualified and technically able as men to perform the duties required. While this statement is true, it is problematic when placed in the context of why there is a campaign in the first place. Highlighting the prevalence and technical ability of women candidates running for this position, could be an attempt to showcase and raise awareness of the abundance of women candidates qualified to be SG. However, it also implies that the reason why there has never been a woman SG before is a matter of competence and not gender injustice. This is important to highlight, as it gives more attention to individual agency without focusing on the structural issues that have historically sustained gender inequality in the selection process and leadership of the UN.

Furthermore, the justifications given to specifically select a woman for this leadership position, by prominent members within this discourse raise some questions too. Dr Jean Krasno, the Chair of the #womanSG campaign argues that a woman would make a strong candidate for the next Secretary General because, “What women bring to the table is the knowledge of women. And that makes a difference in policymaking.” Another prominent woman leader, the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, also adds, “Women very often have a different way of leading, which could reinvigorate the United Nations as a whole, because there is more listening, being inclusive and working in practical ways to resolve problems. These are the kind of attributes that can very much help strengthen the role of secretary-general.” A candidate currently running for the position, Natalia Gherman also stresses the ‘natural’ quality of women’s leadership style, “A woman is naturally, almost instinctively, devoted to ensuring peace; peace, security and stability, because this is what we search in our individual lives.”

The justifications may be valid to an extent because these have been proven to be specific qualities women possess, such as in this research study, stating why women make better leaders than men. However, if these qualities which women possess are what could ‘strengthen the role of secretary-general’ they should be qualities that we advocate to be included in the selection criteria and applied to both men and women candidates. The selection criteria, as it stands, appear to be a technical and gender neutral list for the role of SG.  Yet with a historic record of being gender biased in its selection process, it is worth reviewing the requirements to ensure that gendered characteristics and styles of leadership are represented and incorporated.

Focusing on the arguments used to frame this campaign also brings me to ask:

  • What are the consequences of selecting a woman UN Secretary General on women’s empowerment efforts globally?


Is the campaign for the selection of a woman SG an end in itself or a means for achieving better outcomes for women worldwide? Is it a technical fix to ‘correct’ the outcome of a gender biased selection process or a political action to challenge the structural barriers of gender biased social norms and institutions within the selection process and global governance more broadly?

It is easy to make a causal link between selecting a woman SG and a change in women’s empowerment efforts but unless the woman candidate selected has a feminist agenda in their vision statement, we shouldn’t be optimistic in assuming so. However, with a well thought out strategy, it is possible to advocate for a gender inclusive selection process while also promoting equitable outcomes for women’s empowerment efforts globally.

A few suggestions to build on the current campaign could be a mandatory criterion for each candidate (man or woman) to include in their vision statement, a feminist agenda linking women’s empowerment in development, human rights and security.

It would also be useful to review the selection criteria to assess for any existing gender biases as a result of structural issues women face in political and public participation. While women and men are equally able to occupy the position, it is worth asking whether women are as likely as men to have access to the same opportunities, networks and training for political and diplomatic leadership at the national and global levels as this appears to be a necessary criterion.  According to the Global Database of Quotas for Women, women only make up 22% ‘of the members of parliaments’ worldwide with gender bias in social norms and institutional processes cited as key barriers for women’s equal participation in the diplomatic field too. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s powerful and insightful op-ed article, revealed how a failure to openly accept the structural barriers women face in senior political and diplomatic leadership can lead to missed opportunities for addressing and advancing the cause for women’s leadership.

So, should we have a woman UN Secretary General? Absolutely! However, we must ensure that campaigns for a woman SG maintain a focus on the structural barriers, within the selection process and within global governance more broadly, that sustain gender inequality in political and public leadership. This is the only way we can use this opportunity to advance the cause for women’s empowerment.

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