Is it time for women leaders in international organizations?



Maria V. Sokolova | Alisa DiCaprio | Nicole Bivens Collinson | Trade Experettes

The following article was written in July 2020 as the leadership positions for the World Trade Organization, the International Trade Center and the UNCTAD were in the process of vetting candidates. It focused on the lack of diversity in gender at many international organizations. Although we are happy to report that the WTO and the ITC have appointed female leaders, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Dorothy Tembe respectively. Isabelle Durant has been posted as the “acting” secretary general of UNCTAD, but that post is not yet permanent. So there has been some significant progress in the past nine months.  The data below however, gives the reader statistics to demonstrate the inequities.  A second, more comprehensive academic paper is currently being drafted and hopefully will be released in the coming weeks.

Since the beginning of the new millennium, major events have shaken the global economy, and in 2020, disruption is again a “new normal.”  But will the groundswell of changes extend to how the leadership of some of the major trade organizations are chosen?  In this blog post, as we reach the close-off date for candidates for the role of Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), where three of the eight nominees are women, Maria V. SokolovaAlisa DiCaprio and Nicole Bivens Collinson take a look at whether we may now see more diversity in these institutions.

The nominations process that has been in place up until now for international organizations has yielded limited diversity both with regard to gender and nationality of candidates. And this is not just limited to the WTO.  Looking at the data for 30 major international organizations, more than half have never had a female leader, and of those that have, the majority of the appointees were women from Northern Hemisphere advanced economies (Europe and North America). 

But 2020, more than ever, provides an opportunity for a reassessment of old approaches and a recognition of today’s economic realities, in which the fastest-growing markets (and some of the wealthiest economies) are no longer in the developed world. 

Wanted: leaders for three key trade organizations

At the moment, all of the three important international trade organizations in Geneva – namely the WTO, the International Trade Centre (ITC) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) – are in the process of vetting candidates for their highest leadership positions. This time is the first in recent memory that there will be  simultaneous turnover of leadership in all three. 

On 14 May 2020, WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo announced his intention to leave his post early. His unexpected announcement made this a high-profile item in the press. 

But this was not the first vacancy at a major international organization. The ITC has been without an Executive-Director since January 2020 when Arancha González Laya departed to become Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation. 

The third in the Geneva tripartite – UNCTAD, is a major voice of the G77 on trade policy – is due to appoint a new Secretary General to replace Mukhisa Kituyi at the end of this year, although this deadline has been pushed out until mid-2121 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Why does this matter for the world? 

These organizations are the primary institutions that provide a forum for states to coordinate on matters of international trade, and also provide technical assistance on trade and development. They also offer a setting in which the members can recreate and reinvigorate the rules based trading system.  All of these are issues on which the world desperately needs leadership now. Given the rising complexity of trade, anti-liberalization sentiment among historical promoters of trade liberalization, and the inability of the current system to produce a major negotiated breakthrough over the past decades, there is a dire need for  reform. The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the need for change of the old systems. It is no longer about continuing to steer these ships in the same direction. It is about creating a new vision for the new normal. 

Who are leaders elected in major international organizations?

Looking at the historical leadership structure of 30 major international organizations (covering most UN organizations and specialized agencies) since their formation, the statistics are striking. In total, there have been only 33 women in top leadership posts among 291 leaders. Furthermore, 15 organizations, which is half of the sample, have never had a female leader. The trend of increasing women’s participation in these roles is also recent. Among the 33 women leaders identified, only 5 were appointed before 2000. As Graph 1 shows, we have been moving towards more gender-equal leadership – but we are not yet there.

Share of women leaders in IOs.png

Part of the reason for this appears to be because there are far fewer female nominees in the initial candidate pools. We gathered data on multiple nomination processes for 18 of the 30 organizations in our sample, and thus looked at 37 separate appointments for these 18 organizations. Among 169 candidates that were nominated, the average share of female nominees is 19%. With only 1 in 5 female candidates, the chance that they will succeed in leadership contests is probabilistically limited, and also suggests a clear preference for the nomination of male candidates. 

Our preliminary research also shows that women are twice as likely to be nominated (and, subsequently, get the position) in organizations which had previously had women leaders. This fact suggests that past leadership choices inform future ones, generating similar candidates. As such, this has likely resulted in equal representation being limited to a certain subset of organizations that have chosen to appoint female leaders in the first place. 

While not the primary focus of this piece, we also looked at country of origin. When Supachai Panitchpakdi became the first developing country candidate to win the WTO DG position, it was a major headline. That was in 2002. There has only been one other DG from a developing country since then. What does this mean for women’s leadership? Reflecting the limited geographic diversity of leadership positions overall, the majority of successful female leaders (55%) come from developed countries (Graph 2). This indicates that in addition to a gender-bias, there is also a developed country bias in leadership contests as well.

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Where do the 3 trade organizations fall?

