By: Ruth-Anne Seburn
Earlier this week the former Prime Minister of Portugal, Antonio Guterres, was supported by the United Nations Security Council as candidate for the next UN Secretary General. It was an unexpectedly speedy decision and is set to be elected by the General Assembly without opposition and begin his term in 2017.
The news of the next UN Secretary General (SG) may not be met with as much enthusiasm and fan fare as the announcement of the next President of the United States or even the introduction of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet ministers. For myself and many other international relations nerds, however, this announcement means something much more significant than the latest figurehead. The selection process for the SG has been historically criticized for being conducted behind closed doors, with few opinions being taken into consideration, and with no space or time for candidates to be tested on their capability. And of course, for 71 years, this position has always been filled by a man.
But finally, things were going to be different. Civil society rallied and pushed for an open and inclusive process, and for women to be first and foremost considered for such a public leadership position. All of this occurring in parallel with the first woman in history to win presidential nomination and stand a chance at becoming the first female President of the United States. Finally, it seemed, women would lead.
Arguably, the SG is just a title. A political figurehead with no tangible power who shows up at fancy halls in New York City for photo ops, to make vague and repetitive speeches and remind world leaders to place nice with one another. But for generations of women who rarely see themselves represented in visible positions of power, it is so much more.
Recently, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made history when he appointed an equal number of men and women to cabinet. Although largely met with praise, the rebuttal to this move was the classic argument against affirmative action. Don’t choose someone for their gender or race! Choose the best person for the job! During the lead up to the U.S. Election, critics of Hillary Clinton attacked her supporters for only supporting her because she is a woman. How could you vote based on anything else but real ‘merit’?
And here is where the myth of our meritocracy persists. Sorry to disappoint, but I’ve been around enough successful people in positions of power and influence to know that there never is only one person for the job. There are about 10, usually closer to 50 people waiting in line behind you ready and competent to do your job. This crazy idea that there is only one person on the planet earth suited and capable for a job, even a prestigious, competitive, high powered one, is a delusion we fool ourselves into believing to validate everyone’s position in society. Several people can do your job. The same way several people can be President or Secretary General or Cabinet Ministers.
When a white straight man is chosen to do a job which has never been filled by a woman or visible minority, especially when under pressure to choose a diverse candidate, they are not saying that this man is the best for the job. They are saying there is no woman or minority that can match that man in this job. This is just plain false.
In no way do I doubt Mr Guterres’ capability for the position of SG. The same way I do not doubt the suitability of Ms. Irena Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, or Ms. Helen Clark the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, or Ms. Susan Malcorra, the Foreign Minister of Argentina, all of whom threw their names in the ring for the position. The point is they all could have had successful terms as United Nations Secretary General. But a woman as the world’s most powerful diplomat could have done so much more for the young girls watching, wondering if the world will ever be ready to let a woman lead.
Ruth-Anne Seburn is a proud Winnipegger who graduated with an honours degree in International Development Studies and Politics from the University of Winnipeg. She has worked for the Mennonite Central Committee New York Office, The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, and is currently working in Colombo, Sri Lanka with the World University Service of Canada.