Eighty years of uninterrupted male leadership at the UN is not an accident or a coincidence; it is intentional.

In this interview, Ambassador Maritza Chan speaks about her quest to dismantle a patriarchal system at the UN.

As part of our blog series, The Art of Leadership, we met this month with Ambassador Maritza Chan of the Permanent Mission of Costa Rica in New York. We talked about UN leadership, the fight for gender equality, and the power of words.

Ambassador Chan, you are currently holding the position of a Deputy Permanent Representative for Costa Rica. What comes to mind when you think about leadership in the UN?

The first thing that does come my mind is that the size of your country does not matter. Rather, it is the power of your ideas, the strength of your principles, as guided by United Nations Charter. You see, I represent a very small country with less than 5 million citizens, but that doesn’t impact our influence in the United Nations. Costa Rica might be not powerful in economic terms, and we might not have a large diplomatic corps, but even the smallest mission can lead if the message is clear.

I express my leadership through the power of words. Words to me have weight and are—in some ways I believe—my strength. For me it is important that my message is inspiring, that it speaks truth to power, and at times, when necessary, that it unveils uncomfortable realities in a poetic, diplomatic and respectful way. I try to honour the responsibility that I’ve been given by using my platform to address unfulfilled promises or highlight important work that remains to be done. I try to do so in a way that magnifies the voice of my country and our shared goals and responsibilities across the multilateral sphere.

Following up on what you just said about every country in the UN having a powerful voice, I wanted to touch upon something that is/was quite close to your heart: the revitalisation of the General Assembly. Part of the process was to advocate for the next Secretary-General to be a woman. Why do you think this is important?

Did you know, at the end of the current Secretary-General’s term, men will have headed the United Nations for 80 uninterrupted years?  We must send a strong signal to the international community that we believe in progress. We need to send a message of change that gender equality is here to stay. Women are as effective in leading as men. It’s our turn now.

I was very lucky to be part of the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (or ACT) group which led the thematic sub-group on transparency when former Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was finishing off his second term and a new selection process for a new Secretary-General was underway. Together with Estonia, we issued a non-paper for a more transparent, democratic and inclusive Secretary General process with some clear recommendations to the Security Council on what that process should look like. We must start ‘electing’ the Secretary-General, not ‘selecting’ him—or her, for that matter.

It was back in 2015, in a small conference room in the Croatian Mission, that we resolved to include a paragraph which would ask Member States to present women candidates for the Secretary-General selection process. But when we brought it to the negotiating table in 2021, it became a fight.

For some, the timing will never be right to see a woman as the face of this organisation. For some, it was not right then, and it will not be right in the future. Too destabilising, too contentious, too progressive—whatever have you. There will be always an excuse.

The challenge begins with the Charter of the United Nations itself, which states that ‘he’ shall be the chief administrative officer of the organisation. Regrettably, this masculine-gendered language is further compounded by Resolution 11 of 1946, which states that the Secretary-General must be a ‘man of high eminence’. A man. Not a person. A man.  Even in Costa Rica, our 200-year-old constitutional documents speak of ‘people’ and does not use such masculine-gendered language. It’s embedded in Costa Rica’s DNA to be inclusive and to provide leadership opportunities for all people. I think this tenet of inclusiveness gives me an advantage in the revitalisation process. During the 2021 negotiations on revitalisation, I spoke on behalf of Costa Rica, and that empowered me to lead by example.

Eight Individual Portraits of the Secretary Generals in UN Headquarters in New York. Photo Credit: UN Photo

I can’t stop thinking of the row of portraits of former Secretary-Generals in the General Assembly Hall. There are only men. What is the message that we are giving to our young girls and women in the world? They are being told they do not ‘have what it takes’ to be the world’s premier diplomat. We must move the needle. For me—without discrediting the legacy of these Secretary-Generals—that row of portraits represents all that we have accomplished as well as what we have yet to achieve.

