Welcome to the old girls’ clubs of Brussels.
Faced by persistent gender inequality in European Union institutions, women in Brussels are banding together on WhatsApp or in person to exchange ideas or denounce sexist behavior.
From tiny networks divided by language, some have expanded to become informal coaching services for women who help their peers with job applications, tips for their kids’ creches and how to combine the needs of motherhood with performance at work.
The European Commission’s digital and antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager, for example, dines with the 10 other female commissioners regularly. She also exchanges views with her liberal colleagues in the European Parliament through a “Renew Ladies” WhatsApp group, set up by MEPs from the Renew Europe group.
“We discuss a lot on WhatsApp,” said Nathalie Loiseau, a French MEP and member of the group. “We see each other when we can, every two months I would say, and we talk about everything: European issues, national issues, personal issues …”
“We have different styles, different cultures, but the same objectives and capacity of working hard and also trying to understand the others” — Luminita Odobescu, Romania’s EU ambassador
Vestager told POLITICO she sees these informal networks as “good forums to discuss how we can show change for change to actually happen.”
“It is only when we see more women in leading positions that we can really work on our biases and change the image we have of “people in power,” she added.
The Commission has about nine informal networks of women organized according to natonality, including four that involve female managers, four that are open to all female employees, and one network that welcomes to both men and women. Many of them are open to other EU institutions.
There’s the Danish Women of the European Commission network. Senior German managers gather via the Frauen-Management-Netzwerk. BrusselsNV, a network for Dutch-speaking women, operates a Twitter account. And Françaises d’Europe, formed nearly a decade ago, provides a forum for French women to share their experiences and find ways to help each other on work-life balance issues.
Lead members of the Red de Funcionarias y administradoras Españolas use their WhatsApp group and email to organise meetings for some 300 Spanish female civil servants who exchange information on “career opportunities,” “tips on creches for the kids,” “recommendations for a meditation training,” and share stories about “how to improve some attitudes toward women at work,” according to Tatiana Marquez-Uriarte, a deputy head of unit at the Commission and one of the network’s most active members.
The group also organizes networking sessions featuring prominent Spanish women like Iratxe Garcia, the leader of the Socialist group in the Parliament, or Nadia Calviño, the Spanish economy minister who served as director general in the Commission. Like any good EU organization, the network has leaders who meet in a “coordination committee,” while decisions are taken in “plenaries.”
Similar groups — of varying sizes — have sprung up at nearly every EU institution. At the European External Action Service, the Women in EEAS network provides “networking and peer support,” and “promote mentoring, visibility and discussion of gender-related working practices” to women colleagues, according to Virginie Battu-Henriksson, an EEAS spokeswoman. Another group “for women in pre-management posts” aims at providing “peer support, speed training and information” and also meets “on a regular basis, mainly over breakfast,” Battu-Henriksson added.
At the Council of the European Union, the five female ambassadors don’t have a Whatsapp group, but “we coordinate among us,” said Luminita Odobescu, Romania’s EU ambassador. “We have different styles, different cultures, but the same objectives and capacity of working hard and also trying to understand the others.”
Odobescu added that three female ambassadors oversaw the last three presidencies of the EU, including Romania, Finland and Croatia and that “created a special dynamic in working together, but also with all our colleagues.”
Many women in the Commission say they were encouraged to expand these informal networks by the public debate around gender equality, and the successful efforts made by former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s previous Commission to meet the 40 percent target of women in middle and senior management. The goal is to help bridge the remaining gap.
Last year, EU leaders appointed Ursula von der Leyen as the first female Commission president and put in place another 11 female (and 15 male) commissioners. A Latvian official, Ilze Juhansone, became the Commission’s first-ever female secretary-general.
The gap persists — and often worsens — all the way down. Of the 27 Commission heads of Cabinet, only five are women.
Women make up about 40 percent of the institution’s 41 directors general.
The situation is similar at the Council, where the 27 EU ambassadors include just five women.
In the Parliament, only two of the 12 directors general are women, and there are only three female group leaders (two of whom share power with a male co-leader). Just eight of the 20 parliamentary committees are chaired by women.
‘Decades of misogyny’
At the Commission, the directorate general for human resources has reached out to these informal networks, and von der Leyen has met with many of them since she was appointed, according to Commission officials.
“Solidarity is clearly emerging,” said Manon Aubry, a French MEP from the far-left GUE group. “But will it be enough to turn decades of political misogyny around? I don’t know.”
Some in Brussels are already warning that the institution’s upcoming European Gender Strategy, to be issued in early March, looks to be a rehash of old recommendations done in a haste, with few binding measures.
Others warn about a working culture that remains unfriendly to people responsible for small children — still too often the mothers.
“The working method was established 25 years ago by a bunch of middle-aged white men from Germany,” one Commission official said. “You impress your colleagues by staying late.”
“In just a few months of being here in Parliament, I’ve seen so many sexist remarks at very different levels. And I think the best answer to this is the coordination of women” — Manon Aubry, a French MEP from the far-left GUE group
The official added that for senior female employees with young kids, including Jutta Urpilainen, the international partnerships commissioner, “sometimes, you can’t be in the office at 8 p.m.,” she said.
“In some offices, there is not sufficient recognition that parents have to stay at home when their kids are sick,” said Marquez-Uriarte. “We must ensure that staff rules are implemented evenly, including on remote working, which isn’t applied the same everywhere.”
At the Parliament, some female MEPs complain about discrimination and sexist remarks at work. “Personally, it’s one of my top priorities for that year,” said Aubry, “because in just a few months of being here in Parliament, I’ve seen so many sexist remarks at very different levels. And I think the best answer to this is the coordination of women.”
Aubry and a colleague set up a Google doc listing all the sexist remarks she has been subject to as a member of the Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs committee. One remark included a senior member of the European Investment Bank who told Aubry, “you know nothing about the EIB” and “offered help from his employees to explain to me the functioning of the EIB.”
“That sexism was not about a particular insult to a woman,” Aubry said. “It was about a man who addresses a woman in such a condescending way.”
“The path toward gender parity in the political world is so far away,” she added.