Could the next Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), the highest position in the largest intergovernmental organization, be our very own former prime minister, Helen Clark?
As the Administrator of the United Nation’s Development Programme (UNDP), which is considered the third highest position in the UN, Clark has become commonly discussed as a potential candidate for the upcoming rotation of the Secretary-General in 2016.
The position has conventionally rotated by region, to represent all parts of the globe, which may not work in Clark’s favour as it is assumed to be Eastern Europe’s turn next. However, with the current tensions over Ukraine and Syria, finding an Eastern European leader who will be accepted by all five permanent members of the Security Council – United States, Britain, France, China and Russia – who hold the power to veto any candidate, may become a challenge. In this case Clark could become a prominent contender as it could be argued if not Eastern Europe, then it is Western Europe’s turn, which New Zealand is categorized under.
A larger barrier, however, may be her gender, as no female has yet assumed the Secretary-General or has even been openly considered for the position. This may initially seem unexpected as the UN is seen as a champion for women’s rights globally, yet has the UN forgotten about its own women? Yet her gender may also be an advantage is the UN is looking to portray itself as a center of women’s rights.
Where are the women in the UN?
Cynthia Enloe famously asked “where are the women” to highlight the relevance of gender in social, economic and political structures of society. If we ask this about the United Nations, marginalization of women beyond the position of Secretary General alone becomes evident.
In terms of employment, women are overrepresented in the “junior professional” P-1 and P-2 grades, within the lower ranking, administrative and support positions. Yet women’s representation decreases with increasing prominence and authority associated with a role. Women are not equally represented in any ‘professional’ category which is not considered ‘junior,’ with increasing exclusion of women correlating with increases of the grade in the professional position itself, P-3, P-4 or P-5. The still more senior position of ‘Director’s’ display even greater exclusion of women, again with women showing less representation within the higher ranking, D-2, director positions than the lower ranking, D-1, positions. The ‘ungraded’ section, the very highest positions of the UN, including the Secretary-General, top management, and senior staff, displays the greatest exclusion of women. This is the situation even after decades of initiatives by the UN to have women equally represented across all sectors.
A factor the graph does not display is the type of power women have been assumed to be capable of. Women who are promoted to higher ranks are concentrated in the ‘economic and social’ fields as opposed to the ‘political and security’ fields. Women leading UN bodies, for example, are appointed to agencies concerned with ‘feminine’ issues, such as development, the environment and education, as opposed to prioritized and powerful ‘masculine’ bodies concerned with diplomacy and security. This can be seen in agencies women currently head such as the United Nation’s Development Programme, World Health Organization, World Food Programme, International Monetary Fund, UN Women, and the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture. Women are also underrepresented among diplomats, ambassadors and within high level political processes.
This is why it is important to support the many outstanding women capable of becoming the next Secretary-General, who otherwise would not be recognized. The UN still in many ways reflects a patriarchal organization, hierarchically ordering ‘masculine’ values and behaviors over ‘feminine,’ and men and women alike. If the UN is to take women’s concerns across the globe seriously, maybe it must first recognize the importance and capabilities of its own women.
Many have argued that we should not decide the next Secretary General on gender but capability – who is the most capable for the position. But this forgets that the position already is being deciding on due to gender. It is highly unlikely to assume there has never been a female capable of this position yet no female has been appointed Secretary General.
It also forgets that the position is currently not decided on capability but rotates among regions. This is generally accepted as a positive as it brings diversity and perspective to the position. So why might a gendered rotation not have this same effect?
(NOTE: this blog post was for a class assignment. It has ended up getting a lot of traffic and It’s making me uneasy because I highly dislike Helen Clark and can’t be bothered changing the post to sound less supportive of her. I mainly wrote it after watching the Paul Henry video below and facepalming really hard. This is not a defence or support of Clark. This is more just to point out the UN is a patriarchal organization, among being an oppressive institution in other ways. This blog post is also really problematic because it naturalizes imperialism and discusses gender as binary. I wrote it when I was first getting into feminism so its not super tight)