Selecting a new UN Secretary-General
Campaigns to select the future UN Secretary-General have proposed a range of changes to improve the process of selection and to avoid the selection of candidates that are second or even third best choices. While some campaign groups have dedicated their efforts entirely to the promotion of a woman Secretary-General, others - like 1for7billion - insist on merit first, gender second and region third.
While the goal to find the best candidate is indeed important, the relationship between gender and merit is far less clear-cut as this ranking would suggest: Is this a choice between the best man or a woman? And can a woman ever be the best ‘man’? What constitutes merit, or what UN member states understand merit to be, is central to this question.
In the first instance we can define merit by analysing the educational and professional qualifications and experiences that Secretaries-General and other executive heads in the UN system bring to the job: Seven of eight Secretaries-General held postgraduate degrees. All had careers in diplomacy, the civil service or politics, with several holding the position of Foreign Secretary. Most had been part of the ‘UN circle’ by either holding roles such as that of permanent representative or Under-Secretary-General (Kofi Annan, Javier Perez de Cuellar).
With these kind of qualifications the Secretaries-General represent the circle of UN leaders fairly accurately. Of course, across the UN system we can observe greater diversity among executive heads as scientists lead agencies with scientific portfolios and many previously elected presidents, prime ministers, secretaries of state & foreign affairs, diplomats and academics mingle to create a global elite.1
The candidate list for 2016
How do proposed candidates measure up? The confirmed candidates listed by 1for7billion fit the bill well: All hailing from Eastern Europe, the question of regional representation is fully addressed, while their professional experiences match those in previous UN leaders. Interestingly, on close inspection the criteria, which 1for7billion set out as ambitious targets to avoid yet another compromise candidates, are met as minimum requirements by all candidates. Indeed, their formal qualifications and experiences outshine, if not outperforms previous SGs.
If minimum criteria are met, any selection of suitable candidates will, of course, depend on the little bit of extra experience or character that each individual candidate brings to the table or their performance of the day of interview. It is here that 1for7billion’s call for an improved selection process through scrutiny by the General Assembly will help in determining ‘the best’ candidate.
But what does ‘the best candidate’ mean when definitions of merit, appropriate behaviour and attitudes remain deeply gendered?
Women continue to face numerous barriers to leadership roles,2 including questions regarding their suitability. Unsurprisingly, the small number of women in the UN system were chosen on the basis of on average higher qualifications than male executive heads (doctorate holders: 52% women, 36% men), are more likely to have been elected politicians (30%) than men (16%) and, unlike men (15%) never emerge from the diplomatic service. Moreover, women candidates fit a much narrower age range on selection (40-64) than their male counterparts where both well-connected princes in their thirties and septuagenarians have been appointed to UN positions.
Beyond this, women face additional obstacles as key issues for the Secretary-General, such as war and security, are considered masculine and “moral authority, independence, integrity and courage” as well as “moral, intellectual and political leadership” (see 1for7billion) are more easily associated with masculine traits than with women’s abilities.
UN commitment to gender equality
In the face of such obstacles women candidates, despite meeting the minimum criteria specified by 1for7billion will find it much harder to be ‘the best candidate’. Thus, the UN, that is its member states, should remember that not only has the it in its Resolution 1325 encouraged member states, regional and international institutions to increase women’s participation at all levels of decision-making, it has also since 1996 committed itself as an employer to achieve gender equality, calling on member states to "identif[y] and regularly submit... more women candidates and … encourag[e] women to apply for posts within the Secretariat, the specialized agencies and the regional commissions" (UN General Assembly, Resolution by the General Assembly on the Improvement of the Status of Women, Res. A/RES/51/67, 31 January 1997).
Indeed, member states and campaigners should be reminded that perhaps the most appropriate form of leadership - one that balances the subservience of the ‘secretary’ with the potentially over-enthusiastic leadership of the ‘general’ - is that which Kille3 called the ‘strategist’. Thus far only identified as the leadership exercised by Kofi Annan, this cooperative, smart leadership style bears close resemblance to the type of leadership style most often associated with women leaders.
1 Haack, Kirsten (2015) “Global elites. A profile of executive heads leading UN agencies”, unpublished manuscript.
2 see Haack, Kirsten (2014) “Gaining access to the ‘world’s largest men’s club’: women leading UN agencies”, Global Society 28 (2): 217-240.
3 Kille, Kent J. (2006) From Manager to Visionary: The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Basingstoke: Palsgrave Macmillan