The ITC scores better than average, with 40% of its candidates being women – having also appointed 2 women executive directors in its history. With the deadline for nominations for this vacant post having passed on 15th April, the current nominees follow this historical trend – 2 out of 5 candidates are women.

Neither the WTO and UNCTAD have ever had a woman at the helm.  This harkens somewhat back to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)- World Bank (WB) dichotomy. In those institutions, there is a customary arrangement where a European heads the IMF, and an American the World Bank. In the Geneva trade institutions, the only unwritten rule is that the Secretary General of UNCTAD should be from a developing country, and his Deputy from a developed country. But judging from the history of previous appointments, it seems that the gender diversity in Geneva’s trade institutions is “outsourced” to the ITC. 

What issues must the new leaders address?

A list of the most pressing topics that we believe will be at the top of the agenda for these global trade institutions over the upcoming 2-3 years include:

–       Trade tensions: the rapid imposition of temporary export restrictions (COVID-19 related and not) has reinforced the challenges faced by trade liberalization in times of crisis, and has heightened the need for greater transparency in trade policy, including the ability of international bodies to adjudicate and resolve these disputes. Growing trade tensions with China will also be a prominent issue in the coming years.

–       Sustainability: Climate change is a global problem and requires international coordination to solve.  Trade has to be addressed as part of this.  While states have tried to address trade in the context of climate change individually or in small groups (for example, Canada’s renewable energy approach, or the new ‘Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability’ among six developed and developing countries), none of the existing governance mechanisms have produced a global solution. 

–       Digitalization: the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that digitalization is quickly becoming central to the new normal. But there are no true global rules governing digital trade, and in particular frontier technologies such as the Internet of Things.  A group of WTO members are negotiating on the trade-related aspects of e-commerce, but these negotiations may not go far enough in scope, and may struggle to reach an ambitious conclusion in any case. There is an absence of global rules, and discrete actions by some countries further complicate any advances globally.

–       There are also issues around ‘inclusion’ – for developing countries, women, small businesses and others in the trading system – that many consider to be a priority.

The people who assume the leadership positions at the WTO, the ITC and UNCTAD will need to be more creative, more inter-disciplinary, and more thoughtful than leaders in the past to bring a new energy to efforts to reform the trading system, so that it can face the complex and pressing needs of the new normal. Merely working on “more of the same,” with little change in approach or strategy will not yield different results. 

For example, after decades of requiring comprehensive agreements at the WTO, a new approach may be to build upon the recent shift towards a more plurilateral approach and progress through “working groups” that compliment “councils” and committees, encompassing over 40 different negotiating elements. Hence, the new WTO DG will need to continue to shepherd this process – all the multiple committees and members they represent—and push forward critical new areas that impact global trade.

Why is it time for a woman at the WTO? 

We suggest that women should be considered for the WTO DG position more closely for three reasons. 

The first is the movement towards the recognition that the historical preference for men to head international institutions is representative of a broader global gender bias. It is no longer sufficient to repeat that the most qualified candidate has been selected. Half of the world’s population are women, and they are now more present in international organizations and in decision-making positions. But as our analysis above shows, women still remain underrepresented in top leadership positions in international organizations. If we are going to continue to call for more inclusive systems of trade, we should ensure that leadership is inclusive as well. 

The second reason to consider a woman is that the world is a mess right now. There is research demonstrating that women are more likely to be selected as CEOs of companies that are in financial difficulty, and are blamed more for problematic times. Just as is illustrated by the success of Christine Lagarde at reshaping the IMF, the pandemic hints that it could be true for political leaders as well – evidence suggests that under certain circumstances women can be more transformational at reshaping the world. 

The third reason is that it would illustrate the timeliness of these institutions. Seeing women leaders in prominent roles encourages other women to believe that they can achieve similar success. With the current world struggles of gender violence, racism, and inequality, taking into account the history of the appointments at the WTO – electing a woman from a developing country would be the biggest sign of change.  If we are waiting for a different result from the WTO than from past appointments, why do things the same way?  

Today, on the closing date of 8 July, the list of the WTO DG candidates has been published; as it turns out, three of the eight candidates are women. 

It is imperative that the candidates nominated for these leadership positions be viewed in light of their skills, past experience and ability to multi-task across different priorities of human activity.  

The current director of the ECB and the first woman in history of major international institutions to hold two top leadership positions, Christine Lagarde, said “In times of crisis, women eventually are called upon to sort out the mess, face the difficult issues and be completely focused on restoring the situation” 

We encourage all nations to consider the role of women leaders and their abilities as we face difficult issues over the next few years in international trade.  Women have a good track record in making troubled international institutions operational, even when faced with an impossible task. 

To read the original blog from Trade Experettes, please click here

Maria V. Sokolova is a consultant at The International Trade Centre, working on implementation of trade agreements and trade information transparency; Alisa DiCaprio is Head of Trade and Supply Chain at R3; Nicole Bivens Collinson is President, International Trade & Government Relations with Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, P.A. Research assistance from Zyra Quirante and Alexandria Johnson is highly appreciated.