Borrell’s boys’ club dominates EU foreign policy
Diplomatic service talks up gender equality but keeps appointing men to top jobs.
In its short history, the EU’s diplomatic service has already had three women in its top posts. But it has never been the beacon of gender equality it may have seemed.
And women inside and outside the European External Action Service (EEAS), which was established in 2011, have been further dismayed by key appointments since Josep Borrell took over as boss.
Those appointments are seen by critics of the EEAS as the tip of the iceberg — symbolic of a male-dominated mass of senior leaders. Other moves — such as plans seen as diluting the focus of a key gender equality post — have reinforced the feeling among women in the EEAS that it is an exclusive club of (often Southern European) male managers with little interest in or appetite for female empowerment, despite pledges to do better.
Borrell became the EU’s foreign policy chief in 2019, following in the footsteps of two women — Federica Mogherini and Catherine Ashton. In 2016, another woman, German diplomat Helga Schmid, became the EEAS secretary-general.
But when Schmid moved on, Borrell in December picked a man to replace her — Italian diplomat Stefano Sannino. Last month, another high-profile post went to a man: European Commission veteran Olivier Bailly was appointed head of a vaccine strategy task force.
“I am sick and tired of having to repeat myself … There are a lot of promises but we have very little actions on the ground,” said Hannah Neumann, a German Green MEP, who co-authored a parliamentary report last year on gender equality in the EU’s foreign and security policy. “With his latest appointments, Borrell does not live up to its promises.”
The report noted that men hold 87 percent of senior management and 75 percent of middle management posts in the EEAS, and that Borrell’s most recent appointments “resulted in a structure with exclusively male Deputy Secretary-Generals.”
The EEAS record on gender equality contrasts sharply with that of another institution, just across the Schuman roundabout in Brussels’ EU quarter — the European Commission.
In 2019, the Commission exceeded a commitment to have women in 40 percent of middle- and senior-management posts. Current Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman to hold the job, has an almost-gender-balanced top team — she is one of 13 women around the College of Commissioners table, along with 14 male colleagues.
The EEAS, for its part, has set a target of having women in 40 percent of senior posts by 2025. It has also set out an Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in External Relations. But critics say actions don’t live up to the grand words.
Borrell’s head of Cabinet — Pedro Serrano, a fellow Spaniard — and deputy head of Cabinet are men. Not only are all three deputy secretary-generals men, but there are also only three women among eight EEAS managing directors.
“The least you can do if you are Borrell is … [set down a] marker by appointing a woman as head of Cabinet or deputy head of Cabinet,” one diplomat said.
The dearth of women in top roles is particularly striking as almost half of the EEAS workforce is female, according to the organization’s 2019 human resources report.
The EEAS’ gender problem is partly a reflection of national realities. In France, for example, only 26 percent of women are directors or heads of section in the foreign ministry. Neumann said the figure is even lower in Germany’s foreign office.
EEAS insiders say there are not enough women applying for top jobs. And despite pressure to get countries to send more women to the EEAS, “countries tend to keep the best ones for themselves,” the diplomat said.
However, some see this argument as something of a smokescreen. They say the criteria the EEAS sets for top jobs make it more difficult for women to land the posts.
To apply for the secretary-general post, candidates were required to have at least 12 years’ experience “of managing staff at senior level,” and “at least 15 years proven, pertinent experience in external relations.” Those conditions made it more difficult for women, who, due to discrimination or taking time out for children, may not have amassed as much experience as men in senior roles.
No women applied for the post, according to multiple EEAS officials.
“How can women complete the criteria if they have been left out from those criteria for centuries?” Neumann asked. “If they don’t find women, then they should do another round because maybe there is a problem with the job description.”
Female employees also speak of a male-dominated working culture that has made the EEAS unattractive to women.
“The EEAS is filled with men who are quite full of themselves,” one female EEAS official said. “It is high time that this is called out … Gender equality is not taken seriously … because the leadership is too weak.
“They repeat messages again and again, they speak of gender equality to make themselves look good and please the European Parliament, and no one is really accountable,” the official said. “There is no appetite for real change.”
Another EEAS employee said gender equality was “left too much to women in the house.” The employee also spoke of an attitude among male colleagues that suggested women did not get top jobs on merit.
“There’s a feeling that you’re only there because you are a woman,” the employee said. “What you hear in corridors is: ‘She got the job because she’s a woman.’”
Critics have also complained about plans to take a post that advised the EEAS on gender issues, and was previously held by an ambassador, and change it to a “Principal Advisor on Gender and Diversity,” who may not hold the rank of ambassador. Those plans are seen as potentially reducing the status of the post while also diluting its focus on gender.
“If it remains just an adviser-level position, I wonder how can you put more responsibility into one person and [be] downgrading that position,” Neumann said.
Somewhat awkwardly, the task of improving the EEAS’ record on gender equality now falls to Secretary-General Sannino — a man given a top job previously held by a woman.
Sannino is expected to announce a new “action plan for gender equality” on International Women’s Day.
The plan, an EU spokesperson said, will include “measures aimed at solving the imbalance between genders inside the EEAS,” including “training for recruitment interviews,” tackling “unconscious bias” and finding a “better work-life balance.”
“Of course, the work is still ongoing and we continue to work hard to ensure equal opportunities and diversity in the EEAS,” the spokesperson added.