A white man in a suit, accompanied by his wife.
That is the classic image that many have of an ambassador from a Nordic country. But it is time to adjust the image, since the real picture in the year 2010 tells a different story. The number of female ambassadors from the Nordic countries has increased steadily in recent years, as is shown by statistics from the intra-Nordic research project entitled Gender and Power in the Nordic Countries.
Alexandra Kollontai became the world’s first female ambassador in 1922 when she was appointed Soviet ambassador to Norway. She later served as Ambassador to Mexico and Sweden. Photo: Wikimedia commons
While the number of female ambassadors was very low in all of the Nordic countries in the 1990s – often far below 10 per cent – developments since then have been very positive, with every third or fourth Nordic ambassador now being a woman. The only exceptions are Denmark and Iceland.
Strategy and target
The method behind the success is simple: gender equality politics. Set strategies for achieving a better gender balance and clear quantitative goals give results, as is shown by experiences from the Nordic countries.
In Finland, there is an agreed target of a 50/50 gender balance among the employees in the foreign service – from top to bottom.
Norway has designed a staff policy which emphasizes that women are to be recruited to position categories where they are under-represented. If there are an equal number of applications from both genders for an open position, the gender that is under-represented is to be prioritised. The target is a 40 per cent proportion of women among the ambassadors.
“Women are encouraged to apply for ambassador posts, and at least one woman is always invited for an interview – given that her qualifications are the right ones,” says Ragnhild Imerslund, Assistant Director General at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
And each time an ambassadorial or other managerial post is filled at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the aim is that there should be candidates of both genders as part of the general goal that 40–60 per cent of all employees within the foreign service should be women.
“Gender equality politics is an integral part of our world,” says Harald Sandberg, head of human resources at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, too, has formulated a gender equality policy, but nevertheless the proportion of female ambassadors there is not very high.
Changed gender roles
Birgitte Markussen has recently been appointed Danish ambassador to Burkina Faso. She is one of the 17 per cent of women working in the diplomatic corps.
“Concrete objectives and policies in the area of gender equality are important. But it is also as important that the management takes a lead in the matter. Personally, I also believe that we as women must take a stance on the images and expectations that are bound up with classical gender roles – also in our private lives. But many focus too much on the costs when they consider employment. It is not unusual to see female ambassadors who work alone at their posting. Some are single. Others have travelled abroad without their families, since their partner has a job at home,” Birgitte Markussen explains.
As for herself, she and her husband have taken turns in travelling abroad with each other. This time, however, it is uncertain when her family will join her in Burkina Faso, since her husband has just started a new job and her oldest child would like to finish her school in Denmark.
“So as a family we must each make a decision on where we are and what we want to do with our lives. We have to get away from the thought that women pay a price when they are willing to take on leading positions. A top position is an opportunity to gain influence. In one’s private life, the question is to agree on certain shared goals within the family – to agree on what exciting experiences we can have together,” Birgitte Markussen says.
The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs cannot give an immediate explanation as to why there are so few women among the Danish ambassadors.
“Historically, we have had many female managers both in the home service and particularly among our ambassadors. But compared to the other Nordic countries, we are still lagging behind. This is partly why gender equality has been an important focal area over the last few years,” says Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, head of human resources at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
New initiatives include, for example, a mentor programme for potential female managers. Or the opening up of posts at managerial level, which are now publically announced so that everybody can apply.
Young ones show the way
But the gender imbalance within the Danish diplomatic corps is also a generational issue, as is shown by the Ministry’s own figures. While only 17 per cent of all ambassadors are women, the female proportion of the ambassadors under 50 years of age is almost twice as high (33%).
The gender statistics in the youngest group of diplomats in the Nordic countries show that this is an overall trend. In Sweden and Norway there is now a gender balance among the candidates. In Finland women are in the majority (51 %), says Pirkko Hämäläinen, deputy head of human resources at the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“We actually have difficulties in finding sufficiently qualified men. At the moment, women are in a small majority within the diplomatic career programme, and we expect the situation to be mirrored at ambassadorial level in a few years,” she says.
This development is not only explained by a gender balanced recruitment policy, she thinks. It is equally the consequence of the efforts of a Finnish government which is proactive when it comes to female career opportunities within the central administration, as well as the presence of a strong female President, who is an avid advocate of gender equality.
By Ulrikke Moustgaard