Jerome Bon via Flickr

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, is heading to the polls to elect a new director-general over the course of this week. Many hopes are pinned to this election, because the body has been ailing for some time. Under the eight-year leadership of Irina Bokova, the organization’s standing plunged not only as a result of several member states withholding their funds, but also because of controversial decision-making that distanced the organization from its original purpose.

From the outside, an organization such as UNESCO would not seem to be a venue of contentious debates and fierce political infighting. The public most commonly knows it for its World Heritage Sites designation, honoring places of “outstanding universal value” for humanity scattered around more than a thousand locations across the globe. However, those with a more political inclination also know of its part in the Israel-Palestine dispute, and a divisive one at that. When in July 2017, UNESCO declared Hebron’s Old City a Palestinian heritage it only added fuel to the fire. Welcomed by the Palestinians, Israel was furious, accusing the organization of anti-Semitism and of standing “on the side of lies.”

This is but one of the many examples where UNESCO’s judgment left much to be desired, and is indicative of an unfortunate trend: the increased politicization of the body. A recent study of the heritage site evaluation and decision-making process established that decisions to add a location to the heritage list are heavily influenced by economic and political factors – and not by the sites’ actual historical significance. It also showed that political lobbying by larger delegations was important for bringing about a particular decision independent of merely cultural assessments.

All these controversies have obscured UNESCO’s pivotal role in advancing scientific research – especially when it comes to encouraging women in science. Opportunities to do so are plentiful, and no less because of UNESCO. Though generally overlooked, the groundwork for increased international action was laid in 2016, when a UNESCO Science Report revealed that women account for only 28 percent of researchers across the world. This highlighted the fact that the UN’s ambitious sustainable development goals, such as Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, would not be met unless women are provided with greater access to jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

It’s a painful truth that women and girls still face socio-cultural biases and stereotypes that prevent them from pursuing careers in traditionally “masculine” fields like engineering or mathematics. However, gender biases extend into the natural sciences too, with grave consequences for their career ambitions. For starters, female scientists are less likely than their male counterparts to get published in scientific journals, or to get cited. Since academic careers depend on visibility in the scientific community and number of publications, a lack thereof means that women are often halted in their job advancement. In Australia, for example, a third of women drop out of science jobs for a lack of career advancement and professional development.

Now with proven misogynist Donald Trump leading the US, there is little hope for the glass ceiling of sexism to crumble any time soon. On the contrary, the 45th President has only exacerbated discrimination and lowered the shame barrier. Case in point is the memo from Google engineer James Damore, who claimed that women are biologically unsuited for working tech jobs. If his attitude is the rule rather than the exception, the fact that more than 45 percent of companies in Silicon Valley have no top female executives is far from surprising.

All things considered, the need for a body to speak out in favor of gender equality is now greater than ever before. Through initiatives such as the STEM and Gender Advancement (SAGA) project, UNESCO has already begun to raise visibility and participation rates of women across a wide variety of fields. However, it requires an engaged director-general to keep UNESCO’s voice for women heard in the years to come.

Nine candidates are vying for the UN body’s top position, but as far as practical experience with women’s rights is concerned, only one has the political track record to credibly represent UNESCO’s agenda of female empowerment: France’s Audrey Azoulay. Her past political activities demonstrate her strong commitment in this regard. During her tenure as the French Minister of Culture, she made improving gender equality a key pillar of her mandate. One of the measures she championed sought to increase the participation of women in the cultural sphere. Now, in her UNESCO bid, she is seeking to provide universal access to quality education in order to provide development opportunities and greater gender equality, especially in Africa.

It is important for UNESCO to resolve internal conflicts and find a way to remove excessive political heckling from its corridors. For years, UNESCO has slipped deeper and deeper into turmoil as member states turned it into a tool to assert their power, causing its policies to become increasingly mired in opposing interests. Now, a new director-general has the opportunity to give UNESCO a new focus and purpose. This is best done by concentrating on its core mission of promoting education, science and technology throughout the world.

The choice is up to UNESCO. If the organization is to revive its global image and fortunes, an urgent change is needed. Otherwise, nothing will save it from slipping into irrelevance.

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