So, help me out here, gentle readers, because this is troubling me a lot. As The Korea Herald reports, Kim Sook, South Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, has just been elected as the president of UN Women’s executive board. Ambassador Kim is – how can I put this? – a man. What is the import of this decision?
Firstly, for those who are wondering what on earth happened to UNIFEM, UN Women is the new body that brings together the work of the United Nations’ Division for the Advancement of Women, International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, and United Nations Development Fund for Women. It was formed in July 2010, and they’ve already made a lot of progress, which was discussed at the First Regular Session of UN Women Executive Board of 2012 on 24 January.
So, presumably, the board would have elected a president with the right background to head such an organisation, right? The thing is, there’s no information out there on any gender equality work His Excellency might have done. If there had been, it might have mitigated the most glaring problem, the one of a man being in charge of the biggest new international push for women’s rights. It sends a paternalistic message that women can’t handle or shouldn’t be centred in our own activism.
Good news, however. “President” may sound fancy, but the functional head of UN Women is actually Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, women’s rights campaigner and former president of Chile. The presidential role largely seems to be one of, well, presiding over this year’s board meetings.
What’s bothering me significantly more is that seems to be part of a larger issue. Let’s take a look at the rest of the UN Women directorate. The Deputy Executive Directors are John Hendra and Lakshmi Puri. Ms Puri’s the one with the women’s rights background. Mr Hendra has lots of amazing experience that has doubtless come in handy in his new role, but not women’s rights experience. Are you sensing a pattern? The women leaders have to have specialised experience, but the male ones just need to be there.
It seems, then, as though any problems with the ambassador’s presidency may be symbolic ones. That doesn’t mean symbolism isn’t important, just as it doesn’t mean that there aren’t flow-on effects. And I’m still left wondering what prompted how gender has played out in the structuring of the UN Women leadership.