Redressing the UN's gender gap: how do the SG contenders compare?

Following an informal vote held at the UN in New York today, the UN Security Council will vote by acclamation tomorrow to choose Portugal’s António Guterres as the next UN Secretary-General. 

Ourania S. Yancopoulos
5 October 2016

This article was first published 12 September.

As the race for UN Secretary-General nears its next stage, it is looking less likely that the UN will elect its first female head. These developments are shedding new light on the most recent list of male-dominated, top contenders and calling into question what they have done to promote gender parity.

Calls for a woman to lead the organization have been widely spurred on by the UN’s inability to make good on its own commitments. Despite over 20 years of commitments to gender parity, inside the UN, women represent just 15% of country Ambassadors and only 22% of senior positions. In the UN’s most senior positions (called Assistant-Secretaries-General and Under-Secretaries-General) women were outnumbered 37 to 129 in 2015.

“We want a woman Secretary-General,” Jean Krasno, Chairwoman of the Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary-General, told openDemocracy, “not someone who promises to do better, when none of the male SGs have ever achieved gender parity in the UN system.” In fact, if the current trend continues, the UN will favor men for the next 112 years-- unless something significant is done about it.

But men continue to dominate in the informal polls, and following the results of the fourth round of straw polls held at the UN’s headquarters in New York September 9, it appears more and more unlikely that a woman will be elected. “It’s a slap in the face to women,” UN Expert and Former Chief Advisor on Peace and Security at UN Women, Dr. Anne-Marie Goetz, said. “Almost all the women are at the bottom of the pack – a graphic illustration of gender bias.”

Despite “five superbly qualified women” among the candidates, of the poll’s top five contenders, only one was a woman. “It surprised me,” Colombian Ambassador to the UN María Emma Mejía Vélez told the NYT after the third poll in late August. “That the members of the Security Council didn’t find any of the six worthy of being first or second.”

As hopes for the UN’s first female leader become more unlikely, skepticism grows over whether another male Secretary-General can and will live up to commitments for gender parity if selected. “I don't buy the feminist man argument,” Shazia Rafi, UN Expert and former Secretary-General, Parliamentarians for Global Action 1996-2013, wrote in an email, “They have had their chance for 70 years, they have not created a more equal or peaceful world, they have not kept their commitments on gender equality made over twenty years ago at the Beijing Conference 1995; I was there, I helped write the words. There is no reason to believe the men will do so now.”

Regardless of who this next SG will be, it is evident that in an election where gender parity has been paramount, what the next SG has achieved in regards to women’s rights and empowerment matters. And while all candidates have publically committed to achieve gender parity if selected, no comprehensive analysis has been done of what these candidates have accomplished towards the advancement of women in past leadership positions.

For this piece openDemocracy talked exclusively with the top five candidates (See Footnote), asking them to describe in their own words their biggest achievements in gender mainstreaming to date. 

We received overwhelming and lengthy responses that cover not just what candidates did to promote women, but also the types of gender policies they promoted, as well as the initiatives’ impacts and results. There is no space to provide the full treatment that would give justice to the level of detail with which we were provided. Therefore, we focus only on the staffing achievements of the candidates.  However as many of the candidates pointed out in our discussions- increasing numbers of women across staff – while important – is not the only – or even the best measure of feminist commitment. It is perhaps however the most immediately visible.  

António Guterres: Former Head of the UN’s Refugee Agency and Former Prime Minister of Portugal


Former Prime Minister António Guterres is “the man to beat” in the current race for Next SG. Credit: Kena Betancur / AFP Photo

I am totally committed to parity. If elected I will present a road map for gender parity at all levels with benchmarks and time frames.

~ Guterres to UN Member States, June 7, New York

Portugal’s António Guterres holds a striking lead, winning all four straw poll votes. Barring some completely unforeseen development – and a Russian veto – Guterres could be the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations. 

Guterres has taken measureable actions to address gender imbalances in staffing - specifically, as the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 to 2015. “What I have tried to do while at UNHCR was to have the organization move from a male-dominated culture to a truly gender motivated staff,” he wrote in an email. 

Setting gender parity as a key objective of his staff management policies in 2007, the UN’s Refugee Agency has since become a gender-equitable organization. According to Guterres, parity has been achieved in all areas dependent on direct decision of the High Commissioner, including within its Senior Management Committee - the high management body of the UNHCR, composed of 20 staff.  According to UNHCR resources, progress has been made at all levels:


Source: UNHCR

Under Guterres’s leadership, the UNHCR became one of only seven UN entities that reached parity in promotions to senior staff, ranking fourth among 32 UN entities in the number of women appointed to senior level positions. Guterres said, “I believe these excellent results in the most senior levels show that my decision to have parity as the guiding management principle paid off.”

