Campaigners in and out of the United Nations had hoped that for the first time in 70 years, the United Nations would be lead by a female Secretary General. The #She4SG campaign emerged to support this cause, and a coalition of member states formed to advance this cause of selecting the first female Secretary General.
But after months of debate, discussions and diplomacy a man was selected: Antonio Guterres.
In remarks at the United Nations Foundation’s Global Leadership Awards gala last night, Samantha Power for the first time spoke directly to the disappointment that has been expressed by activists hoping for a female Secretary General. And in so doing, she gave a rousing endorsement of Guterres while simultaneously addressing rampant gender imbalance at the United Nations.
Here’s the relevant portion of the remarks, including the remarkable fact that of the veto wielding members of the security council only the United States has ever had a female ambassador to the United Nations.
Many of us, including – I presume – some of you here tonight, had high hopes that the UN would select the first-ever woman Secretary-General. (Applause.) A few high hopes. Having had the privilege of serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN for the last three and a half years, I certainly understand why so many people wanted to see this happen. Just consider the numbers at the UN in 2016. Of the 193 UN Member States in the UN, only 37 have women as their permanent representatives. That is less than one in five. Or consider the fact that of the five countries that hold a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – only one of those five countries, the U.S., has ever appointed a woman permanent representative. (Emphasis added)
Now, these numbers matter. Because what people see when they look at who is sitting in the Security Council, or in the UN General Assembly, or behind the placard that says UN Secretary-General – helps set their expectations for what’s possible. What people see matters. But the flipside is also true. When young women and girls drop by the Security Council today on their UN tours, they see a circle of men with a single outlier, who happens to be me, for now. And they start – potentially, anyway – to internalize that as normal. We don’t want girls – or boys, for that matter – to see it as normal for women to not have a seat at that table, or any other table. (Applause.) We want them to see that horseshoe and any similar table for what it is: an imbalance that must be corrected. We want them to see it like the group of kids I played soccer with not that long ago in Mexico City – kids who were taking part in a program that builds the confidence and self-esteem of girls from neighborhoods ravaged by violence and domestic abuse. I asked those girls to guess how many of the 193 ambassadors at the UN were women. A hundred, one said. Eighty, another guessed. When I told them that there were just 37 women, they gasped collectively. One girl exclaimed, “That’s crazy!” (Laughter.) She’s right. That’s crazy! We need more people to recognize that – and to change it. And this will come in national cultures and national systems, and then it will take form at the United Nations, which is a pretty decent reflection of where things stand around the world.
Of course, it’s not just numbers that are the problem. It’s also the hidden and, at times, overt discrimination. I want to just give you one example. The former Permanent Representative of Jordan to the UN, a dear friend of mine, Dina Kawar, recalled not that long ago that when she would discuss the Secretary-General race with her colleagues, they would say – many of them – that they really hoped to see a woman Secretary-General. But then they would add the caveat, almost inevitably, “but just make sure that she is competent.” “As long as she is competent,” they added. Now, what this is implicitly suggesting is that one has to be extra careful of all the incompetent women diplomats out there who had coasted to positions of authority without skills or know-how, and who somehow might slip through the cracks and become UN Secretary-General. (Laughter.) What are the odds of that? We wondered, Dina and I and a few others, why our colleagues never felt the need to add this qualifier when talking about the male candidates in the race.
The UN is a thoroughly fascinating place to work – in part because, as I stressed, it often reflects the injustices and inequalities out in the real world – a world in which it is still acceptable in some places for parents to take their daughters out of middle school, and force them to marry men three or four times her age; a world where some countries continue to have laws that prevent women and girls from inheriting land or other property; and a world where women are almost always paid less than men for doing the same work.
Against this backdrop – a relatively bleak backdrop that I’ve offered – it is not hard to understand why some people feel let down that a woman was not chosen as the next UN Secretary-General.
Nevertheless, I think all of us need to step back and look at what has just taken place at the creaky institution of the United Nations. Some have been actually quick to conclude that the wrong choice to lead the UN was made – simply because among António Guterres’ many extraordinary qualities, one of them is not that he is a woman. (Laughter.) Others have claimed that members of the UN Security Council made a cynical choice rooted in discrimination against the women candidates who were in the race.
The problem with these assumptions is that they risk replicating a similar bias to the ones that we are working very hard to eliminate – we cannot judge the suitability of a candidate based on his or her gender. (Applause.)
An important goal for us – and I know many of you out there – in this race was to do everything in our power to create for the first time in the long history of the UN a level playing field, where men and women could compete on equal footing – based on the qualities that are critical to being an effective Secretary-General operating in an increasingly complex, violent, and unstable world – qualities like impartiality, experience, judgment, management, skills, independence. And I think we made important strides this year in that direction. Seven of the 13 candidates for Secretary-General were women – that is more than double the number of women who had ever been considered for the position of Secretary-General in the previous 70 years put together. The selection process was more inclusive and more transparent than any that has come before, though there certainly remains significant room for improvement. And for the very first time, interestingly, the male candidates in the race – all candidates – felt compelled to set out concrete proposals for how they would promote women’s rights and equality if they were elected.
Now – let’s be real here – were some countries’ votes influenced by gender bias? Almost certainly, yes. Would some of the candidates who were not chosen – including some of the women candidates – have made an excellent Secretary-General? Absolutely.
After all, the person chosen to become the world’s next Secretary-General, though, brings a remarkable record. He is the first person ever chosen to have served as both a head of state and to have run a UN agency, which he did for 10 years. He is very unusual, António Guterres, in being equally comfortable hauling heads of state, summoning them to their better angels, and sitting on the dirt floor of a tent in a refugee camp. I think the scorecard the Secretary-General-elect uses for himself is also refreshingly simple. If you hear him talk, he asks now about his past performance – and he will ask, I know, about his performance as Secretary-General – simply, have I used my position to improve the lives of real people, particularly the most vulnerable among us? That’s a very important question. (Emphasis added).