It is exceedingly odd for a world body like the United Nations to have never had a female secretary general. Gender imbalance in professions is a reality across the world and it is regrettable that the fields of politics and public policy which have thrown up compelling figures like Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi and a host of distinguished policy practitioners have not seen women leaders get a real shot at the top job.
The UN is keen on addressing the anomaly. In a letter addressed to member states, US envoy to the UN and Security Council president for the month of December Samantha Power and General Assembly president Mogens Lykketoft have encouraged countries to nominate women for the UN top job to take over from the incumbent Ban Ki-moon in January 2017.
The world can, in theory, now look forward to the possibility of Hillary Clinton, the clear frontrunner for the US presidency, and a woman UN secretary general assuming office around the same time. The UN is a norm-setting agency in a range of areas, including human rights, labour standards and diversity — and it is only appropriate that it is pushing for a woman secretary general.
The decision is in line with the 2015 UN Human Development Report, which highlighted the under-representation of women in senior management and decision-making positions. Globally, it said, women earn 24% less than men and hold only 25% of administrative and managerial positions in business, while 32% of businesses have no women in senior management positions. Women still hold only 22% of seats in national parliaments. There are currently only 23 women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies.
The appointment of a female UN secretary general will be a significant symbolic fillip for women worldwide and it can also potentially advance feminist concerns in the agenda of international politics.
The UN also plans to make the selection more transparent and inclusive, in part by facilitating interactions between member states and candidates. This is another welcome step that moves away from the previous practice of appointing the secretary general effectively through a backroom agreement among Western governments.