When it comes to staffing, Guterres’s only regret is that there appeared to be a reversal in the rate of women’s representation at the lower levels, “As I was strongly focused on improving women’s representation at senior levels, I did not become fully aware of this negative trend initially.” Upon realizing the trend, Guterres quickly worked to change the recruitment policy. 

“It was a difficult task that caused quite a bit of internal resistance,” he said, “but finally we approved a new mechanism.” Now, having stepped down as High Commissioner, he hopes the organization sees through the new policy and ensures the reversal of the negative trend. 

When it comes to the broader UN system, Guterres is not afraid to call out the current gender imbalance of the UN’s most senior staff. In his interview with Member States on April 12, he said, gender balance was a “necessary shift” in the UN’s working style, “despite moving backwards in recent times.” “I am totally committed to parity,” Guterres assured repeatedly. From his time as UNHCR it seems he has the tools and experience to make good on this commitment.

Miroslav Lajčák: current Foreign Minister of Slovakia


Slovakia’s Foreign Minister, Miroslav Lajćäk says, “If we want to promote more women, we need to promote them…particularly in areas where women can do better jobs than men.” Credit: Permanent Mission of Slovakia to the United Nations

Men are better at fighting wars, and women are better at achieving peace…Women simply have stronger empathy and know the special needs of vulnerable communities… We need to use the special capacities and qualities of women… We must stand and fight for equality now. We must fight against all discrimination especially based on gender.

~ Lajčák to UN Member States, June 7, New York 

Despite poor performances in the first and second straw polls, Miroslav Lajčák has bounced up from the bottom of the pack in the third poll, to hold his second place finish in the fourth. 

According to Lajčák, when he became Slovakia’s Foreign Minister in 2009, women made up zero percent of the ministry’s most senior positions (Directors-General). “Today,” he says, “women represent 44 percent.”

To help bring about this change, Lajčák implemented gender as a “priority criterion” when considering new applicants for Foreign Service. “Within my competencies I have focused on eliminating discrepancies and inequalities at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he wrote in an email. “We are taking efforts to set up standards of gender equality at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where the representation of women at various levels and positions is constantly increasing.”

According to Lajčák, 55 percent of the Foreign Ministry’s staff at headquarters, and 47 percent of the ministry’s workers abroad, are women. “In fact,” Lajčák remarked, “there are several women in top-diplomatic positions abroad, promoting Slovakia’s multilateral or bilateral priorities… – be it in Vienna, Ankara, or Cyprus.”

While Lajčák has appeared to prioritize hiring and appointing women during his time as Foreign Minister, people may doubt his ability to effectively implement a feminist agenda at the helm of an organization as big and as complicated as the UN Secretariat. In his speeches, Lajčák has again and again expressed disgust at the UN’s sexual exploitation and abuse scandals and has vowed to stop it. However, when asked if he considers himself a feminist, Lajčák wrote in an email, “I am not a big fan of labels, but I have noticed the remarks of President Obama in this regard last August and I have a strong sympathy for what he outlined in his essay for Glamour. Let me add that I also have two daughters.” 

Vuk Jeremić: 67th President of the UN General Assembly and Foreign Minister of Serbia


Serbian candidate, Vuk Jeremic, doesn’t understand the UN’s failure to reach 50/50 gender parity. Credit: Permanent Mission of Serbia to the United Nations

In my platform, I underscore that 50/50 gender parity in senior positions at the UN is not only necessary, but eminently achievable. Frankly, it’s pretty hard to explain adequately the failure of past efforts: it quite simply reflects a failure to prioritize the equal representation of women – and that’s unacceptable. I will make this reform a priority, leading by example in my own appointment[s].

~ Jeremić to Ourania Yancopoulos via email, September 5 

In front of the UN General Assembly on April 14, Jeremić delivered a bold, public pledge to achieve gender parity in senior UN appointments from day one. “From day one,” he writes in his vision statement for next SG dated April 12, “the Secretary-General will appoint qualified women to 50 percent of UN Under-Secretary-General or equivalent positions.”

To critical observers of the UN this appears to be an impossible commitment – over the UN’s 71 years, eight different Secretary-Generals have been unable to deliver even half of Jeremić’s promise. Jeremić, however, is confident in his ability to deliver and his apparent successes in Serbia’s Foreign Ministry perhaps indicate why. 

Before elected 67th President of the UN General Assembly, where he contributed to essential “first steps” in negotiating the terms of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development related to women’s rights and women’s empowerment, Jeremić served as Serbia’s Foreign Minister.

Jeremić explained his government’s attitudes about women at that time. “I don’t think any of my predecessors as Foreign Minister undertook internal policy measures advancing women’s rights and women’s empowerment,” Jeremić said via email, “and I’m certain none embraced feminist values.” 

