It Is Time for a Woman to Take the Helm at the UN

05/22/2015 04:27 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

Hillary Rodham Clinton's announcement for entering the race to become the first female President of the United States has seen increasing calls to address a critical gender imbalance in world leadership. This campaign, which stands a very good chance of success, is a pivotal moment in the history of women's empowerment.

Meanwhile, another political process of historical significance is underway, but is receiving less publicity: the selection of the next UN Secretary General.

It is an issue of such importance that I too feel compelled to act and launch SheUNited, an initiative calling for Ban Ki-moon's successor to be a woman.

In its 70-year history the United Nations has had eight secretaries-general drawn from a broad cross-section of the world's nations and cultures. Although four out of the first five appointees were Western Europeans, the U.N. started taking active steps to correct that imbalance from the 1980s onwards. There have now been two secretaries-general from Africa, two from Asia and one from Latin America. Yet despite the U.N.'s efforts to be more representative and inclusive, half of humanity still remains excluded to this day. This because every candidate selected to fill the U.N.'s top job so far has been a man.

The growing demand for the U.N. to address that omission by appointing a woman in 2016 is not a matter of tokenism. This is acquainted since the U.N. itself has stated as much on countless occasions.

In reports and resolutions over the previous decades and with increased attention to women empowerment the U.N. and its agencies have advanced the case that strengthening the role and status of women is an effective tool for promoting international security and human development globally. Those tasked with implementing the U.N.'s agenda have come to realize that gender equality is not about political correctness; it is about creating a better world by utilizing its human potential to the full and by tapping the largest yet inadequately used reservoir of talent in the world, women.

Fifteen years ago the Security Council's landmark Resolution 1325 was the first time the U.N. formally acknowledged the central importance of women to its work, specifically for the maintenance and the achievement of international peace and security. Noting that women account for a disproportionate number of those affected by conflict, either as refugees or the victims of violence, it called for them to be given a full and equal role in conflict prevention and resolution. Greater decision-making power for women would confront warring parties with the full social impact of war and create a new dynamic for peace.

The empowerment of women has also become a crucial to the U.N.'s development strategy, both as an end in itself and as a means of increasing prosperity and creating stronger societies. A survey stated that in 2014 women were controlling 15 trillion US dollars in spending, by 2028 BCG states that women will be responsible for 2/3 of spending worldwide.

Experience shows that improving female participation rates in education, work and politics has huge spillover benefits in terms of growth, productivity, knowledge, health and public policy. There is growing evidence that women are more likely to reinvest their profits and transform economies and society. Closing the gender gap strengthens the skills base and spending power of developed and developing economies alike. It encourages governments to focus on the things that drive human development. Studies indicate that greater political representation for women correlates with the improved provision of essential services, including clean drinking water, childcare and education.

However, one thing missing in all these has been a willingness of the U.N. itself to lead by example. If stronger representation for women can be such a positive force for change in the U.N.'s member states, the same must surely apply to the U.N. itself. It is true that women now run some of the U.N.'s most important agencies and that more than a third of the countries sitting on the Security Council are represented there by women. But only 24 of the U.N.'s 193 member states has a woman as head of state or government and only one of the five permanent members of the Security Council -- the United Kingdom -- has ever been led by a woman.

Things are gradually changing for the better. The proportion of women parliamentarians globally has nearly doubled in the last twenty years from 11.3% to 22%. As well the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton is establishing a significant milestone for women in politics yet the pace of change is still very slow. At the current rate, it will still take decades to achieve anything close to real equality. It is of vital importance for the International community to create a powerful catalyst for change by choosing a woman as the next Secretary-General of the United Nations.

There is certainly no shortage of talented and well-qualified women candidates able to take on the role. There are several from Latin America, including Colombian Foreign Minister, María Ángela Holguín Cuéllar and Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet. Two very capable women currently running major UN agencies -- Irina Bokova of UNESCO and Helen Clark of UNDP -- enjoy great international support and are being widely discussed. Irina Bokova has the advantage of coming from Eastern Europe, the region that should secure the job under the principle of geographic rotation. With a candidate pool this strong, there can be no reasonable excuse for looking elsewhere.

The decision of whom to select as the world's top diplomat is one with huge symbolic and practical significance. It represents an opportunity for the UN to live up to its own declared principles and give real global leadership to the cause of gender equality. But it may not happen unless women and men alike worldwide speak out in support of change.

A number of groups such as 1 for 7 billion and Equality Now Time for a Woman campaign have already voiced their support for the next UN Secretary General to be a woman. I too want to add my voice to this debate, and to encourage others to do the same. That is why last week -- at the Harvard Women's Leadership Board at the Harvard Kennedy School, in front of 100 of the world's most eminent female leaders −- I presented the SheUNited campaign.

If there is one thing we know from our past, it's that change only comes to those who demand it and as the founder of the World Economic Forum Professor Klaus Schwab stated: The lower the gap difference the higher the productivity.