Skip to Content

The World’s Most Powerful Women: April 25

The United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women touts itself as “the principal global intergovernmental body” that’s “exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.”

Yet last week Saudi Arabia joined its ranks.

Saudi Arabia, along with 12 other nations, was approved as a member of the Commission by the 54 nations that make up the UN Economic and Social Council. It received 47 votes in a secret ballot, fewer than any other country under consideration but enough to pass the majority threshold.

Human rights advocates are outraged, unsurprisingly. Saudi Arabia is notorious for laws that repress the rights of women, such as its ban on female drivers and its requirement that women receive permission from a male guardian for a variety of fundamental tasks. UN Watch, a watchdog NGO, unearthed last week’s vote, which took place alongside elections for other subsidiary bodies, and its executive director Hillel Neuer is speaking out against it.

“It’s absurd—and morally reprehensible,” Neuer wrote in a blog post that compared the election to “making an arsonist into the town fire chief.”

Given the Commission’s broad mandate, Neuer told me it’s unclear what “concrete impact” Saudi Arabia’s election to the Commission will have in the near future. But the vote “definitely has the power of sending a message,” he says, to Saudi women in particular, by “putting their oppressor in a position of power and influence when it comes to women’s rights.”

In a statement to Fortune, UN Women said it works with all UN member states to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. “Saudi Arabia’s interest in occupying one of the Commission’s seats…is an indication that the country wants to play an active role in the work of this important body,” it said.

The bright spot in all this is the fact that the election of Saudi Arabia was an election at all. Regional groups usually decide among themselves what countries will vie for which commission seats, and those nominations are often rubber stamped by the voting nations without taking an official tally.

The United States, whose UN delegation is now under the direction of Ambassador Nikki Haley, interrupted that usual practice and demanded a vote—a move Neuer said signalled disapproval of Saudi Arabia’s candidacy. While that move did not derail the kingdom’s nomination to the Commission, it was a step the U.S. had failed to take against oppressive regimes in the past.

In 2014, the Obama administration criticized Iran’s election to the same body, yet it didn’t object by calling a vote, meaning Iran landed a seat by acclamation.

U.S. lawmakers—Democrats and Republicans alike—almost never disapprove of Saudi Arabia publicly given the two countries’ diplomatic relations, Neuer says. Calling for the vote was a way of criticizing the kingdom without saying so overtly.



Mind the gapsBritish companies are beginning to report their gender pay gaps in accordance with a new U.K. law, and the results aren’t pretty. Virgin Money disclosed that men make 36% more than women on average, and asset manager Schroders Plc revealed its gender pay gap stands at 31%. The sizable numbers are partly due to the few women who occupy senior roles—women hold 60% of the lowest paying jobs in the U.K., while men hold 60% of the top-paying ones.Bloomberg


Odd couple
In Berlin today, Ivanka Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will share the stage at a forum of female leaders. Merkel invited Trump to the event. The two don’t seem to have much in common, but German officials say Merkel was impressed by Trump’s elevated role and appreciated that she spoke up in White House meetings with Merkel. The first daughter could prove to be a conduit through which Merkel can attempt to moderate President Donald Trump’s views. 

What’s in a nickname?
Meral Aksener, the 60-year-old former Turkish interior minister and nationalist politician, has been dubbed “Asena,” the she-wolf of Turkish mythology, one of many labels and allegations swirling around the woman who has emerged as a “potent threat” to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Yet as she gains political force, it’s unclear how long Erdogan will tolerate her public presence. She has earned ire from the conservative political world for triumphing over the “boys club,” and her latest nickname can be heard in the chants of supporters: “Prime Minister Meral!”
Foreign Policy



A seat for Savage?
Chelsea Savage, 46, is hoping to become only the second Democrat to contest the state delegate seat of Virginia’s 73rd District, which has been represented by Republican John O’Bannon since 2001. If anyone has the tenacity to flip a long-held GOP seat, it’s Savage. The openly gay single mother grew up in poverty and survived a religious cult that denied her much of an education and drove her to marry a man 18 years her senior as “a way out.” Once she did escape, Savage earned a college degree and enrolled in political leadership training with the help of mentors. Now, she hopes to connect with underrepresented voters who grew up in similar conditions of poverty.
New York Magazine

Good grief
Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Option B went on sale yesterday. The book, written after the sudden death of Sandberg’s husband, includes tips on how to comfort someone who’s grieving. The Facebook COO’s first piece of advice is to ask, “How are you today?” Fortune‘s Valentina Zarya has a run-down of four other lessons. 

The royal treatment
Like his heroes James Brown and George Clinton, Prince helped develop a series of acts in addition to working on his own music. The musicians he championed up until his death last year were predominately female. “I appreciated how his bands, throughout his career, included both men and women,” says Donna Grantis, guitarist for 3RDEYEGIRL, an all-female band that was Prince’s last significant project. “There were no boundaries or limits and definitely no limits to what we could do based on our gender.”



Brick by brick
Nepali women whose lives were upturned by the 2015 earthquake are helping rebuild their country by retraining as stonemasons. Over 1 million homes were destroyed in the quake and nearly 9,000 people were killed; 15,000 people are currently living in registered shelters, but many more are living under ramshackle tarpaulin structures. As thousands of Nepali men head abroad, women are taking it upon themselves to rebuild their neighborhoods, slowly changing their culture’s gender roles along the way.
News Deeply

Striking gold
The Goldman environmental prize, nicknamed the “green Nobel,” acknowledges grassroots advocacy with a one-time award of $175,000. One honoree this year is 83-year-old Wendy Bowman, whose farm in New South Wales, Australia is surrounded by mines on three sides. For nearly 30 years, Bowman has stood firm against mining giants’ environmental encroachment and supported other landowners under pressure to sell their property. “I don’t believe this unbelievable greed for money in a hurry is worth completely just wrecking the land and the water for generations to come,” she says. 

News summaries by Linda Kinstler @lindakinstler


The untold story of Anyika Onuora, Britain’s Rio Olympic medal winner who nearly died

The president of Carnival Cruise Lines reveals her journey to success

Ireland just reached a ‘milestone’ in its fight to legalize abortion

Items from Ivanka Trump’s clothing line were mislabeled as Adrienne Vittadini

Meet the Muslim woman who inspired Nike to enter the hijab business
Fast Company


“You play the next hand as it comes.”
--Jane Hitchcock, 70, who went from an author and socialite to a competitive poker player.