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How to ensure the next World Bank president is its first woman leader

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
FILE – World Bank Group President David Malpass attends a news conference during the 2022 annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group, Oct. 13, 2022, in Washington. On Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, it was announced that Malpass is stepping down as president of the World Bank, nearly four years after former President Donald Trump nominated him to run the 189-nation agency.

The resignation of David Malpass as World Bank president last week offers a rare chance to tackle one of the root causes of the so-called “crisis of multilateralism.” 

Like many of the multinational organizations created in the wake of the Second World War, The World Bank is caught in a relentless downdraft of public skepticism. This lack of credibility has many causes, but it starts with leadership systems that perpetuate biases entirely at odds with the values of societies that these bodies are supposed to serve.  

Nowhere is this more evident than in the role of women. Our advocacy organization GWL Voices is about to publish the first comprehensive mapping of the gender of leaders in the world’s 33 most important international organizations, which are collectively known as the United Nations system.  

Our report will show that the World Bank is one of 13 organizations that have never been led by a woman. Five have elected a woman president only once in their entire history. On average, women have been in charge for less than 12 percent of the time since these institutions began to operate. And despite the work of the 77-year-old United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which describes itself as the principal global policy-making body dedicated to gender equality, only a third of these organizations are currently headed by a woman.  

The picture is slightly better at the organizations in charge of areas such as children, food, population and health. But looking at the institutions that have only been run by men, one would think the world lacks female professionals in the top ranks of politics, finance, international development, labor, nuclear energy, intellectual property, meteorology, agriculture, industrial development and maritime affairs. 

This is an affront to the millions of women who distinguish themselves in these fields, and to the global movement toward transparency, equity and accountability that has revitalized many public and private institutions.  

The upcoming World Bank election is one of at least 16 that will take place in the U.N. system over the next three years. These elections could finally end the shameful tradition of gender inequality in multilateral bodies — but only if their governing boards feel pressure from three different fronts. 

First, ordinary citizens must demand that their governments nominate qualified women candidates and representatives to international organizations. In the run-up to the last election of the U.N. secretary general in 2021, some 750 civil society organizations 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 13 official candidates for the post were women. Although Antonio Guterres ultimately won the vote, these efforts established a new baseline for balanced elections.

The next World Bank election should push the bar even higher. Calls to overhaul the Bank’s selection process have been mounting for decades. Since the United States traditionally gives the final blessing to the candidate for the World Bank presidency (thanks to a “gentleman’s agreement” dating from the 1950s), American civil society organizations should immediately call for the Biden administration to ensure that women are proportionally represented among the final candidates for this election. 

Second, the governments that lead these organizations must demand a complete overhaul of governance systems. Calls to reform the U.N. have been building for decades for fundamentally geopolitical reasons since rules and voting structures created during the Cold War unfairly favor 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 agencies. The president of the U.N. General Assembly, for example, is elected each year and rotates among world regions. Why not also rotate the gender of the president every other year? And who would object to a rule requiring the governing boards of all U.N. system agencies to be gender balanced? 

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 the pipelines of future management talent include a proportionate share of women. 

With our partners around the world, we will analyze each of these upcoming elections and spotlight the extent to which individual governments enable or resist progress. Our efforts will complement initiatives that already monitor the status of women in the private sectorparliaments and research universities. By electing a woman to succeed David Malpass, the U.S. can help to bring fresh thinking and renewed trust to international cooperation at a time when it is desperately needed.

Helen Clark is a member of GWL Voices, an advocacy group for multilateralism and gender equality made up of 62 global women leaders. She is the former prime minister of New Zealand and former administrator of the United Nations Development Program

Tags David Malpass Politics Politics of the United States United Nations Women in leadership World Bank

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