Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Will a woman finally head the United Nations?

According to those in the know, the next UN secretary-general could be female Image: REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Could 2016 be the year we see a woman take leadership of one of the world’s most important institutions?

No, this isn’t a reference to the US presidential elections, although there’s still a good chance Hillary Clinton will become the first woman to lead the world’s largest economy. This is about another high-powered position that’s becoming vacant at the end of the year: secretary-general of the United Nations.

On 31 December, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s term ends, and many people think it’s high time a woman took on the role. “To have a female UN leader would be a historic change,” Gillian Sorensen, the UN’s former assistant secretary-general, told Elle magazine. “It would send an important message to the world, and it would embody the statement in the UN charter that refers to the deep commitment to the equality of women and men.”

Indeed, while gender equality is embedded in the work of the UN, its eight leaders since it was founded in 1945 have all been men. Even outside of the top spot, the UN hasn’t quite achieved the right balance: women hold only a quarter of the highest positions in the secretariat.

But that might be set to change this year. Already, 42 countries – nearly a quarter of all nation states – have declared their support for a female UN secretary-general. They seem to have the public on their side. In November, the Guardian asked its readers whether it’s time for a woman to head the UN. An overwhelming majority – 92% – of respondents said yes.

As with other leadership roles at international organizations, the position of UN secretary-general tends to rotate between regions. So far, we’ve had men from Western Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. Following this informal rotation system, the next candidate will more than likely come from Eastern Europe. According to those in the know, the two women to keep a close eye on are both from Bulgaria: Irina Bokova and Kristalina Georgieva.

Bokova, a former Bulgarian parliamentarian who oversaw her country’s integration into the EU, is currently head of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural arm. She is thought by many to be the front-runner for the top job, although UNESCO’s decision to admit Palestine as a full member, and the political fallout it caused, could yet go against her. The Harvard-educated diplomat is passionate about a broad range of global issues, including education, cultural terrorism and the impact of the digital revolution.


Georgieva is currently with the European Commission, but has in the past served as vice-president at the World Bank. As an economist, her role at the European Commission has largely been related to budgetary issues, but she has also been tasked with ensuring women fill 40% of Commission leadership positions by 2019, and has been particularly vocal about the refugee crisis.


It’s expected that the list of candidates will be finalized next month. In the meantime, all eyes will be on Turtle Bay, home of the UN’s headquarters in New York. The decisions made there could be felt far beyond, says Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland: “In women’s and girls’ eyes, the symbolic empowerment of a woman top official, with responsibilities in peace, stability and development, is fundamental. It has a great psychological impact.”

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