Women vs. Great Power Politics 

Author: Natasha Athab, April 2021

The Secretary General’s role is seen to be a symbolic position that aims to pursue the interests of the people, in accordance with the ideals of the United Nations and the Charter. Article 97 of the Charter states “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council” (United Nations, 1945).

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The Secretary General’s role is seen to be a symbolic position that aims to pursue the interests of the people, in accordance with the ideals of the United Nations and the Charter. Article 97 of the Charter states “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council” (United Nations, 1945). Historically, the Security Council’s selection process is secretive, and the decision heavily relies on the consensus among the five permanent members: The United States, China, Russia, The United Kingdom, and France. With the absence of appointment criteria, call for nominations, and a timeline, critics of this selection process say it is outdated, and lacks transparency (Terlinge, 2017).

Since the establishment of the UN in 1945, a total of nine Secretary Generals have held the position, all of whom have been men. Today, we see a lot of female leaders at the forefront of global issues; yet, the world’s most substantial organization has not chosen a female leader. 

In 2015, a historic breakthrough emerged from the extensive lobbying of 1 for 7 Billion, a global campaign committed to “getting the best UN Secretary-General.” The campaign was co-founded by Natalie Samarasinghe, who was the executive director of the United Nations Association of the UK. Through this campaign, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 69/321 on September 11, 2015 (McVeigh, 2016).  The Resolution provided a clear and formal guidance on the selection process for the position. Overall, it boosted the Assembly’s participation and made the process transparent, inclusive, and merit based. The new process produced a total of thirteen candidates, with seven female contenders (BBC, 2016). Yet these reforms and actions failed to produce a female successor to Ban Ki-moon. On December 12, 2016, Antonio Guterres of Portugal was sworn into office as the new Secretary-General of the United Nations. 

Out of the 5 permanent members, only British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft openly advocated the idea of a female Secretary General. Ambassador Rycroft championed the idea perhaps because 1 for 7 Billion, a campaign led by a UK national, was at the forefront of the reform agenda. In an article released by The New York Times on October 14, 2016, Ambassador Samantha Power of the United States “conspicuously” made a minimal comment on gender in relation to the selection process (Sengupta & Gladstone, 2016). She emphasized that the unanimous decision of the Security Council, specifically the P5, was important, giving the implication that above all criteria, their political agenda mattered the most. Critics who find the outcome disappointing blame the misogyny that is embedded into the UN system. However, this stance would somewhat neglect the political factors that need to be considered where regardless of gender, the nominee would still have to overcome the “backroom deals” of the P5. The Great Power politics would be observed in this kind of decision making because a successful candidate would require a consensual agreement, and it is not just gender discrimination that needs to be overcome.   

Ambassador Power addressed the disappointment during her remarks at the United Nations Foundation’s Global Leadership Awards Gala in 2016. Her statements suggest that the election of Secretary-General Guterres should not be seen as a failure for equality, rather a step forward. She emphasized that the most important goal was to create an even playing field for both men and women, which was a remarkable achievement in the history of the UN. Without completely disregarding the influence of gender-bias, she also stressed the importance of numbers that are visible to the public: the inequalities in this “creaky institution.” She also highlighted the fact that the male candidates, for the first time, were “compelled to promote equality and women’s rights” (Goldberg, 2016).                          

Perhaps this is the key solution: rather than advocating for just a female leader, campaigns should advocate for leaders to champion equality and women’s rights. By having these kinds of leaders in key positions, they would have the capacity to address the gender imbalance in the UN from a bottom-up approach.  

The incumbent Secretary-General said in his acceptance speech that internal reform of the UN is needed, and he touched upon gender representation in the UN. He said that “gender parity is pivotal” and in his term as Secretary-General, he plans to recruit more women for different levels in the organization. Starting with his senior management group, Secretary-General Guterres appointed a notable number of female leaders. During his term, he intends to pave a path for women in the UN to take on senior level positions, and I hope this includes paving a path for a female successor. After all, choosing a woman to lead the United Nations would deliver a strong message of equality that nations all around the globe will notice.


1 For 7 Billion. Who We Are. Retrieved from http://www.1for7billion.org/who-we-are

1 For 7 Billion. General Assembly adopts historic resolution on improving Sec-Gen selection. Retrieved from http://www.1for7billion.org/news/2015/9/14/general-assembly-adopts-historic-resolution-on-improving-sec-gen-selection

BBC News. (2016). Why wasn’t a woman elected as UN secretary general? Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37574307

Charter of the United Nations. Retrieved from https://treaties.un.org/doc/publication/ctc/uncharter.pdf

Goldberg, M. (2016). Samantha Power: “It is not hard to understand why some people feel let down that a woman was not chosen as the next UN Secretary-General.” UN Dispatch. Retrieved from https://www.undispatch.com/samantha-power-not-hard-understand-people-feel-let-woman-not-chosen-next-un-secretary-general/

Gutteres, A. (2017) My vision for revitalizing the United Nations. Newsweek. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/2017/01/20/davos-2017-un-secretary-general-antonio-guterres-opinion-540326.html

McVeigh, T. (2016). Ban Ki-moon says woman at helm of UN would be a ‘great idea.’ The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/06/ban-ki-moon-woman-un-secretary-general

Sengupta, A. & Gladstone, R. (2016). Politics Trumps Gender in the Selection of a U.N. Leader. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/15/world/europe/united-nations-secretary-general-women.html

Terlinge, Yvonne. (2017). A Better Process, a Stronger UN Secretary-General: How Historic Change Was Forged and What Comes Next. Retrieved from https://www.ethicsandinternationalaffairs.org/2017/better-process-stronger-un-secretary-general/

United Nations Secretary-General. (2020). Senior Management Group. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/senior-management-group

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