Opinion: It's time to adopt 'gender alternation' at UN General Assembly

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Mon Jun 12 04:42:57 PDT 2023

Global ViewsGender Equality
Opinion: It's time to adopt 'gender alternation' at UN General Assembly
By Susana Malcorra // 08 June 2023

The empty dais at the United Nations General Assembly Hall at the
headquarters in New York. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N. Photo
The annual election of the president of the United Nations General Assembly
is a fitting occasion to check in on the U.N.’s progress toward achieving
its gender equality goals.

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Last week, the U.N. elected Dennis Francis from Trinidad and Tobago to
preside over the 78th General Assembly. He is an experienced diplomat and
there should be no doubt that he will perform his duties well. But in
choosing another man for this post, the assembly has once again perpetuated
an inexcusable tradition.

Since 1946, out of the 78 presidents elected, a mere four have been women,
all from the global south. In the early years, the assembly might have
justified this gender imbalance due to prevalent structural sexism

Such justifications no longer hold water. It is widely recognized that
countless highly qualified women stand ready to assume these
responsibilities. Gender equality has garnered support from an overwhelming
majority of U.N. member countries, with a commitment to achieving gender
parity visible in parliaments, corporate boards, government ministries, and
academic institutions' leadership.

Regrettably, when it comes to the leadership of international institutions,
governments fall conspicuously short of aligning with the preferences of
their own societies. Currently, only 24% of permanent representatives to
the U.N. are women — a bias that permeates throughout the international
organizations constituting its system.

Earlier this year, our advocacy group conducted a comprehensive study
mapping gender representation in the world's 33 most influential
multilateral organizations. The findings revealed that women have held, on
average, only 12% of top leadership positions in these institutions since

Despite the existence of the 77-year-old U.N. Commission on the Status of
Women, which identifies itself as the principal global policymaking body
dedicated to gender equality, only a third of these organizations are
currently headed by women.

Shockingly, 13 organizations, including all four of the world's largest
development banks, have never been led by a woman, and five organizations
have elected a female president only once throughout their history. I
should recognize that since our report came out the International
Organization for Migration has appointed a woman at its helm.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres deserves credit for forcefully
stating that this situation is unacceptable. In 2017, he launched a gender
parity strategy that laid out clear targets to achieve parity in the U.N.
system's senior leadership and middle management by 2028. The strategy is
working, with many organizations reaching parity ahead of schedule.

But Guterres obviously cannot control the appointments or votes that
governments make for the most senior leadership positions or for the
governing boards of bodies in the U.N. system and other international

Here, the actual gender priorities of each government are exposed for all
to see.

Read more:

► Opinion: Moving past colonial legacies is critical for gender equality

► To move past 'male unless otherwise indicated' in data, just ask women

► How women CEOs are changing global development (Pro)

To change this, ordinary citizens in each U.N. member country must demand
that their governments nominate qualified women candidates and
representatives to international organizations. In the lead-up to the last
election of the U.N. secretary-general in 2016, some 750 civil society
organizations around the world signed statements in support of a more
transparent process that would include qualified women candidates.

As a result, an unprecedented seven of the 13 official candidates for the
post were women. Guterres ultimately won the vote, but these grassroots
efforts established a new baseline for balanced elections. Now, just as
voters have grown to expect gender-balanced cabinets from their heads of
state, they should demand gender-balanced lists of representatives and
candidates to multilateral bodies.

Governments that already prioritize gender equity could accelerate this
movement by proposing a modest rule change at the U.N. Since 1963, as a
means of ensuring geographic diversity in its presidency, the General
Assembly has rotated among the five regional country groups each year. Now,
to ensure gender diversity, UNGA should agree to rotate the gender of its
president each year. Any member state could propose this through a
resolution for adoption by UNGA.

Ensuring that a female leader heads the work of the General Assembly every
other year would send a powerful and visible signal of the U.N.'s
commitment to practicing what it preaches. It would also increase the
likelihood of governments putting forward female candidates for leadership
positions in other U.N. bodies.

We cannot ignore the reality that the U.N. system, like institutions in
general, is facing increasing public skepticism. The so-called crisis of
multilateralism has multiple causes, but it often stems from leadership
traditions that contradict the U.N.'s own principles and the values of the
societies these bodies aim to serve.

Implementing gender alternation in the U.N. General Assembly presidency may
be a small step, but it could significantly contribute to restoring the
credibility and legitimacy the U.N. system requires to continue its vital
work of brokering joint solutions to the world's most pressing problems.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's
editorial views.
About the author
Susana Malcorra
Susana Malcorra
Susana Malcorra is the president and co-founder of GWL Voices for Change
and Inclusion. She served as minister of foreign affairs and worship of
Argentina from 2015 to 2017, and she was chief of staff to former U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from 2012 to 2015.
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