Just days from taking over from Mr. Ban Ki-moon on January 1st, the incoming UN Secretary-General, Mr. Antonio Guterres is putting together his team of senior UN staff. This week, he appointed Mrs. Amina Mohammed, Nigeria’s current environment minister, as Assistant Secretary-General. Reaffirming this commitment to appoint more women to senior positions, Mr. Guterres also named Mrs. Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, a senior Brazilian foreign ministry official, as his new chief of staff and appointed the head of his transition team, South Korean Mrs. Kyung-wha Kang to a new position as his special policy advisor.
Calling these positions “the foundation of my team”, the incoming Secretary-General said "I am happy to count on the efforts of these three highly competent women, whom I have chosen for their strong backgrounds in global affairs, development, diplomacy, human rights and humanitarian action."
While the former head of the UN Refugee Agency and prime minister of Portugal will become the ninth male to take up the position that has never been filled by a woman - Mr. Guterres won the race for the position as one of 12 candidates, seven of them women - he has made it a core priority to improve the gender balance in UN senior positions. When he was sworn in, he pledged to reach gender parity in UN’s senior levels within his five year term. This would dramatically change the current gender (im)balance among the leadership cadre of the United Nations. As of June this year, only 17 out of the 79 UN under-secretaries generals were women and less than 25 % of UN’s leadership positions more broadly are currently filled by women.
During the selection process for the successor to current Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, Colombia led the formation of a “U.N. Group of Friends for Woman Secretary-General” with 66 of UN’s 193 member states advocating that it was time the UN be headed by a woman. These countries in this informal will continue to work for more women in UN top positions under the new name “The Group of Friends for Gender Parity.”
Although not a woman, the incoming Secretary-General shares this mission. When Mr. Guterres was sworn in on 19 December, he pledged to reach gender parity among senior leadership within his five-year term. However, several previous commitments to greater gender equality within the UN - an organisation that advocates women’s equal opportunities - have not led to the desired results. Already 20 years back, in 1996, the UN General Assembly, consisting of all member states, called on the then-Secretary General to ensure full gender equality, including that women should hold 50 % of all managerial and decision-making positions by the year 2000.
According to the New York University Center on International Cooperation, 83 % of all new appointments at the UN last year went to male candidates. This even represents an improvement compared to 2015 when men held a full 92 % of these positions.
When Mr. Guterres took the oath of office, he once again stressed his intentions of providing equal opportunities, saying “I have long been aware of the hurdles women face in society, in the family and in the workplace just because of their gender (...) The protection and the empowerment of women and girls will continue to be a priority commitment for me.”
Mr. Guterres has committed to appoint more women to senior UN positions. He recently named Mrs. Amina Mohammed of Nigeria (see the photo) his Assistant Secretary-General (Photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten).
Nevertheless, while Mr. Guterres consistently has emphasised gender equality as an important priority, some analyses suggest that he has less power to achieve this progressive agenda than the title of his position suggests. As part of reaching an agreement among the five permanent members of the Security Council on the new UN chief, promises may have been made about some of the organisation’s most coveted senior positions. And even if no title has any man’s name on them yet, the Secretary-General will be the target for intense lobbying efforts from powerful member states that can invoke their capital’s financial support to an economically challenged UN as leverage.
How much of this lobbying will be on behalf of female candidates remains to be seen, but one analyst and former UN senior official, Karin Landgren concludes that “as long as he can be lobbied, senior appointments can become a currency between the secretary general and member states,” in which case the principle of diversity Mr. Guterres has promised to pursue could still fall victim to politics.