UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Nearly a quarter of U.N. member states are urging that the next secretary-general, for the first time, be a woman.

It's the latest sign of momentum for the idea as campaigning to succeed Ban Ki-moon at the end of 2016 begins in earnest.

A document obtained by The Associated Press points out that in the 70 years of the world body's existence, "a female candidate has never been openly considered." Forty-two countries have signed on to declare that "the time has come for a woman to hold the highest position."

The new Group of Friends in Favor of a Woman for Secretary-General of the United Nations includes two of the largest contributors to the U.N. budget, Japan and Germany.

The idea began with one of the U.N.'s female ambassadors. "Colombia decided to take a stand for women candidates," that country's ambassador, Maria Emma Mejia, wrote in a note to the AP this week.

But in the largely opaque process of choosing the secretary-general, the five permanent members of the Security Council, including the United States, have the real power. None has joined the group of friends, and just one of the 15 council members, Chile, has signed on.

That hasn't stopped other states from agitating to have more of a say in the selection process. Instead of the Security Council essentially handing over its choice to the 193-country General Assembly to approve, some states want a more open system that resembles a professional job search, with posted qualifications and interviews.

States also want to update the guiding document on selecting a secretary-general, dated 1946, which says a "man of eminence" should hold the post.

While at least one of the five permanent council members, Britain, has expressed interest in having a woman succeed Ban, another one, Russia, has said gender shouldn't be the top consideration.

The issue kicked off earlier this year with two separate campaigns to promote a female secretary-general, including one by the international women's rights group Equality Now, amid concerns that few women hold top-level U.N. positions.

"The most senior levels continued to register the lowest representation of women," around 25 percent, Ban reported last August.

Ambassadorships are little different. As of this month, 41 women lead countries' missions to the U.N. For a while last year, the Security Council had a record six female members. Now there are four.

"The United Nations, following its duty of observance of human rights, has the responsibility to lead by example, and to ensure the equal and active participation of women at all levels of decision-making. This includes, of course, the secretary-general," the group of friends' concept note says.

Ban himself has not said explicitly that his successor should be a woman, but a spokesman has pointed out that he's expressed several times that it's "high time" for a female secretary-general.