“The most impossible job in the world” may finally go to a woman this year

The world is quite literally watching.
The world is quite literally watching.
Image: Mexico Presidency/Handout via Reuters
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While most people in the US remain focused on the upcoming presidential election, there’s another important governing body that will soon be selecting a new leader. The United Nations, the international organization with a mandate to address some of the world’s biggest humanitarian issues, will elect a new secretary general to replace Ban Ki-moon in 2016. And this year, “the most impossible job in the world” could finally go to a woman.

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark announced her candidacy for secretary-general on April 4, joining former Croatia prime minister Vesna Pusic, director general of UNESCO Irina Bokova from Bulgaria, and deputy prime minister of Moldova Natalia Gherman. A win by any one of these women would be a historic first for the 71-year-old organization.

According to the job description on the UN website and official charter, the UN requires the secretary-general be “equal parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and CEO” and serve as the “Chief Administrative Officer of the organization.” He or she must rub elbows with world leaders, serve as a moderator when international conflict arises, and bring any issues that threaten international peace to the UN Security Council.

The position also comes with an influential bully pulpit. Past secretary generals have used their position to lobby for gender equality and work with world leaders to serve as mediators in the middle of global conflicts. Former secretary-general Kofi Annan won the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the UN in 2001 for its work building “a better organized and more peaceful world.”

Given the organization’s egalitarian mandate, the UN’s struggles with gender equality are particularly stark. In a global organization that has made achieving gender equality one of its main priorities, why not lead by example?

And yet, the world remains a decidedly patriarchal place, politically speaking. As of Jan. 2015, there were only 19 female heads of state or government actively serving the world, according to UN Women. In the past 50 years, 63 out of 142 nations studied by the World Economic Forum have had female government leaders. But in most of those instances women were in power for less than four years, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, studies confirm that women still face an uphill battle to obtain senior leadership positions in many industries. Only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs in the US are female, according to Fast Company.

But female leaders are not simply figureheads. Indeed, studies show that women make better leaders than men when evaluated on a variety of metrics. In one study, conducted by the Harvard Business Review, 7,280 leaders from a variety of organizations were evaluated on the 16 competency skills that HBR believes are most important for leadership effectiveness based on years of research. Women scored higher than men in 12 of the 16 skills.

The study, further explained in Business Insider, also revealed that women improve their leadership skills as they age. While most men over 40 stop asking for feedback and taking initiative, women continue to ask for feedback and work on self-improvement later in their careers. The candidates for secretary-general are all experts in their respective fields, having previously served as heads of state, members of parliament or leaders within the UN itself. It would seem that in this context, women might actually make better leaders than their male counterparts.

But leadership roles are not based solely on merit. As a case in point, the selection of the secretary-general is an opaque process that takes part largely behind closed doors. The Security Council, made up of five permanent members and 10 elected members, appoints a number of candidates. The General Assembly, the 193-member governing body of the United Nations made up of representatives from every member nation, must then vote on those candidates. A two-thirds majority is required to win the election.

While the Security Council selects candidates, the Council’s five permanent members have veto power to any individual choice. Of these five—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States—only France and the UK have been led by women in the modern political era. (We’re including French prime minister Édith Cresson in this list, although technically she co-led France alongside president François Mitterrand.)

Then there’s the UN’s unique system of quirks. According to the Financial Times, the UN has an “informal rotation system” between regions. This election, it’s Eastern Europe’s turn to take the helm. Three of the four women and seven of the eight total candidates running represent eastern European countries. Irina Bokova from Bulgaria is one of the perceived favorites, according to the Economist. She currently runs UNESCO, a sizable UN agency that focuses on education, science and cultural reforms, so she’s well-versed in the organization’s bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, in an attempt to make the process more democratic and transparent, the UN is changing things up (slightly) this year. As part of this change, a website listing every candidate’s name, resume, and application is available online. Each candidate has also been required to submit a 2,000-word essay listing their qualifications and motivations. There are a number of public-facing events scheduled for the campaign, including a question and answer debate session in the UN Trusteeship Council on Apr. 13 where UN members, nonprofits, business, and other organizations asked candidates questions in person.

Reforms to the election process, and the presence of such a diverse field, are both steps in the right direction. The timing also seems rather ripe. ”Maybe 10 or 20 years ago, it may not have worked because women around the world needed time to build on their empowerment to the point where they are ready to lead,” Jean Krasno, a professor at City College of New York’s Colin Powell School and chair of The Campaign to Elect a Woman U.N. Secretary General, told NBC News. ”It can no longer be argued that there are no qualified women.”

But, as always, awareness of a problem is not the same as fixing it. The United Nations has a chance to make a strong statement this year. But that doesn’t mean the stories organization will act on it.