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UN missed chance to demonstrate gender equality commitment, says U of T student Mieka Buckley-Pearson

Photo of Mieka Buckley-Pearson speaking at the United Nations Association in Canada

Mieka Buckley-Pearson speaking at the United Nations Association in Canada. Photo courtesy of United Nations Association in Canada.

The hopes of many people that the United Nations would choose a woman to replace Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon were dashed last week when former Portuguese president Antonio Guterres was named his successor. One of the most vocal proponents of choosing a woman has been Mieka Buckley-Pearson, a joint Master of Global Affairs/ Master of Business Administration student at the University of Toronto and a former secretary-general of the Canadian International Model UN.

In a column published in newspapers throughout Canada, she said a female secretary-general would inspire the world. U of T News spoke to Buckley-Pearson about the importance of having women in top roles at the United Nations and elsewhere.


How did you feel about the acclamation of Guterres as secretary-general?

While I have no doubt that Antonio Guterres is well qualified and will be a capable UN secretary-general, I am disappointed that the Security Council did not elect a woman [the secretary-general is formally appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council]. There were several highly qualified female candidates to choose from, but this is a political process where qualifications are not the only consideration. Electing the first female UN secretary-general would have had a profound effect; it would have been a demonstration of the UN’s commitment to gender equality and the centrality of female empowerment in the international community’s development agenda.

Undoubtedly, a woman will at some point be elected as UN secretary-general, perhaps in 10 years, perhaps in 20. In the meantime, there are countless leadership positions around the world that will need to be filled. Why not start by promoting more women to these critical positions, such as the permanent representatives, foreign ministers, and state leaders who are represented on the UN Security Council and influence the election of the Secretary-General? A gender tally of the current group shows the drastic imbalance between men and women in these key political positions.

Why is it important for women to be global leaders?

Female leadership in both the public and private sectors is important for two key reasons: women’s inclusion is critical to global sustainable development and economic prosperity; and female leadership will lead to the greater empowerment of women.

When women are in positions of leadership and decision-making, they can demand accountability and action on issues that disproportionately affect women, such as environmental degradation and poverty. The advancement of women in society can only benefit the world. Last year the McKinsey Global Institute noted that, if women participated in the economy identically to men, an additional $28 trillion would be added to global GDP by 2025.

This isn’t to say that male leaders cannot have a positive influence on female empowerment and inclusion. There are many male champions and their efforts are also critical to achieving gender equality. It is also not to say that all women are inherently better qualified than men to advance women’s empowerment. However, we cannot ignore the importance of symbolism – how seeing women in global leadership positions inspires and gives voice to other women, and the men that support them.

Would the US electing Hillary Clinton make a difference?

Electing the first female president of the United States, similarly to electing the first female UN Secretary-General, would have a significant impact on the world, primarily for the reasons already mentioned.

You yourself have served as secretary-general at the Canadian International Model UN. What was that experience like?

Model UN is an incredible learning experience. It challenges participants to see the world’s most pressing issues through the lens of another country, through the lens of a leader and a diplomat. It develops critical-thinking and problem-solving capabilities, as well as debate and negotiation skills. Having the opportunity to lead a Model UN as secretary-general is a deeply enriching experience, because you have the privilege and responsibility to shape and contribute to the personal development and experiences of the participants.

In my role as programme manager, education & youth, at the United Nations Association in Canada, I was privileged to develop and implement several educational programs including the Model UN. The richest part of the experience was always witnessing the transformational change of many participants, from shy and nervous delegates to those who had found their voice and confidently collaborated with others to develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges.

It was always critical for us as an organization to deliver a Model UN experience that was as realistic as possible, except for in one aspect: we had equal participation from both women and men. While you may not see this in the UN General Assembly in New York, our conference rooms in Ottawa had women and men working collaboratively on the world’s most complex problems.

Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in both Ottawa and Vancouver, ultimately pursuing my undergraduate studies at the University of British Columbia.

As an undergraduate I spent two months as a community development intern in Swaziland, where I was confronted with the devastating impact of poor public leadership. As the king builds another palace for another wife, nearly 70 per cent of his citizens live below the poverty line. The majority of these citizens are children under the age of 14. I was struck by the lack of leadership and solution-seeking from not only national policy-makers, but also from the private and non-profit sectors.

My experience in Swaziland drove me to pursue opportunities for advancing my leadership ability in developing bold solutions to complex problems, ultimately bringing me to the University of Toronto.

Throughout my life I have sought to make a global impact. I have become convinced that innovative, sustainable solutions require an inclusive and collaborative approach integrating the strategies of government, industry and civil society. With that in mind, I have spent the past two years studying at the Munk and Rotman Schools to develop the skills and knowledge required to lead in the development of integrative solutions and bold policy action, particularly in the field of sustainable energy.

What are your plans for the future?

Since beginning the MGA/ MBA program in September 2014, I have become focused on advancing access to sustainable and affordable energy at home and abroad. As a graduate student at the University of Toronto, I have had the opportunity to work with teams from both the MaRS Advanced Energy Centre and KPMG’s Global Infrastructure Advisory. Upon graduation I intend to continue my career at KPMG, where I will have the opportunity to pursue my passion for renewable energy through advising clients, both investors and organizations, as they seek to invest in alternative energy infrastructure worldwide. I am passionate about advancing the adoption of renewable energy technologies into global markets, and delivering affordable access to energy for all. In the long-term it is my intention to return to the public sector, and perhaps politics, to continue delivering both social and economic benefits to society and business.