Madame Secretary-General?

Even with Annan's support, this year -- the U.Ns 61st -- may not be the year of the woman.

Published September 13, 2006 12:09PM (EDT)

On International Women's Day 2006, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: "The world is ready for a woman as secretary-general of the United Nations." Excellent. But is the United Nations?

The murky, partially informal process of selecting Annan's successor is already underway, and so far -- despite his cheerleading, and longer-term efforts on the part of groups like Equality Now -- there's nary a lady on the shortlist. In fact, no woman has held the position during the organization's 61-year history.

Could it be that there aren't enough qualified women in the pipeline? Nope. The Women's Media Center (via AlterNet) mentions women "serving at the level of undersecretary general or at the highest level of national government:" U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand, President Tarja Halonen of Finland, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia and more. (Also, Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, a laywer from Bahrain, is currently serving as president of the General Assembly -- the first woman to do so in decades.)

For various reasons, there's a sense that it's Asia's "turn" at the helm, but as the WMC notes: "The idea of a woman's 'turn' has yet to take hold." Even if we stick with the Asia plan, we can find qualified women, the WMC says, naming several from Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere. "The Security Council has only to look for them."

It should go without saying that there's nothing inherently wrong with a man leading the U.N., especially one with a name as satisfying as "Boutros Boutros-Ghali." But as it stands, only 16 percent of undersecretaries general are women -- and that's in an organization that vowed to establish gender parity by 2000. Oh, and the U.N. Fourth World Conference in Beijing called for "mechanisms to nominate women candidates for appointment to senior posts in the United Nations." Yet, the WMC reports, no such "mechanism" is in place for the most senior post of all.

And why does that matter? The WMC recalls the words of Eleanor Roosevelt -- a key player in the U.N.'s early years -- who "reminded us that universal human rights begin in small places, close to home, in this case the halls of the United Nations. She said, 'Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.'"

If you're so inspired, take action here.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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