Norway’s Foreign Minister claims female diplomats are too attached to their family to seek ambassador posts
Author: Gry Tina Tinde, independent diversity advisor and writer, Asker, Norway, 9 July 2012
US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, with Norway’s Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre during a visit to northern Norway in June 2012. Is “blame the victim” being applied by Mr. Gahr Støre when he says women diplomats do not want to achieve the world’s most popular professional title “ambassador”?
Photo: Andrea Gjestvang, Norway MFA
Ambitious, smart and hard-working women have a lot going against them. Most of it has to do with myths and stereotypes about the female sex and roles assigned since time beginning. For obvious and biological reasons, being pregnant, giving birth, and nursing can always be linked to women. In addition, taking care of children is automatically assigned to women, even though parents can share this, if two parents are around. Rarely are childcare responsibilities connected to men in the public discourse, and especially not in relation to work life and senior-level careers. One is left with the impression that women deliver and breastfeed babies until they retire. This post will show how gender bias persists in government affairs and what a great disadvantage it is for a diplomat to be a woman. Even if she is from the country that has been found to be the best to live in for women, Norway.
Gender equality remains one of the greatest challenges to human rights and democracy. A government wanting to address the rights, competencies and needs of males and females in its foreign policy needs to ensure its own decision-making is gender balanced. Ambassadors have major impact on a country’s international cooperation. Globally most of them are men. Of the 192 ambassadors to the UN in New York in March 2011, 87,5 % (168 ambassadors) were males, according to an overview on the UN website. Only 12,5% were women, which is far below the critical mass of about 30% that is deemed necessary to have an impact. South Sudan joined the UN in July 2011 and appointed Agnes Oswaha UN ambassador. No Norwegian woman has served as UN ambassador in New York, but in 2008 Bente Angell-Hansen became the first Norwegian female UN ambassador, in Geneva. I was incredibly proud in her behalf and of women’s advancement when she arrived as UN ambassador at her first meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), where I worked at the time. In 1989, when I joined the UN in New York as an associate information officer, around 11% of UN ambassadors were female. After 23 years the increase has been a mere 2%, as women ambassadors to the UN make up approximately 13% today.
What never stops to surprise me is that there are hardly any limits to how long, wrongly and nature-defying childbirth and child rearing is used as an excuse for not promoting women into top positions. It is clear that women don’t give birth and breastfeed well into their 60s. Having kids and forgetting all about work responsibilities that are seen to be crucial in order to become a manager can conveniently be used against any woman. For instance, women who never had a child or whose kids have moved out may face the same discrimination as women who have 10 children and one at the breast, because women are often put in the same category. (Of course there is no reason why a mom or dad of 10 should not be fit for the work life either, pending on their qualifications and access to childcare.) It is a common discrimination strategy to assign similar, negative traits to a group one wants to exclude from certain benefits or rights. Interestingly, a man’s role as a father is not seen as an obstacle to his professional ambitions. Rather, it’s been found to be an advantage for men to have a family when being considered for advancement. For a woman, anything can be used against her when pursuing a career. It is so typical to accuse a professional woman of being distracted by children and family that one would think the argument was used up, but it is alive and kicking.
Becoming an ambassador is seen as the pinnacle of success to many. A Swedish survey ranked “ambassador” the most desirable professional title out of 100 positions, with “dishwashing job” at the bottom. No wonder that the prestigious ambassador assignments are among the bastions men fight with fervor to defend and keep to themselves. Women in diplomacy and international organizations (especially the highest achievers) are very familiar with dirty tricks by boys’ clubs that include rumor mongering, stealing of ideas and projects and being barred from high-visibility assignments and speaking engagements. In my opinion, and as we will see below, spreading the notion that middle-aged female diplomats are too attached to their family to want to become an ambassador, is a dirty trick. It is an insult to women who qualify for the top jobs and want them, and it also discounts men who are as committed to their family as anyone else is.
The latest contribution to such gender discrimination comes from the Foreign Minister of Norway, Jonas Gahr Støre. An 8 July 2012 article headline quotes him saying “Women don’t want to become ambassadors”. His statement and reflections were immediately picked up by countless other media outlets. Unlike the 3,000 people who participated in the study referred to above that selected “ambassador” as the most popular job, Mr. Gahr Støre concludes that becoming an ambassador is not very tempting for women diplomats in his Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). He evidently sees no problem in being a man speaking about women’s professional goals.
