OPINION: New Helen Clark doco shows heights of UN glass ceiling

OPINION: She may be New Zealand's most high-profile politician - but being diplomatic is no longer a concern for former Prime Minister Helen Clark. Especially when asked about her previous employer.

"There's a very big glass ceiling," Ms Clark recently claimed.

She was talking, of course, about the United Nations, the job she left only two months ago. It's the first time she's spoken with such cutting candour.

And it shows the spectre of workplace sexism extends to the highest offices in the world.

Ms Clark's collision with the UN's glass ceiling is the subject of a new documentary, My Year With Helen, which premiered Saturday at the Sydney Film Festival.

The film should make Kiwis - men and women - hopping mad.

It details the duplicity of UN leaders who publicly appealed for a female Secretary-General, then privately voted to block her ascent.

Ms Clark had been the UN's third-most powerful person, and the oddsmakers' favourite to assume the top job. She would've been the first woman ever to do so - if she hadn't come across an obstacle beyond her control.

Ms Clark's vision for the role was exemplary: drag the UN's dated stasis to the modern day. It shone through in the candidates' televised debates.

And her CV was the envy of any candidate: a three-term Prime Minister at home and an eight-year leader of the UNDP, which manages $6.8 billion a year.

She was clearly the most qualified for the job. To other women, this may sound all too familiar. Vision and experience don't always count.

The job went instead to Portugal's Antonio Guterres. It was a backroom deal by the world's biggest power and the ninth straight time it's gone to a man.

Ms Clark's comments on the red carpet pulled no punches: "a very big glass ceiling" indeed.

Those words today may read like an excuse, but coming from one of the UN's most-respected figures, they're a damning rebuke of an organisation which preaches equality and inclusion.

On the day the ambassadors to the UN Security Council cast the final, deciding vote, 15 out of 15 were cast by men.

"This is a very political context on every level - the gender politics, geopolitics -  and it's not easy to crack that," said Ms Clark.

Kiwis are entitled to feel her disappointment. We shared her ambition, believed in her dreams.  Ms Clark could prove our country was more than a footnote. She could put New Zealand on top of the world.

And when her dreams were dashed by political forces, New Zealanders shared in the anger too.

My Year With Helen doesn't have a happy ending - if anything, it should make Kiwis incredibly angry. But in watching it, I couldn't help but feel something else. Something unmistakable: national pride.

Today Ms Clark is known for what she's done for the world as much as what she did for her people back home.

At the UN she had 7 billion constituents, 193 countries to please. The influence she carried led Forbes last year to name her the 22nd most powerful woman in the world.

And though she could've been the most powerful woman, when she came up short she did so with grace.

The fact that Ms Clark didn't make history doesn't change the facts - she was the woman who should've won the job.

Helen Clark may have hit a glass ceiling, but in doing so, she proved that Kiwis can fly.

Connor Whitten is Newshub's Australian correspondent.

 

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