When Jeremić became Foreign Minister in May 2007 he was intent on implementing a different approach. “I inherited a hiring and promotion system that was silent on the question of gender parity,” He said, “There just wasn’t any awareness about it.”

This was reflected in the results of the first call for applications from Serbian university graduates to enter the diplomatic service: only 30% of hires were women. “That may have been a good result for some, but I was deeply unsatisfied,” Jeremić said, “The people in charge of the process were using outdated methods—and it showed.”

Jeremić set about designing a new process. According to Jeremić, by the end of his term as Foreign Minister 47% of all young diplomats and 49% of all mid-career diplomats hired were women.

Jeremić also worked to promote gender parity in ambassadorial postings. According to Jeremić, just 10% of the ambassadors he inherited were women. By his last day in office, in July 2012, Serbia’s foreign ministry had tripled the number of female ambassadors. “In just 5 years, women were three times more likely to be appointed to represent their country abroad at the highest level than before I joined the Serbian Government,” Jeremić told openDemocracy.

Jeremić said that rather than simply being a woman, the next Secretary-General must have feminist values in order to challenge the organization’s pervasive gender bias. “These are values that I share,” He said. “Who advanced women’s issues more: Kim Campbell, the first woman Prime Minister in Canadian history, or Justin Trudeau, who has taken historic strides to advance women’s rights and achieve gender parity in Canada?”

Irina Bokova, Current Director-General of UNESCO


Head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova from Bulgaria, is the only woman to make the list of top five contenders for Next UN SG. Credit: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

As a candidate for the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations, I hope to send a powerful message to all girls and women that it is possible to pursue the highest position in international civil service whether one is a woman or a man…As a woman candidate, though, I feel greater responsibility and honor as a dedicated defender of women's rights…

~ Bokova to Ourania Yancopoulos via email, September 5

Of the five women still in the race for next SG, Irina Bokova is the only woman to appear among the top five contenders in every straw poll vote.

On April 12, Bokova told UN Member States that “for a long time” she thought having quotas or encouraging women to be engaged in important public positions was unnecessary. “I thought it would come up naturally; that we would achieve gender parity,” she said. “Now I see it doesn’t happen. We need to go about it in a focused manner.”

On November 15, 2009 - following a thirty-year career in Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry fighting for gender equity and representing her country in three of the world’s four international conferences on women - Bokova became the first female Director-General of UNESCO. There, Bokova claims she has been able to demonstrate her personal commitment to gender equality.

When Bokova took office in November 2009, UNESCO had already designated gender equality as one of its two global priorities for 2008-2013 and developed its first Gender Equality Action Plan. But Bokova wasn’t satisfied. “From the beginning, I was intent on pushing this priority further,” she said. 

Under Bokova’s leadership UNESCO developed a Gender Balance Action Plan, which identified targets to be achieved and mechanisms to implement for gender equitable recruitment, retention, and promotion of its personnel. 

Since January 2010, significant progress has been made in the representation of women:


Source: Key data on UNESCO staff and posts June 2016, Bureau of Human Resources management.

Overall the proportion of women staff in UNESCO is among the highest in the UN system. According to Bokova, at the end of August 2016, UNESCO achieved 46 percent representation of women at all managerial levels, compared to 13 percent in January 2012. 

When it comes to the appointment of the next SG, Bokova believes that calls for the first woman go beyond symbolism and political correctness. For Bokova, only a feminist woman SG can ensure that the UN delivers on its core values including human rights, development and peace. “We need a Secretary-General who fully understands women's rights as human rights,” she said.

Danilo Türk: Former President of Slovenia and Assistant-Secretary-General of the UN’s Department of Political Affairs


“My belief is that ideal teams are close to 50/50 [gender parity],” said Slovenia’s third President, Danilo Turk to UN Member States on April 13. Credit: UN Dispatch

Women can and will play a strongly positive role in all fields…The UN staff serves all the people of the world. The composition of the UN Secretariat must therefore reflect the world. Importantly, steadily greater gender balance must be a leading and sustained priority.

~ Türk, Vision Statement, February 9

Despite strong performances in the first two straw polls, Danilo Türk dropped to seventh place in the third round of straw polls August 21. He moved back up to fifth place after the fourth round, September 9. 

Türk served in the UN for over a decade – as Slovenia’s first ambassador from 1992 to 2000, then as Kofi Annan’s Assistant-Secretary-General for the Department of Political Affairs from 2000 to 2005.

After securing Slovenia the Presidency of the Security Council in October 1997, Türk helped prepare his team with the Foreign Ministry. In those preparations he demanded that there be equal numbers of men and women. “I thought it was important in the Security Council in particular to have two perspectives both the male and female perspective,” he said over the phone.

At a time when only eleven female ambassadors existed in the entire UN system - out of a total of 188 - Türk secured gender balance within his team. “Right from the start we had a group of talented female and male diplomats. The team was small, eight people, including me - four men and four women.” Türk said, “The women were critical in defining our positions on certain issues and in certain undertakings. And all of them made great careers.”