Mr. Gahr Støre explains that women hesitate to apply to ambassador positions due to family concerns (women are here grouped into one batch of mothers, presumably with young children and/or a partner who refuses to move abroad?). The article does not mention that the MFA has recruited 50% women for the past 30-40 years, as noted by ambassador Mona Juul in an article in Dagbladet in 2002. Ambassador Juul said 10 years ago that the low number of women in the MFA leadership was “cause for concern”. The reporter added that several sources had said that the appointment of Ms. Juul to the ambassador position in Tel Aviv, Israel, at the age of 41, had caused envy and discontent in the MFA’s boys’ club.
If new diplomat recruits are around 25 years of age, and we add 30-40 years, this means that the MFA has a gender-balanced pool of 55-65 years olds (and younger). This is the typical age when one may join the select few who become ambassadors. Many of these diplomats are now grandparents, if they have a family. Gahr Støre and the boys’ club must stop spreading misinformation about women diplomats in their 50s and 60s giving birth and forgetting all about their career goals as they breastfeed their babies. This is what it sounds like when Gahr Støre talks about women refusing to become ambassadors due to family concerns. Women and men who join the diplomatic corps are well aware that there will be many relocations. Arguments about women being different from men when it comes to family attachment and careers are outdated. In any case, the public needs to get the information from the horse’s mouth (women diplomats) and not from a man who has had the responsibility to implement gender equality efforts at the MFA for several years.
Virtually any diplomat would be exhilarated to head an embassy, with all the responsibility and pay, interesting representation tasks, free ambassador residence, limousine with driver, chef and cleaning staff.
Like other professionals, female diplomats probably wish to advance in their field and be treated fairly. A survey at the MFA 8-10 years ago found young female and male diplomat trainees to be equally interested in becoming an ambassador. I’d be grateful to anyone who can provide a link to the story, as I cannot find it online. But I remember reading it. Why are children and family concerns seen by Mr. Gahr Støre to be more of an obstacle to a seasoned woman diplomat than to a man? I find it nonsensical.
Lastly, the VG article says there are 27% women ambassadors today, down from 30% in 2009. But no data is presented in the article that proves the figures. Mr. Gahr Støre has been Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2005, coincidentally the same year that I started monitoring Norway’s female ambassador appointments. It would be helpful if a full list of the ambassadors’ names and duty stations were placed on the MFA website, with updates every 3-6 months, while keeping all former lists available for public view. Material with names and duty stations of all ambassadors going back generations would be welcome. With such public info lacking, I have for the last seven years regularly visited each Norwegian embassy website and counted the women ambassadors. It takes me seven hours to click through all the approximately 100 embassy and UN/NATO/EU delegation websites and write down the names of all ambassadors. Whenever an embassy lacks the name of the ambassador, I write and ask of the name of a recent appointee. I google the ambassador’s photo if the first name does not indicate the sex. The information collected in this way is 100% correct, or as correct as the websites are. They are usually frequently updated. However, my list has always shown a lower or different number of women ambassadors than the information given to journalists who occasionally request sex-disaggregated data on ambassadors from the Foreign Ministry. In March 2005 I counted 20 women ambassadors at the 99 embassies and delegations. Mr. Gahr Støre says in the interview that there were only 15 female ambassadors in 2005. The details need to be made public. In 2008 the number of women ambassadors had increased to 28, according to my website research. I wrote to the Prime Minister and congratulated him on the progress. This year in May I found only 23 female ambassadors after spending a day scrutinizing the 100 embassy and delegation websites. If the government maintains the trend of appointing more men to be ambassadors at the same rate as over the past two years, with five fewer women every two years, Norway will be totally rid of female ambassadors in nine years. The country may still be a great to live in for women, but their chances of being seen as equal to men in the Foreign Ministry and becoming ambassadors seem slim.
Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize from Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, with Norway’s ambassador to Thailand, Katja Nordgaard in November 2010. Spreading the notion that middle-aged female diplomats remain too attached to their family to want to become ambassadors could be one way of signaling that they should not even try.
Photo: Arne Jan Flølo, Norway MFA