Connect to share and comment

New EU hires disproportionately male

Gender equity advocates hoped Catherine Ashton would hire more women for diplomatic service.

European Council
Members of the European Council. (Courtesy Council of the European Union)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The traditional “family photo” taken when European Union heads of state convene always looks unnatural. And it's not just the forced smiles and stiff poses: At the moment, the group of 27 includes only four women.

That ratio doesn’t accurately represent the gender balance among EU citizens, its workforce or university graduates. But it does roughly reflect the make-up of the EU’s new diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS), which is about 16 percent women.

So why so few women?

Nora Yahiaoui will never forget some early advice she received on careers in diplomacy: “You know, ladies, if you want to get married and have kids, there is no man who will follow you around the world. And besides that, "women can't handle stressful situations."

And that wasn't in the 1950s. Yahiaoui was attending a student job fair in 2009 when she heard that insight from a Belgian ambassador.

“I was shocked,” said Yahiaoui, who is majoring in comparative politics at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles.

With encouragement such as that, no wonder women fail to aspire to the upper echelons of EU governance. The bloc has elevated equality between the sexes to the level of a fundamental human right, yet its own figures indicate that’s more a matter of principle than of practice.

The EU's Brussels-based executive arm, the European Commission, employs about the same number of men and women. In the top two administrative grades, however, males hold 81 percent of the jobs. The group of 27 commissioners is the most balanced in history, but still has only nine female commissioners, or 33 percent; the proportion for the 736-member European Parliament, whose members are elected, is just slightly above that.

But for equality advocates, dissatisfaction with the gender balance in existing institutions was compounded by the appointments to the EEAS, the EU’s long-awaited diplomatic corps. They had hoped EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, in a powerful new role as head of the service, would elevate other female diplomats in population-proportional numbers.

It didn’t work out that way, according to statistics compiled by the Brussels chapter of Women in International Security (WIIS). By WIIS’s count, only 16 percent of the new EEAS ambassadors are women, along with one out of 11 directors and 13 of 60 heads of units.

“To date, only one woman has been nominated to a senior post in the EEAS,” the organization says in a press release. “Helga Schmid may be congratulated on her achievement, but it is a precarious one if she is to remain alone. Dame Rosalind Marsden, the only woman amongst the 11 EU Special Representatives, must feel similarly exposed.”

“Definitely it’s been disappointing” to see EEAS spots filled mostly by men, said WIIS member Claire Craanen, a political officer at NATO. “Having a woman in [Ashton’s] position is a great thing but it came with high expectations and I don’t think she’s met the expectations.”

WIIS’ core members feel so strongly about this, they’ve launched a petition asking Ashton, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Council President Herman van Rompuy and member states to “stop ignoring the facts.”

“More women should be in senior and decision-making positions," the petition says. "There is still time to correct the trajectory, but it is running out fast.”