Should the Next U.N. Secretary-General Be a Woman?

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, right, meets with Special Joint U.N.-Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan (a former U.N. secretary-general) in Geneva on April 14, 2012. All eight U.N. secretaries-general have been men, and a woman candidate has never been seriously and openly considered for the post. Evan Schneider/U.N. Photo/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

There have been eight secretaries-general of the United Nations since it was established 70 years ago. All of them have been men.

As Ban Ki-moon's second term comes to an end, advocates, U.N. member states and former diplomats alike are calling for the next secretary-general to be a woman.

The representation of women in leadership positions around the world has been growing steadily but slowly. In national governments, for example, only 18 of the world leaders are women (half of whom are their nation's first female leader).

In fact, women's representation in leadership positions remains stubbornly low in both private and public sectors. In 2015, while the number of women in parliaments has almost doubled globally since 1995, women still make up a mere 22 percent of seats in national parliaments and are unrepresented in national ministries.

The private sector is no better. According to a recent report, women are just 14.2 percent of the senior executives at S&P 500 companies in the U.S., and of the top 500 companies, there are only 24 female CEOs.

International organizations are also falling short. Four of the 15 members of the current U.N. Security Council are women. From 2003 to 2013, the number of women working at the U.N. increased from 36.3 percent to 41.8 percent. On the International Court of Justice, three of the 15 judges are women.

And yet, at the current General Assembly session, members will vote on the U.N.'s post-2015 sustainable development goals, which include a goal to "achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls."

In the past decade or so, several international organizations have established programs that focus on issues confronting women and girls. The latest strategy is to mainstream gender issues throughout these organizations rather than segregate them. For example, the U.N. Women organization was established, not to create a pink ghetto but as a mechanism to integrate women's issues across the U.N.

But women must also be placed in positions of power. Increasingly, world leaders are recognizing that achieving gender equality is not only the right thing to do; it's the smart thing to do. Women's leadership does not automatically translate into more gender-friendly outcomes, but women tend to bring different experiences and perspectives to the table, which helps reveal blind spots in decision making.

Women's participation in leadership is also important for the legitimacy of international institutions. And research demonstrates that women tend to be more collaborative and that this—along with the different experiences women bring to decision making—leads to better outcomes.

As I've noted before, in peace and security matters, the participation of women leads to more sustainable peace, less conflict and reduced violent extremism. There is also ample evidence that empowering women and educating girls increases prosperity and is critical for sustainable development. Yet a female candidate has never been seriously and openly considered for the position of U.N. secretary-general.

After eight male secretaries-general, it is time for a woman candidate to at least be considered. The process of choosing the secretary-general is controversial. It has been increasingly criticized for being a nontransparent and secretive process.

With no formal rules or regulations governing the selection process, in practice the five permanent members of the Security Council (who alone wield veto power)—Britain, France, China, the United States and Russia—choose one candidate to be recommended to the General Assembly. The process of choosing a candidate largely takes place behind closed doors, where the five permanent members discuss, debate and choose one candidate, generally from "a middle power."

There are hundreds of accomplished women with the experience to be the next secretary-general. A woman would not only strengthen and demonstrate the United Nations's commitment to advancing gender equality; she would be an opportunity for the norm-setting international organization to lead by example.

Catherine Powell is a fellow for women and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Should the Next U.N. Secretary-General Be a Woman? | Opinion