THE BLOG
10/19/2016 03:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

After the UN Secretary General election: How the UN leadership can deliver for women's empowerment.

The votes were cast, but the result was the same. After 70 years and 8 men at the helm of the United Nations, this week the UN Security Council selected another man, Portugal's Antonio Guterres, as the successor to Ban Ki-moon as UN Secretary General. The ultimate glass ceiling of international relations has, in the words of Argentina's candidate Foreign Minister Susanna Malcorra, turned to a steel ceiling.

Yes, Antonio Guterres is a fine choice for the role.

He has impressive diplomatic experience and strong humanitarian principles following a decade as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; timely as the world needs this experience right now. Guterres' appointment is also a first as he is a former Prime Minister and the role traditionally fell to diplomats, UN insiders, or ex- Foreign Ministers.
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Photo: António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations. Reuters


However, there was a missed historic opportunity this year. After proclamations from the United States and the UK that they preferred a woman for the role, a movement from UN member states, and a high profile campaign from civil society, the 14 men and 1 woman who make up the UN Security Council reverted to type.


There was an impressive pool of woman candidates from Eastern Europe, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Argentina.

Only the old 'boys club' at the UN could say on merit that none of these outstanding women deserved the position. Croatia's then Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic withdrew early on, and was later joined by the UN's former climate chief Costa Rica's Christiana Figueres. New Zealand's popular former Prime Minister Helen Clark failed to generate enthusiasm amongst enough members and the US supported Argentine Susanna Malcorra who could never overcome British suspicion. Moldova's young and enthusiastic former Deputy Prime Minister Natalia Gherman remained to the end, while the controversial 11th hour nomination of European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who was backed by the very controversial Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, resulted in a weak finish towards the bottom of the pack. Bulgaria's initial candidate, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova fared much better in fourth and her finish showed she had the skills and diplomatic nous for the role. By the end, it was clear she was the only candidate who could have realistically been the first woman Secretary General, if her candidacy had not been fatally undermined by her own government. At this moment in time, women need solidarity and support from their fellow women leaders to achieve true breakthroughs in traditionally male dominated roles. Women need to see inspiring leadership, not actions that jeopardize the entire women's' empowerment movement. The UN gained a good leader in Antonio Guterres, and he will occupy this intensive role until 2021 at the earliest. There is still an important position to be filled, that of UN Deputy Secretary General, and Guterres has the opportunity to implement progressive changes from day one. He is a proven advocate of women's empowerment and he should implement the agenda of gender equality within the Secretariat which is long overdue. A first step would be the appointment of a woman as his Deputy Secretary General. The UN, especially the Security Council, is still a boys club; 14 out of 15 Ambassadors taking decisions at the Security Council are men. Gender balance has never been their strong point but a clear statement can be made with the position of Deputy Secretary General. Appointing a woman as Deputy would not sooth every hurt felt by the feminist movement which has championed a woman Secretary General. But it would be a step towards giving women leaders the platform needed to break through the 'steel ceiling'.

A woman Deputy would give much needed support, guidance and vision to the Secretary General in his effort to build a better and more inclusive world.

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Photo:The head of Unesco, Irina Bokova. Fred Dufour/AFP

We should not forget that the UN's core purpose is international peace and security, and women are at the cornerstone of peace around the world. From Hillary Clinton to British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the world has strong women leaders aplenty, but the UN still represents the last redoubt of inequality. The Deputy Secretary General position should be seen as a positive platform for the organization and for the billions of women around the world - a leadership role of inspiration and aspiration.

And that's something the UN, and the international community, needs more than ever today.