The Rise of Eastern European Female Leaders

In the 70 years since its foundation, no Eastern European and no woman has ever held the role of the U.N. Secretary. As the current Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, comes to end of his term, the growing chorus for a woman Secretary General to succeed him is impossible to ignore. 

There is an important historical backdrop to this. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, Eastern Europe has witnessed a profound political, social and economic transformation like very few regions around the world. Women have been at the forefront of this revolution and Eastern European countries have acted decisively to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community.

Today, compared to other regions of the world, female participation in business in Eastern Europe is thriving. Research by Grant Thornton shows that Eastern Europe tops global rankings for the representation of females in senior corporate roles with 7 of the top 10 countries for female representation among senior executives being in Eastern Europe. The number of women in business in the region  far outstrips the traditional economic powerhouses in the EU. In Eastern Europe, 35 per cent of senior jobs in business are held by women.  The UK  lags behind on 22 per cent and Germany comes in at a low 14 per cent. With the  EU average  itself  only  26  per cent, Eastern Europe is setting the pace. 

The business sector is not the only area where Eastern Europe is seeing women emerge  as successful leaders.  Encouragingly in the last decade, more and more Eastern European women are actively participating in politics and are elected to the highest positions as presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors and foreign ministers.  

October  saw  voters  choose between the two major Polish political parties  which had both placed  women as their candidates for prime minister.  The victory of  Law and Justice (PiS) propelled  Beata  Szydlo  into power. This was not as ground-breaking as it may have been in  other regions  as  Szydlo  is the third woman  since 1989  to  be elected as  Poland's  prime minister, and  actually  takes over from  the  incumbent  Ewa Kopacz.   

In February, Kolinda  Grabar-Kitarovic  was elected as the first female and, at the age of 46, youngest ever president of Croatia.  Grabar-Kitarovic is no stranger to high profile political office  and  brought  with her consummate skill and experience  having  previously  served as Foreign Minister and also in the strategic role as  Ambassador to the United States.  

These changes have been taking place across the region for several years.  Kosovo elected its first female President,  Atifete  Jahjaga, in 2011 as well as two deputy Prime Ministers,  Edita  Tahiri  and  Mimoza  Kusari  Lila. In Greece,  Vassiliki  Thanou-Christophilou  served this year in an interim capacity as prime minister, the country's first ever woman to serve in this role. 

In Albania, Prime Minister Edi Rama's cabinet consists of the largest number of women in Albania's history and for the first time the country has a female defence minister, Mimi  Kodheli,  and a female  ambassador to the United States,  Floreta  Luli  Faber.  

With the normality of successful female political leaders in Eastern Europe over the last decade, it comes as no surprise to see the names of several candidates mentioned for the role of UNSG. Bulgaria's Irina Bokova serves as the current UNESCO Director-General, and is credited with navigating the organisation through a series of institutional reforms following sharp budget cuts and for her international leadership fighting violent extremism and cultural destruction by ISIS.

Bokova was re-elected as UNESCO Director-General for a second term in 2013, and is now tipped as the front runner to succeed Ban Ki Moon. Bokova is not the only Eastern European female candidate being discussed for this position. Croatia's Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Vesna Pusic has also been nominated by the Croatian government to run for this prestigious role.

Another leading candidate for this position is the current Lithuanian President, Dalia  Grybauskaitė, who spent 5 successful years as EU Commissioner for Financial Programming and the Budget between 2004 and 2009. Nicknamed the 'Baltic Iron Lady',  Grybauskaitė was highly regarded during her time in Brussels and was even mentioned as a potential European Commission President in 2014 - a first for a woman and a first for the region.  Also  rumored  to be now campaigning for this role is European Commission Vice-President and Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources  Kristalina  Georgieva, although her lack of diplomatic experience makes her an unlikely candidate.  

Despite representing over half of the world's population, women still comprise less than 20 percent of the world's legislators. Eastern Europe has produced numerous credible and qualified women to lead governments, international organisations,  and multinational corporations and it would be fitting for the women's empowerment movement globally to have the first female UN Secretary General hail from Eastern Europe. Their leadership and success serves as an inspiration for other women - in the region and around the world.