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Gender equity advocates hoped Catherine Ashton would hire more women for diplomatic service.
EEAS officers, according to its mandate, are expected to uphold policies that “prioritize women's rights … in third countries and provide guidance on the way the EU reacts to specific individual cases of human rights violations” based on gender discrimination.
“We’re going to get accused of being hypocritical!” said Pauline Massart, a senior manager at Security and Defense Agenda and a WIIS member. “At least if I were a government trying to keep my women in the kitchen, that’s what I’d do.”
But one diplomat on the inside of Ashton’s decision-making process insists gender balance was a priority from the start. Poul Skytte Christoffersen, Denmark's ambassador to Belgium, served as special adviser to Ashton in setting up the corps. He robustly rejects the notion that she is giving short shrift tofemale candidates.
On the contrary, he said, Ashton has repeatedly emphasized that if she has equally qualified male and female applicants for a job, she will choose the woman.
“What really hampers the recruitment of women,” Christoffersen said, “is the small number of candidates.”
He explained that, in the last round of appointments to 28 head-of-delegation positions, only 10 percent of applicants were women. And despite this, he said, Ashton’s selections were 21 percent female. Christoffersen suggests the entire recruitment system for EU posts needs to be overhauled. Improvements could include removing barriers to advancement for employees who have had “interrupted service” due to maternity leave or providing assistance in finding employment for trailing male spouses of female diplomats.
“She inherited a system that’s less than perfect and we cannot turn the situation around overnight,” said Ashton's spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic. "But the commitment is there and we are convinced that by 2013 [when a review will be conducted] the situation will be considerably improved.” In addition, she said, Ashton is setting up a high-level committee to examine further ways to make progress in gender balance.
Cristina Gallach, who was chosen as one of a dozen “Women Inspiring Europe” this year, warns that the consequences of a failure to improve the gender balance in diplomacy go further than today’s applicants.
“The current situation does not serve to inspire either the younger generations or our partners, wherever they are in the world, and from whom we demand progress on equality,” said Gallach, who spent 15 years as a top spokewoman at NATO and the EU. “Young female professionals might think that there is no future in the EU. We can only hope that this trend will be reversed.”
Nora Yahiaoui hasn't been deterred. In fact, the 24-year-old barely had time to relay her story. She is one of the head delegates for her university's Model United Nations team and was off to prepare a position paper representing Argentina. Belgium will be lucky to get a second chance.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Nora Yahiaoui's last name.