The U.K. high commissioner to Canada said she intends to break new ground in foreign policy by consciously choosing to not take a job unless she is the first woman to do so.
“I’m the first woman to have done this job, which is extraordinary when you think it’s really not difficult to be a woman and operate in Canada,” Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque said during a panel discussion on the meaning of a feminist foreign policy, hosted at the French Embassy Oct. 25 by Carleton University.
Ms. Le Jeune was joined by two other women who are their countries’ first female ambassadors to Canada, Sabine Sparwasser, the German ambassador, and Kareen Rispal, the French ambassador, along with Fiona Robinson, professor of political science at Carleton University, to discuss feminist foreign policy and creating a positive perception of women in diplomacy.
Another G7 nation, the United States, appointed its first female ambassador recently as well. Kelly Craft presented her credentials to Governor General Julie Payette on Oct. 23 to begin her job, though was not present at the Oct. 25 Carleton event.
According to a 2015 United Nations study cited by Carleton University, only 15 per cent of heads of mission around the world are women.
At the event, the 19th and only female prime minister of Canada, Kim Campbell, and Diane Jacovella, the deputy minister of international development, also made speeches highlighting not only Canadian achievements but also the importance of women in Canadian politics.
Listening intently at the event were other foreign female heads of mission including Shirley Skerritt-Andrew, high commissioner for Saint Kitts and Nevis, Gita Kalmet, ambassador of Estonia, Ala Beleavschi, ambassador of Moldova, Yvonne Walkes, high commissioner of Barbados, Janice Miller, high commissioner of Jamaica, and Marica Matkovic, ambassador of Croatia.
Ms. Le Jeune explained that women tend to apply for a job if they see another woman has done it, adding that when she was a human resources director in her foreign ministry there weren’t many women who applied for senior roles.
There are now 50 women serving as British heads of mission out of a total of 267 positions representing the U.K. abroad, she said. “That’s a hell of a lot more than when I first started,” she noted. She added that in 1972 if you were a female diplomat who decided to get married you had to resign your post, and when she joined the foreign office in 1985, there wasn’t a single female married ambassador. She said the country’s first married female ambassador wasn’t appointed until 1987.
All three panelists noted that one way to push through and have more women in diplomacy is for countries like Canada to set the agenda.
“In many ways, Canada and Sweden send out a very strong signal in international politics,” Ms. Sparwasser said. “You start on an initiative and it sort of develops into something much bigger.”
Canada will be highlighting its push to advance gender equity when it hosts the G7 leaders’ summit in June 2018, according to a May announcement.
In 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed his first gender-balanced cabinet. On June 6, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland addressed the House of Commons on Canada’s foreign policy priorities.
It included a strong emphasis on women’s rights and putting “Canada at the forefront” by presenting Canada’s first feminist international assistance policy.
The number of Canadian female heads of mission also reflects Canada’s push for more women in politics.
As of Oct. 12, Canada had 137 heads of mission positions abroad, of which 56 are women and 72 held by men, up from 42 women in 2016 and 28 in 2014, according to statistics from Global Affairs Canada.
And these numbers have considerably changed since the 1970s.
Anne Leahy, a former Canadian ambassador to the Holy See in Rome, told The Hill Times in June 2016 that when she first joined the foreign service in June 1973, it had only been two years since female foreign service officers were no longer asked to resign if they married.
Despite advances made by countries like Canada, some of the diplomats on the panel said they had faced difficulties in their careers because of their gender.
“One of my ambassadors, I was in London, he said as if it was a compliment…‘You know what is nice about Kareen is that she has four children and I never heard about that,’” Ms. Rispal said. “At the time I thought it meant I was as efficient as a man.”
Currently, there are 49 female French ambassadors up from only 23 diplomats five years ago, Ms. Rispal said, noting that quotas have been the reason for the increase of women having senior-level jobs.
“If you don’t have quotas, then old habits come back,” she said, noting that these bad habits include sexual harassment in the workplace.
The panel took place at a time when sexual harassment and assault have been in the news throughout the world.
Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein was accused of decades of sexual harassment in an explicit article published Oct. 5 by The New York Times. In the weeks following that news, women from the film industry have been talking about their experiences with Mr. Weinstein.
This elicited the #metoo movement, which encouraged women to share on social media whether they’d experienced sexual harassment.
Ms. Rispal added that in France a similar hashtag, #BalanceTonPorc, was created to raise more awareness.
Ms. Le Jeune and Ms. Sparwasser indicated that female mentorship was also a key element in reaching gender parity within foreign ministries.
Ms. Le Jeune noted that, from her perspective in the U.K., there are “no institutional barriers” and that the only barrier that limits women “is those women themselves,” adding that women need to encourage each other to join the foreign service.
“I think mentoring is one of the big, big things we can do, and we have done it recently, and it is putting women on the spot,” Ms. Sparwasser said, adding more women need to be pushed to take up senior roles so that they can encourage other women.
She said that two men in her career had strongly advocated for her success, and, while laughing, said: “I think those are the mentors that have daughters, probably.”
In Germany, Ellinor von Puttkamer was the first female ambassador, and represented the country at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, from 1969 to 1974.
Despite a push for more women, currently only 15 per cent of German mission heads are women and after the country’s election in late September, only 30 per cent of Members of Parliament were women, compared to 36 per cent in the last Parliament, according to statistics from the German Embassy.
Ms. Campbell urged that, especially in post-conflict negotiations, it was important to have a country’s full range of diversity at the table when making policy decisions.
“It’s for efficacy that you cannot succeed if key parts of the population are not sharing their realities with people who are trying to decide how you’re going to move on to a new stage of coexistence,” Ms. Campbell said.
She encouraged more women to join the foreign service because “if we never see a certain kind of person doing that job, we don’t associate that job with the person.”
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