For the Muslims, Christians, Jews and followers of other Abrahamic faiths that make up over half the world’s population, the founding gender myth is that of Adam and Eve. In the beginning, man is created in perfection, but in order to enjoy the companionship of woman he had to give something up. Some scriptures are particularly specific of the nature of Adam’s sacrifice, describing the creation of woman from a “crooked rib.”
And how did Eve repay Adam for his sacrifice? By leading him to the fall from grace. From the very beginning then, women are not only subordinate to men – their humanity is somehow lesser than that of man, being as they are just a little piece of him – and they are not to be trusted with responsibility.
This was the story about women I heard the most growing up, as I’m sure it was for millions more women. The potency that the story of Adam and Eve retains in our shared cultures cannot be underestimated. In so many cultures the authority that men hold over women – their mothers, their sisters, their wives, their daughters – is justified by traditions dating back to Adam and Eve.
It is against this orthodoxy that the global women’s movement has had to struggle. Despite the huge progress that has been made, when we look at the current situation for women it is clear that much structural discrimination still remains.
Fifty-five years since Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman prime minister, there are only five serving woman heads of government. Fifty-three years after the United States passed the Equal Pay Act, women still earn just 79¢ for every dollar their male counterparts earn.
To look at many of the totemic positions in global politics, it is difficult to argue that glass ceilings are a thing of the past. The European Commission has never been led by a woman, while in the US a woman has still never even won the nomination for either the Republican or Democratic parties, let alone served as president.
While women’s participation in political and diplomatic life still seems more a matter of ‘firsts’ than sustained, equal representation, the value of seeing a woman breaking the mold should not be underestimated. Later this year, world leaders will have the opportunity to establish a particularly important first when they elect the next Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Since its creation in 1945, the UN has been led by eight different people, with these leaders hailing from nearly every corner of the globe. The current Secretary-General comes from East Asia, his predecessor from West Africa, while the others have come from Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East & North Africa, and South America. The diversity of its leadership has however not stretched to gender, and the poor representation of women is a problem that affects the UN from top to bottom.
As the most important international body in conflict prevention and resolution, the representation of women at the UN is absolutely critical. The evidence shows that not only are women disproportionally affected by the adverse impacts of conflict, but that peace processes which include women women are in fact more likely to succeed in bringing lasting peace.
Improving the participation of women in diplomacy is not then a trivial issue, it is quite literally a matter of life and death.
The UN recognizes the particular way in which conflict affects women, and the need for greater representation at all levels of conflict prevention and resolution. Fifteen years ago it agreed a resolution that aimed to address these issues and provide greater protection for women in conflict, as well as ensuring that they had a greater role in diplomacy and peace processes.
Despite this agreement, women remain sidelined – globally they make up less than one in ten of participants in peace processes. Resolutions for greater participation remain just fine words and aspirations until they become concrete actions.
This is why, on International Women’s Day, I am joining with women across the world in demanding that the international community demonstrates their commitment to gender equality in a tangible way. Women make up more than half of the world’s population, yet when they look at the United Nations, they do not see an institution with a leader like them. So much of the power of the UN comes from its symbolism – it is an organization born out of the most destructive years of the 20th century in the hope that disputes could be resolved at the negotiating table and not on the battlefield. The symbolism presented by women’s exclusion from its top-tables is just as powerful, and it sends a message that states can pick and chose which anti-discrimination resolutions they should take seriously.
An experience that is common to the lives of women everywhere is looking to authority and seeing the face of a man staring back, whether it is her father, her husband, her boss or her leaders. That is why electing a woman as United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) would represent such an important change.
The UN’s member states have it in their power to smash this glass ceiling, and prove that women cannot go on being excluded from the decisions that affect them. I will not believe that the UN is an institution that truly values equality until I can say that there has been a UNSG like me.
Find out more about the campaign for greater women’s participation in diplomacy and a woman leader of the UN at facebook.com/UNSGlikeme
This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, 2016. A What’s Working series, the posts address solutions tied to the United Nations’ theme for International Women’s Day this year: “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality.” To view all of the posts in the series, click here.