New UN Head Antonio Guterres Pledges Gender Equality

Antonio Guterres campaigns on a promise of gender parity
UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

To the chagrin of many, the UN’s next leader will be not a woman. However, he—Antonio Guterres, former Portuguese prime minister and head of the UN refugee committee—did campaign on a promise of gender parity. And yesterday, moments after taking the oath of office and presenting his agenda to the General Assembly, he reiterated to the press that he will prioritize correcting the gender imbalance among UN staff during his first 100 days in office:

 
“In the appointments I’ll be making–and the first ones will be announced soon–you will see that gender parity will become a top priority at the UN and it will have to be respected by all.”
—UN Secretary-General-elect Antonio Guterres
 

This was a welcome commitment considering that women currently make up just 22% of leadership roles at the UN. (That’s despite the institution’s habitual insistence that women’s economic empowerment and participation in politics and leadership are key to solving global challenges from poverty to conflict prevention.)

As the selection process for a new Secretary-General got underway in early 2016, the notion that it was high time for a woman to take over the reins gained real traction. For the first time in the UN’s 70-year history, not just one woman, but several (Irina Bokova and Helen Clark, among five others) had a viable chance of assuming the position. They enjoyed widespread support among diplomats, UN staff, and global civil society groups who campaigned for the 9th Secretary-General to be a woman. Even as the female frontrunners eventually lost ground to Mr. Guterres and other male candidates throughout several rounds of Security Council straw polls, they made gender equality an essential part of the UN’s 2016 narrative. Although Mr. Guterres had already proven a champion of the cause, having achieved gender parity at the UN refugee agency during his tenure at the once male-dominated institution, their candidacy pressured all the men in the race to confront the issue.

In more good news for women at the world’s most powerful intergovernmental organization, Amina Mohammed, the Nigerian Minister of the Environment and a former special advisor on sustainable development to outgoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, will assume the role of Deputy Security-General in January.

In a year that has left more than one glass ceiling frustratingly intact, the swearing-in of a feminist Secretary-General, and one who is also an advocate for refugees and the resolution of the Syrian conflict, casts a hopeful light on 2017.