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Breaking the blue glass ceiling: The tenth UN Secretary-General
What having a female UN Secretary-General means for “We the peoples”
9 May 2021

13 December 2021. At long last, the blue glass ceiling has shattered. Millions watched as she was sworn in, long overdue, her hand on a copy of the UN Charter, the first female in history to take the oath of office to become the tenth United Nations Secretary-General. The moment of her inauguration was captured with her daughter looking up at the stage of the General Assembly chamber as she took the reigns to lead the UN at a time of growing global turmoil. Making the front pages of newspapers across the globe from Mali to Malaysia, her election empowered mothers and daughters across the world to see their future.

The image traveled fast, much like the viral photo of the little girl captivated by the striking portrait of Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, painted by Baltimore artist Amy Sherald. In the years ahead, little girls would come to UN Headquarters and see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of a great intergovernmental institution. Our Secretary-General knows all too well of the impact that this will have on their lives, because she was one of those girls.

For many women, including transgender women, who have been marginalized and wonder if they are welcome and if they belong, she shows them that they certainly do belong, including at the highest levels of leadership in the world. She ratifies the slogan that the United Nations is our world. It is for all of us.

A transparent, inclusive selection process had become the anecdote to the blue glass ceiling. Despite reappointment appearing a foregone conclusion at the start of the election process, particularly as every Secretary-General since 1961 had won a second term, except for Boutros Boutros-Ghali who was vetoed by the United States via a 1996 decision, the threat of a “coronation” swiftly passed. Equipped with the knowledge of what we had collectively learned during the COVID-19 pandemic about the power of women’s leadership, Member States acknowledged that time was of the essence and put forward strong female candidates.

In so doing, they joined a chorus of voices insisting that the selection of the next UN Secretary-General involve a competitive process of choosing the strongest leader at a critical time in the life of the UN. As the world began to implement strong recovery plans from the COVID-19 pandemic with a firm focus on addressing concerning reports of increases in domestic violence, child marriage, girls dropping out of school and a multitude of other examples of how women and girls had been disparately impacted by the pandemic, now more than ever Member States knew that the global pandemic must be responded to with historic change, at a time when the world will benefit most from having a woman as UN Secretary-General.

While several countries, including China, Germany, and the United Kingdom, had endorsed a second term for the former incumbent before female candidates had emerged, the presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council had finally called for Member States to nominate strong female candidates, as they had done in 2015. Their calls followed those of Honduras Ambassador to the UN, Mary Elizabeth Flores Flake, who had gracefully led the way by writing to her fellow diplomats in February 2021 urging States to look genuinely at their commitments to the UN and to present female candidates.

Following these calls for action, female candidates came out to run against the incumbent, nominated by Member States in demonstration of their firm commitment to gender equity. While an incumbency had complicated the process, transparency nonetheless prevailed, signaling a sea change, in part propelled by the 2015 reforms, mainstream demands for greater inclusivity and the recent aftershocks of an unprecedented election process for the ICC Prosecutor.

Overnight, 71 year old António Guterres’ name and bio listed on the official candidates’ page for one of the most powerful jobs in the world gained some company. His credentials were joined, one by one, by those of qualified women and concerns that the process may be so pre-determined as to scare off strong candidates began to dissipate. This brought gender diversity and inclusivity to the candidate pool, while Arora Akanksha, a female staff member had indeed previously announced her candidacy in February 2021 without formal Member State endorsement, drawing attention, yet again, to the lack of women in the role.

The current election was the first under the 2015 resolution where an incumbent sought reelection. Under Article 97 of the Charter, our Secretary-General was appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council, as the term “he shall be the chief administrative officer of the Organization” swiftly became obsolete.

Next year will be a critical one in the life of the UN as the world continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring rectification of the weakened social protection systems that pushed many women and girls into extreme poverty, further widening the gender poverty gap. Equal parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and CEO, our new Secretary-General is a symbol of UN ideals and a spokesperson for the interests of the world’s peoples, in particular those most impacted by the global pandemic. Female leadership in the recovery process will contribute to the success and durability of recovery plans everywhere, in stark contrast to a process that excludes women or tokenizes their participation.

Best equipped to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, she is a tangible embodiment of UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Five and is committed to reinforcing the UN’s human rights pillar at a time when many governments are actively working to weaken it. While the world faces a crisis in women’s rights, following the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, with tens of millions more women and girls pushed into poverty and child marriage, SDG Goal Five will become a reality by 2030. The UN stands poised to lead the world into recovery from the pandemic through a gender equitable Organization that starts with gender parity from the top down. While the mere presence of a woman at the top of the UN hierarchy will not automatically achieve gender equality, or make the UN a more female-friendly environment, it is certainly a start, in an era of urgently needed transformational change.

Internally, female UN personnel have high hopes for our new Secretary-General and her platform to tackle sexual harassment and abuse within the UN workplace, addressing the lack of independence and accountability gap within the UN internal justice system. Member States monitoring and supporting this work as part of their commitment to ending violence against women will ensure that it is not demoted and that “zero tolerance” becomes actionable and further extends to online sexual harassment and abuse, which have increased rapidly since the onset of the pandemic.

The UN will lead by example. Despite the principle of equality for all, regardless of sex, being enshrined in the Charter of the Organization upon its founding in 1945, it took seventy-five years for gender equality to be advanced through the selection of its own leader. This precedent was nearly achieved in 2016, when seven prominent women were in the running. Yet future female appointments will no longer be treated as unprecedented, nor as a civil society campaign platform. They will be the norm, as the world will see women in charge no longer “for the first time” in the UN’s history.

Member States will live up to the commitments made in the Beijing Platform for Action over a quarter of a century ago by nominating women for senior leadership posts who will promote gender equality, including within the UN itself. The world’s female leaders will be further visible to generations of young women. We will relate to what we see and what we experience.

Representation matters at the global level, too. Five years ago, walking through UN Headquarters in New York, looking up at the train of neatly positioned portraits of the former UN Secretaries General, from Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarskjöld, to Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, passing by portrait to portrait, man to man, as a young female staff member I was struck by the visual display of our Organization’s leadership since its inception.

At the nexus of power, the predecessors as Secretary-General beam down not only at UN personnel, but at the world’s citizens and visiting children alike, who come through UN Headquarters eager to learn more about the world’s most powerful intergovernmental organization. Now they will no longer be faced with a miniature manifestation of the patriarchy, but with a United Nations that is a true reflection of a world that isn’t just male and never has been.

Their reflection instead will be solely on proven leadership, managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills. The image they will see will be an embodiment of the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity, and a firm commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations. For this is what governs at the helm of the most important international body we have.

A photo of Parker Curry looking up at Michelle Obama’s portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.
* Philippa Greer is a Legal Officer at the United Nations.
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