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.”
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.