From that team, Slovenia got its first female ambassador to the UN and its current State Secretary, Sanja Štiglic; as well as its current Ambassadors to Greece, the Council of Europe, and Deputy Chief to its OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.

In the current race for Secretary-General Türk says feminist values are “essential,” “Empowerment of women means also empowerment of the UN.” 

Women in leadership – still hope for first woman SG?

Whether the UN will see its first female, feminist leader is yet to be seen. With only one woman in the poll’s most recent top five contenders, it seems unlikely. However, despite Guterres’s strong lead, the other contenders continue to shift in the standings below him and rumors circulate around a possible new late-entry candidate. The candidacy of current European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources, the Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva, is rumored to have been discussed on the sidelines of the G20 summit early September.

For some, the gender records of the top male candidates may be consolation. Former UN diplomat Karin Landgren wrote in an email, “The deep commitment needed to reach gender parity at the highest levels of the UN can only come from a feminist SG, - male or female.” For others, it will not be enough. “I think that for the men to claim they are feminists just to gain the position of SG is such hypocrisy,” Jean Krasno said, “And takes everyone's eye off the ball.” 

The current women candidates have already been at the head of major UN agencies and served as Foreign Ministers; one has even been the head of her government. “Their mettle has already been tested,” said Shazia.

Upon being appointed Foreign Relations Minister of Argentina, Susana Malcorra was described by the current Secretary-General as “a strong voice for gender equality.” She is a veteran of the UN system, serving as the current Secretary-General’s Chef de Cabinet and member of the UN’s Senior Management Group. Prior to this role she served as Under-Secretary-General for Field Support, and before that, as Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Executive Director of the World Food Programme.

Helen Clark was the first woman in New Zealand to serve as Deputy Prime Minister; first woman appointed to the Privy Council; first woman to be elected as head of a major party; and the first woman elected Prime Minister. As Prime Minister she led a government dedicated to advancing gender equality. At the time, New Zealand’s Governor General, Cabinet Secretary, Attorney General, and Speaker were all also women. Now, she serves as the UN Development Program’s first female Administrator and has appointed more women to senior positions than any of her predecessors.

Additionally, Costa Rica’s Christiana Figueres served as the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and directed the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement - dubbed by The Guardian, “the world’s greatest diplomatic success.” And Moldova’s Natalia Gherman, serving as both Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, told the WomanSG campaign in April that it was because of her new recruitment initiatives that the last incoming class of young, Foreign Ministry professionals was 60% female.  

Despite their qualifications, these four outstanding women have been shut out of the race’s top contenders. UN Expert Richard Gowan said via email, “The activists who have campaigned for a woman to lead the UN will need to keep up a broader campaign for gender equality in the organization, whoever ultimately gets the top job. Otherwise we'll be back to diplomacy as normal, with a distinctly male tinge, before you know it.”

Representativeness is the foundation on which the advancement of women’s empowerment and women’s rights is built. In an email, current UNSG frontrunner Guterres wrote, “[T]he most effective way to begin to change perceptions about women is to have them in positions where they are normally not seen, playing all sort of roles that they don’t play often enough, in spite of their qualifications and valuable contributions.”

Never in the 70-plus year history of the UN has a woman been SG. And at the moment, it looks like that is not going to change.

Follow the conversation on Twitter via: #UNSGCandidates #NextSG #She4SG.

FOOTNOTE: There has been considerable movement in the list of candidates and there’s still no telling who will make the final cut. The lack of clear rules about the SG selection process adds to the incredible difficulty of clearly predicting what will come next, and who exactly the “top five contenders” are. However, according to UN insiders – and barring any late entries or sudden surprises – the next SG is “most likely” to come from the top five contenders as defined in the following way:

In this round of non-binding preferential votes, candidates have more “discourage” votes than in previous selection cycles. And these are the votes that matter most. Even if just one of Guterres’s two “discourage” votes comes from a P5 member, his Secretary-Generalship could be blocked, and Russia has not been quiet about their desire to see an Eastern European at the UN’s helm. We choose to rank the top five candidates by a combination of the number of “encourage” and “discourage” votes they received in the following way:

  1. António Guterres, Portugal: Encourage (12) – Discourage (2) – No Opinion (1)
  2. Miroslav Lajčák, Slovakia: Encourage (10) – Discourage (4) – No Opinion (1)
  3. Vuk Jeremić, Serbia: Encourage (9) – Discourage (4) – No Opinion (2)
  4. Irina Bokova, Bulgaria: Encourage (7) – Discourage (5) – No Opinion (3)
  5. Danilo Türk, Slovenia: Encourage (7) – Discourage (6) – No Opinion (2)
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