The UN’s steel ceiling: A missed opportunity to embrace women as vocal and engaged leaders

This week Brussels celebrated European Week of Action for Girls to coincide with and mark International Day of the Girl Child (11 October) spotlighting girls’ empowerment. On the other side of the Atlantic, the United Nations General Assembly gathered yesterday to appoint the next Secretary General, a leadership position apparently still reserved exclusively for men.

Glass - and steel - ceiling

After more than 70 years in existence and 8 male leaders, it was “high time” for a woman to take over the UN, or so outgoing Ban Ki-moon said. Nevertheless, António Guterres, the former Portuguese Prime Minister and head of the UN refugee agency, has been appointed as the next UN chief.

He is widely seen as an “uncontested choice”, but also a “lowest-common-denominator” and a “bittersweet pick” for the UN’s top job. None of the seven highly qualified female candidates, among them EU budget Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, gained the necessary support of the Security Council. So, what happened to the hopes that a woman could, finally, “run the world”?

The selection of the UN chief is far from open, transparent and representative. Despite changes in the process with public debates in which candidates presented their platforms, old habits are hard to break, and final decisions took place behind closed doors of the Security Council.

Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s Foreign Minister and one of the candidates for the position, vented her understandable frustration and called the UN a “boys club”. Malcorra hit the nail on the head; even an outsider can see that the UN has a gender equality problem, at least in terms of leadership.

Of a total 71 presidents, the UN General Assembly has been led by only 3 women. UN programmes, funds and specialized agencies are still generally headed by men, although a few highly skilled and experienced women have managed to climb up the UN ladder, such as Helen Clark leading the UN Development Programme and Margaret Chan running the World Health Organization.

Media outlets, such as the BBC and the Guardian, have also highlighted the issue of “backroom deals” as a major factor in explaining the choice. Sadly, the UN remains an “all-boys network”, or at best, a male-dominated arena where women are often excluded from the highest circle of power or from participating in behind-the-scenes conversations.

It’s impossible to know what really went down in the halls of the UN headquarters; who talked to who, for how long, and what political gymnastics led to the unified consensus around Guterres. But these questions should be asked: did women have access? Were they seen as insiders? And were they heard?

The participation, representation, visibility and success of women in electoral processes depends on how receptive the political environment will be to women. It is important to remember that one of the factors contributing to keeping women out of politics is women’s perception of politics as a “dirty game”, perpetuated by secrecy, cliques and promises. If anything, choosing Guterres shows this perception to be right.

Writing for The Conversation, Susan Hutchinson put forward the argument that some UN departments work more closely with the Security Council than others, including the UN refugee agency led by Guterres, while issues such as development, education, culture and science do not require significant engagement with the powerful body. If the leadership of UN programmes and agencies remains largely male, particularly those collaborating with the Security Council, how will decision-makers come to see women as vocal and engaged leaders?

And this is an organization that explicitly recognizes the restrictions women face in leadership and political participation, and it’s principal gender equality promoting body, UN Women, advocates for legislative and constitutional reforms to ensure women’s fair access to political spheres globally.

The idea that the choice was merit-based, taking into consideration Guterres’ vast diplomatic experience and strong leadership qualities, requires scrutiny. All female candidates have long, successful and diverse political careers, deserving of recognition, celebration and reward.

“Fourteen men on the Security Council, and one woman, Samantha Power, just couldn’t envision a woman at the top,” Jean Krasno, a lecturer at the City College of New York and chair of the Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary-General, told Foreign Policy.

When it comes to the UN’s highest political position: “It’s not a glass ceiling. It’s a steel ceiling,” said Malcorra. The world’s most coveted job is still reserved exclusively for men.

The job opening for a new head of the UN represented a rare opportunity for the multilateral organization to embody diversity, promote equal representation and lead by example. Instead, Guterres will be the ninth male and the fourth Western European, to take on the challenge of addressing global crises and finding consensus as UN’s new chief.

It’s not about bringing a “woman’s touch” to global politics. It’s about equal representation – making the UN look a little bit more like the world it aims to serve, and in which women make up half of all electorate, workers, consumers, students, migrants and change-makers. It’s about embracing talented, ambitious, and articulate women. It’s about seeing women as leaders, giving them a platform to speak and inspire.