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Belgium comes bottom of new 'Women in Diplomacy' ranking

Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes pictured during a joint African Union and European Union ministerial meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, Tuesday 26 October 2021. (BELGA PHOTO HATIM KAGHAT)
07:02 03/11/2021

The position of ambassador is considered the pinnacle of a diplomatic career. However, it is a position that still remains dominated by men. A new ranking - named Shecurity - focuses on the place of women in diplomacy and while none of the 100 countries from which the data was collected in 2020 achieves gender equality, Belgium is rated as the worst.

With barely 11% of women among its ambassadors, Belgium comes bottom of the pile behind Kyrgyzstan and Chile. Topping the rankings are Finland, Austria and Latvia.

Across all countries, only a quarter of ambassadors were women according to the figures from last year. On the other hand, they are much more present in the staff of the foreign affairs ministries (47%). "The more visible and prestigious the position, the less women are present," the report concludes.

The researchers point out that data on the subject is lacking in many countries. For Belgium, the proportion of female ambassadors has only been known since 2019. "The lack of data is a result in itself," the researchers note. They state that in all of their research on diplomacy and defence, the compiling of statistics on female ambassadors is the poorest.

For many countries, the issue of gender equality is not on the agenda. Of those who do not provide data on the subject, some have probably not appointed any female ambassadors. The table shows, for example, that this was the case for Saudi Arabia in 2018, whose data has not been updated since then.

Shecurity has also made some projections: at the current rate, Finland and Australia would reach gender parity among their ambassadors as early as 2022. For Belgium, the observation is, once again, cruel: if nothing changes, it would take 249 years before gender equality is achieved.

With a woman minister at its head for the first time, former Belgian prime minister Sophie Wilmès, the Belgian foreign affairs ministry is nevertheless very active in defending women's rights and gender equality on the international scene. This latest report shows that it does not seem to have succeeded in applying this priority to itself.

The ministry "is aware of the low figures concerning the number of women in Belgian diplomacy," according to a spokesperson. “This situation is a legacy of decades of imbalance. Correcting it is a long-term job." Being appointed ambassador is indeed the culmination of a long professional trajectory.

During the last diplomatic competition, in 2020, the Belgian foreign affairs ministry tried to reverse the trend. It worked for a while: more than half of the candidates were women. But in the end, 19 men and 11 women were hired.

Many female candidates dropped out during the recruitment process, a long succession of tests and exams. "Being sent abroad has a specific impact," the spokesperson added, mentioning the issue of maternity leave and the difficulties sometimes experienced by the trailing spouse. "Even in 2021, it is also a question that applies to male colleagues."

Diplomats devote two-thirds of their careers to positions abroad, often far from Belgium. The Belgian foreign affairs ministry has adopted an action plan to encourage women to pursue careers, which includes “mentoring by and for female colleagues, career support, awareness and visibility campaigns internally and externally or training," according to its spokesperson.

Written by Nick Amies