The president of the UN General Assembly is elected each year and rotates among the world's regions. Why not also rotate the gender of the president every other year? (Photo: Tim Mossholder)
The news that Werner Hoyer will be stepping down at the end of the year as president of the European Investment Bank (EIB), the world’s largest multilateral financial institution, offers a chance to tackle one of the root causes of the so-called “crisis of multilateralism.”
Like many other international organizations, the European Investment Bank is facing surging demands for its resources amid corrosive public skepticism regarding institutions. This lack of credibility has many causes, but it starts with leadership systems that are divorced from the demographic reality of the societies they serve.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the role of women. Our advocacy group tracks the gender of leaders in the world’s 50 most important multilateral organisations.
Our research shows that the European Investment Bank is one of 22 organizations in this group which have never been led by a woman.
Of all leaders elected or appointed to head these institutions since 1945, only 12 percent have been women. And close to a third are currently headed by a woman. The picture is no better when it comes to the governing bodies of these organisations, where women are underrepresented in every case.
For decades, this travesty was justified by the notion that the pipeline of women with the skills, experience and credibility necessary to fill these roles was simply too thin–especially in the realm of development finance. That charade began to collapse in 2011, when Christine Lagarde was elected the first female head of the International Monetary Fund.
The fact that the short list of potential EIB presidents includes three outstanding female candidates is further evidence that the “pipeline” excuse should be buried once and for all.
The EIB’s own research has repeatedly made the business case for female leadership.
But having women candidates is not enough. Only by ending the EIB’s 75-year tradition of male leadership will its shareholders show the world that gender parity is an attainable reality, and not merely a laudable aspiration.
Over the last 24 months, three of the 50 institutions that we track have elected a woman to the top job for the first time. Between now and 2026, an additional 22 multilateral organisations will hold elections or appoint new leaders.
Collectively, these institutions could finally reverse the legacy of gender exclusion in multilateral bodies—but only if their governing boards feel pressure from three different fronts.
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First, ordinary citizens must demand that their governments nominate qualified women candidates and representatives to international organisations.
In the run-up to the last election of the UN secretary general in 2021, some 750 civil society organisations around the world signed statements in support of a more transparent process that would include qualified women candidates. As a result of these efforts, an unprecedented seven of the thirteen official candidates for the post were women. Although Antonio Guterres ultimately won the vote, these efforts established a new baseline for such elections.
Second, the governments that lead these organizations must demand a complete overhaul of governance systems. Calls to reform the international financial architecture have been building for decades for fundamentally geopolitical reasons, since rules and voting structures created during the Cold War unfairly favour a handful of powerful governments. But gender equality offers a way to kick-start this broader reform process and quickly restore some legitimacy to these institutions.
The president of the UN General Assembly, for example, is elected each year and rotates among the world’s regions. Why not also rotate the gender of the president every other year? At the UN General Assembly in September, the president of Slovenia endorsed this proposal, and several other governments have expressed support for introducing such a rule.
Finally, the management of multilateral organizations must dismantle any remaining internal barriers to the advancement of women professionals. A few have already made much progress on this front by setting targets for the promotion of women to higher grades or by participating in independent gender certifications. But much more can be done to guarantee that senior management includes a proportionate share of women.
With our partners around the world, we will spotlight each of these upcoming elections and report on how individual governments enable or obstruct progress. Our efforts will complement initiatives which already monitor the leadership of women in the private sector, parliaments, and research universities.
By electing a woman to succeed Werner Hoyer, the European community can put itself at the vanguard of a movement to bring fresh thinking and renewed trust to international cooperation at a time when the world desperately needs it.