Eighty years of uninterrupted male leadership is not an accident or a coincidence; it is intentional. It is structural. Thus, our efforts to bring a woman to the helm of the United Nations must be intentional and structural, as well.

So, why do you think it’s so difficult for some Member States to accept change, embrace it and support gender equality?

We need a conceptual change in language. I remember during the negotiations when talking about women candidates, we were starting to add adjectives: she must be competent, she must be capable, speak several languages, she must be this and that. The bar for women, I believe, is always higher. It is not only higher for the Secretary-General position but higher for any woman representative at the United Nations. We must be technically and politically stronger. Infallibly capable. We cannot make mistakes.

Moreover, the language in peace and security is soaked with masculinity despite more women entering the peace and security sector. Even I get comments: ‘you are so passionate,’ or at times, ‘you are not ready’. But women are ready. We always have been.

So, in my point of view, there needs to be a cultural and intellectual shift. For example, per this year’s resolution (A/75/973), thanks to Costa Rica’s efforts, every single panel organised by the President of the General Assembly must ensure gender parity. This is fantastic progress. But it took us 76 years to implement.

So, whether or not we realise it, we still have a patriarchal system. Breaking those structures and reframing the discourse is not something that all delegations are doing because it’s a lot of intellectual work. It takes effort. And political will.

It’s important to flag that the Global South has been on the forefront of this change. For example, did you hear the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, speaking at the 75th General Assembly? Now that’s a leader. That’s a voice. She’s fearless. She does not need a prepared statement. She is a woman of color from a small island who holds the powerful accountable. Also, Namibia, for example, helped birth UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. Namibia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN at the time recalled the mood at the UN Security Council when the theme was introduced; it was apparently like a minute of silence, followed by a mix of laughter and plain astonishment accompanied by ridicule. Today the resolution belongs to all Member states. It places women at the heart of the consideration of the issue, not just as victims but as empowered agents of change forging their own destinies, and as brave contributors to peace and development in societies suffering from armed conflict or emerging from conflict.

However, challenges remain with women largely excluded from formal peace processes and negotiations and subsequently left behind without gendered considerations in peace agreements. To realise the transformative vision set out in Resolution 1325 and espoused by women leaders and changemakers across the world today we must take up the mantle and support our feminist activists and movements. I thus welcome the last Report of the Secretary-General on Women, Peace and Security, which finally recognises, after 21 years, that there is a correlation between gender inequality, gender-based violence and excessive military spending.

Speaking from experience, do think feminist leadership could be a helpful in the field of disarmament?

You have countries saying: ‘We have a feminist foreign policy’, but what does this exactly mean? How they do you translate this into action? Do you have a feminist nuclear policy? Are you looking at small arms and light weapons through a gender lens?

During the seventh Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms and Light Weapons, Costa Rica secured progressive language on the equal and effective participation of women and the nexus between small arms and gender equality efforts in the outcome document. If Costa Rica and the 63 supportive Member States would have not done so, the language on gender would have disappeared.

In the UN General Assembly First Committee, which deals with disarmament and international security matters, only one in five statements is delivered by woman. In the recent High-Level Event on the Elimination of nuclear weapons, only one in six speakers was a woman. I had a nuclear feminist manifesto prepared. But I did not get to speak. There were simply leaving women out of the conversation.

Making sure that women’s voices are heard must be intentional.

You know, I thought that those issues have passed.  We are still voting on issues that should already be part of our collective DNA. Why are we still fighting to include women and girls in resolutions? Why are we still pressuring for gender parity? Should this not be a given by now? And why are we being excluded from these conversations?

The role of the UN as a multilateral leader is being constantly tested. How can Member States, like Costa Rica, strengthen UN leadership?

