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The chance of a woman running the United Nations just got smaller

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Vacant seat.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This could be the year for women’s power. Europe’s two largest economies are led by women and the US could elect its first female president in November.

But what about the United Nations? Could the UN elect its first female Secretary General, when current Secretary General Ban Ki-moon steps down at the end of 2016?

It doesn’t seem likely, based on the results women got in the first Security Council straw poll, held July 21. Although the Secretary General ultimately gets appointed by the General Assembly, that is usually just a formal endorsement of the candidate recommended by the Security Council—so that each of the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, UK and US) have veto option.

The results of the straw poll weren’t initially made public, but they quickly leaked. During the poll, the 15 members (five permanent, and ten elected) can express one of three positions about a candidate: encourage, discourage or no opinion. The results showed only the total votes received by candidates, without disclosing how individual members voted.

According to the leaked results (pdf), former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres led the poll, with 12 members encouraging his candidacy, three expressing no opinion, and none discouraging it. On the other end of the spectrum is Vesna Pusić, a woman who is Croatia’s former minister of foreign affairs, with two encouragement, two “no opinion,” and eleven discouragement.

Of the women, Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), made it closest to the top, coming in third (tying with two male candidates) with nine votes of encouragement and four of discouragement.

The next-best polling female candidate was Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), who came in fifth and also received five votes of discouragement, followed by Argentina’s foreign minister Susana Malcorra, who came in sixth. Both Malcorra and Clark had been flagged as favorites in the race.

Speaking at the International Peace Institute, Malcorra said she was surprised by the results. “Many women candidates with experience and track record too far from top,” she commented.

The other women candidates were Christiana Figueres, who had led the UN’s convention on climate change and Natalia Gherman, Moldova’s former minister of foreign affairs.

Leading up to the vote members had expressed support for appointing a female Secretary General.  But no weight in the voting was apparently given to affirmative action. Matthew Rycroft, UK ambassador to the UN who had previously strongly advocated the need for a female winner, said heading to the vote that he would not veto a man.

Except for US representative Samantha Power, all members of the Security Council (which comprises of the member countries ambassadors to the UN) are men.

Photo courtesy of the United Nations
Find the odd one out.

While this initial poll has no official value—and more candidates could still join the race—it does give a strong indication of where the vote is headed, given the relatively large number of discouragement votes received for women.

The day before the informal poll, an open letter addressed to the Security Council by the campaign to elect a female Secretary General urged that the Council select a woman, a choice that “would send a signal of transformation and would be an important step in correcting a gender bias of many decades.” The letter was signed by several current or former senior UN officials as well as academics and UN experts.

The campaign expressed disappointment in the results, and called for a continued pressure to get a woman elected. A second straw poll has been announced for Aug. 5.

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