Home Brussels Help wanted: Belgian ambassador (f)

Help wanted: Belgian ambassador (f)

by editor

This article is part of the Belgian Presidency of the EU special report.

BRUSSELS — When all of Belgium’s ambassadors gathered for a family photo in Brussels in mid-November, Foreign Affairs Minister Hadja Lahbib, Minister for Development Cooperation Caroline Gennez, and other women were front and center. 

But upon closer observation, there was one object dominating the photo: ties. 

The image illustrates a problem that Belgian diplomacy has been struggling with for years: gender balance. The country has 13 female to 71 male ambassadors. 

Belgium is not the only country struggling with the problem.

According to the “Shecurity” index of women in foreign and security policy, Malta, Portugal, and Slovakia hovered around the 15 percent mark when it came to female ambassadors in 2020 (the last year for which consistent numbers were available). Figures from the preceding year suggested Germany and Hungary weren’t far off. Only Austria, Finland and Sweden were approaching gender parity.

But at just 11 percent, Belgium counted the fewest women ambassadors out of all European Union countries that submitted data. More recent information from Belgium’s foreign affairs ministry show that has since inched up, with women now making up 14.6 percent of ambassador positions.

Still, as Belgium takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in January, the gender imbalance among head envoys is equally visible at the permanent representation of Belgium to the EU. The three top ambassadors — Willem Van de Voorde, Pierre Cartuyvels and Stéphane Mund — are all men. 

Those numbers stand in stark contrast to the country’s gender ambitions. 

Alexander De Croo’s government was Belgium’s first gender-equal coalition, and promoting women’s rights is one of its priorities for when the country takes over as the head of the Council. The Belgian prime minister himself strongly advocated for gender equality in his 2018 book “The Age of Women.” 

“Sometimes it’s just plain embarrassing,” said a Belgian male diplomat who, like others in this piece, was granted anonymity to speak freely. “We are very active on gender-related themes such as women’s rights. Let’s be honest: it’s harder to defend that as a man or with an all-male delegation in the Council.”

Another diplomat said female representation, especially at the top of Belgium’s permanent representation to the EU, is a “real problem” and that there was an internal debate on this after the unveiling of the presidency website, which showed that senior jobs were held by men.

Slow progress

The good thing is that the Belgian government is aware it has a problem. 

Since 2020, the foreign affairs department introduced measures to improve gender equality, including by scrutinizing obstacles to female colleagues’ career development; introducing gender bias training and mentoring programs; and adjusting its recruitment policy to include, for example, more women carrying out interviews. 

The overall number of female diplomats has now increased to 32 percent. The latest batch of diplomatic interns counted — for the first time ever — an equal amount of women and men. The department points to this as proof that its efforts are paying off. However, it also acknowledged that having enough “women in senior positions remains a specific concern today.”

Foreign affairs ministry figures from August show that 51 percent of diplomatic interns were women. But that share gradually tapers off as they rise through the ranks: At the mid-ranking level, just one-quarter of diplomats are women. And at the highest level, just 1 in 13 diplomats is a woman.

Family motives continue to play a role in career progression, several diplomats acknowledged. Spouses of diplomats are often not allowed to work abroad, which — regardless of its conventionality — is often still more difficult for male partners to accept. 

Improving family conditions can help both female and male diplomats, said Vicky Reynaert, a Socialist member of Belgian parliament who used to be the deputy of the representative for Belgium’s northern Flanders region to the EU. 

“A family-friendly policy for diplomats benefits everyone,” Reynaert said, stressing that the days of a (typically female) spouse automatically giving up their career to follow their partner abroad are gone.

It’s one thing to attract women to start a career as a diplomat, said Reynaert; it’s another to make them stay and climb the ladder. 

Several diplomats noted another tricky problem: political affiliation. While promotions and postings are formally handled by the relevant department, party affiliation is key to getting your CV to the top of the pile. 

But publicly challenging this is difficult — until you’re retired. 

“We have a very politicized administration. It’s like an old boy’s club,” said Bénédicte Frankinet, a former Belgian ambassador.

She added: “We absolutely need to objectify the promotion criteria. Let’s not forget that sometimes a person meets all the criteria for a promotion, but a party president then comes in to pick someone else.” 

Source link

Related Posts