Walking the talk. Leading. Showing coherence in our positions. Driving that intellectual shift that I talked about. Not turning our back on our progress. We cannot be halted by a few. I think it is important to ask: What motivates us? Is it improving the lived realities of our constituents, and opening doors for those who have historically been marginalised? Or is it positive press, self-congratulations, and applause in fancy conference rooms? We have enough performative activism—now we need people to put the work in.

So, we keep reminding Member states of their duties, of their responsibilities, of their obligations. A recent resolution on Myanmar is such an example. There was discussion to hold arms transfers, which is line with Article 6 and 7 of the Arms Trade Treaty, as an increased flow of weapons would amplify violence in the country. We were not afraid of reminding Member States, especially those who are signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty, to honor their commitments, and, to respect the UN Charter. But we also bring issues of importance to the table: Costa Rica was the first country to addressing excessive military spending in times of Covid-19. Now everyone talks about it.

The pandemic has left a mark on everyone—including international organisations. There are not many incentives for change. This impedes bold leadership. We must revert this trend. My aim is to leave a legacy in this mission:  I’m trying to reframe everything that we’re doing through a gender lens. I want to bring women and girls into everything we do.

The challenges you raise regarding gender equality are close to my heart. I must admit, I have worked for over 15 years in international development, and I have never had a woman boss. It’s quite striking. We cannot come to a point of gender equality if there is no pathway for women. There are so many obstacles.

Me neither. I have worked for 23 years under men. My first boss was the President of Costa Rica where I started as a speechwriter. After that I joined the service and every single Ambassador I worked for was a man. But I do not think this is a problem of the diplomatic service only. Looking at the UN system, a lot needs to change regarding gender equality, especially at the mid-level.  It’s only now in my mid 40s that I get the chance to deliver my own statements and have my voice reflected.  That’s why I am active on social media and in other forums: visibility came very late in my life.  I’ve spent 23 years working at the international level with the highest level of power in my country. I’m undisputedly a strong multilateralist, but people still don’t know who I am. So, every time I leave the negotiating table, I make sure that the people around me know that I’m not here by chance.

I wish that women did not have to walk into the negotiating room with the added burden of dismantling prejudiced preconceptions about their intelligence or capability or strength. Diplomacy is challenging enough as it is.

But this added challenge also means we have put the work in, we have always done a bit more research than our counterparts; we do not take anything for granted. Particularly women from the Global South. We are substantively prepared.

We must be part of the change: I am mentoring young promising women. I tell them that they do not work for me, but they work with me. I give them a voice. A pathway. I have a message for them: Consistency matters. Education matters. Good writing matters. How you deliver your statements matters. Make yourself visible. Publish. Write. Read. And raise your voice. 


Ambassador Maritza Chan is a Costa Rican career diplomat with more than two decades of professional experience. She has spent sixteen years representing Costa Rica in multilateral organisations, both in Washington D.C and New York. She is an expert in international peace and security matters, and a champion of the Women, Peace and Security agenda. Ambassador Chan is a founding member of the Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency Group (ACT), the Group of Friends of Mediation, the Group of Friends of Human Security, and has in-depth knowledge of major political issues such as the revitalisation of the UN General Assembly, reform of the UN Security Council, the International Criminal Court, culture of peace, Our Common Agenda, and SDG16. Ambassador Chan has vast connections within international and regional organisations, as well as with civil society.

Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström By Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström

Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström used to work as Programme Manager at the Foundation, covering the financing, form and functions of the UN development system, and UN leadership.

Annika Östman By Annika Östman

Annika Östman is the Head of Communications at the Foundation and leads our outreach and strategic communications work.  Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked on climate change communications at the World Bank in Washington. Her work there included media outreach at COP20, organising high-level events at WB-IMF Annual Meetings in Peru and Japan, and producing a myriad of digital content, such as a film about climate-smart agriculture in Costa Rica. Annika also worked in the Africa Region of the World Bank, both at headquarters and in Liberia. Annika has an MA in International Broadcast Journalism from City University in London and has also worked as a TV Producer. She holds a BA in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.