The 30% Club Ireland CEO & Chairs Annual Conference
"Diplomacy, Diaspora, and Diversity!
Remarks by Ambassador Anne Anderson
Dublin, 25 January 2017
I am very glad to be here, and to have received this invitation to address your gathering. Some clever person in the 30% Club chose this wonderfully alliterative title: “Diplomacy, Diaspora, and Diversity”, and it gives me a broad canvas to address a number of issues.
Let me make one thing very clear at the outset. I speak as someone who has had tremendous opportunities in my professional life. For almost forty-five years, I have had the enormous privilege of serving Ireland at home and abroad—always in interesting places, at fascinating times. Every day, I am grateful for that privilege and opportunity.
I could easily and effortlessly spend my allotted 15 minutes this evening speaking about the enormous progress achieved in the decades since I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs. And all of it would be true. The Department today is almost unrecognisably different from the institution I joined in 1972. Today’s management has a strong commitment to gender equality. Recommendations of a gender audit, carried out a few years ago, are being conscientiously implemented. Almost 30% of our heads of Mission are female, and a recent round of promotions to top level posts had a very healthy success rate for women candidates.
But I believe what’s most important on occasions such as this is to jolt ourselves out of any tendency towards complacency. So I will largely concentrate this evening on the road still to be travelled.
There is one question I want to touch on at the outset: “Does it matter that there should be gender balance in diplomacy?” As you might expect, my answer is unequivocally yes – it does matter. I could put forward various rationales. In general, I assume it’s the common currency in this room that a more balanced workforce leads to better decision-making. But more specifically, I could posit a view that we would have a more collaborative, more consensual, less bellicose world if women had an equal share of top diplomatic and foreign policy posts.
That might indeed prove to be the case but, as of now at least, we don’t have a solid evidential basis to support such a thesis. In fact, there is some interesting research about the minority of women in top foreign policy posts feeling they need to battle stereotypes, perceptions of “softness”, and therefore being propelled towards more hawkish positions. What we don’t know is whether, with more women in these posts, and absent the stereotypes and women feeling they had to react against them, behavioural patterns might be different. So, the jury is still out on that.
The basis for my answer is much simpler. Diplomats – and especially Ambassadors, who are among the most visible diplomats – should look like the people they represent. It’s normal, it’s healthy, it’s how it should be. Remember a couple of years ago when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to office, and was asked to explain the logic of the 50/50 gender breakdown of his cabinet. His answer could not have been more succinct: “Because it’s 2015”. And so I don’t think we need to over-claim or engage in special pleading. Women represent 50% of humanity; we should have a 50% stake in decisions that affect the future of humanity. It’s really that simple.
Does this matter to people? In my experience, it does – a lot. As you heard, I was the first woman to represent Ireland in each of my five posts as Ambassador, and when I went to Brussels in 2001, I was the first woman Ambassador, ever, from any member state of the Union – and this over fifty years since the Union was founded. Everywhere I’ve been, but especially in my current post, again and again, I have had women come up and tell me how happy they are to have a woman Ambassador. They notice; they feel affirmed; it matters.
And I think there is an important general point here. People connect with what they can identify with. One could express it as a mathematical equation: Representivity equals relatability. And isn’t this what all our institutions – government or business – are looking for: a sense of connection with our citizens or clients?
Now let me get to the main focus of what I want to say this evening: the extent to which problems still persist.
First, a few statistics – or rather one stubborn statistic that keeps recurring. For all the undoubted progress made, the fact is that women in our Department still hold only 15% of the posts at most senior level. And our Foreign Service is not in any way aberrational. When I look around me in DC, although the number fluctuates slightly at any given time, about 15% of the Ambassadors are female. And the same is true of the women Ambassadors to the United Nations in New York: the ratio there too has hovered around 15% over the past years.
Perhaps this is the moment to say a word about pipelines, because it’s such an important issue. As I said earlier, the picture in our Department is certainly not static; things are improving and unquestionably – based on recruitment patterns in recent years and the cohorts of very able younger women moving through the ranks - things are bound to get better. But I’m always sceptical of any easy reassurance about pipelines. The fact is that they can let you down. I have seen this in the civil service and I’m sure the same is true in the private sector. For all sorts of reasons, pipelines are very prone to developing leaks. So it’s critical to diagnose what’s causing these leaks and to move very actively to reinforce and protect the pipelines.
As I suspect is true of many professional women, I am more comfortable talking about issues and statistics than drawing on personal experience. But I think it’s important to share a sense of how it actually feels to be part of that 15%.
Three years ago almost to the day, I addressed the Gender Equality Network in my Department (and yes, it’s so good that we have such a Network). Especially given the coincidence of dates, I thought it might be of interest this evening to juxtapose what I said on that occasion with my perspective today, informed by three further years at the coalface.
When I spoke three years ago, I thought it would be helpful, especially for my younger colleagues, to talk about some of the challenges I had experienced throughout the years. I spoke about the “marriage ban” which existed since the foundation of the State right up until Ireland joined the European Union—the ban which meant that women were systematically ejected from the public service, civil service, Foreign Service the day they got married. I talked about the legacy of that ban for those of us who entered the Foreign Service in the early 70s: how we lacked female path finders or mentors.
As it happened, when I was posted to Geneva in 1976, I was the first married woman diplomat to serve abroad in the history of our Foreign Service. Faced with a rear-guard action from the Department of Finance, I had to threaten legal action to secure a married officer’s allowance and rental accommodation suited to a married officer. And throughout most of the intervening decades – even if things slowly but steadily improved – there were still recurring struggles to assert equal rights to postings and promotion.
When I gave that address to my colleagues in January 2014, I certainly didn’t minimize the continuing challenges or suggest that all the battles were behind us. But my conclusions were essentially upbeat, feeling that the path ahead was now clearly signposted, and that we were poised for the next push. I also described how liberating it felt to be in DC, where there were a significant number of women in senior positions in the State Department and across the Obama Administration.
Within a couple of months of giving this speech, I had a reality check. Mid-March 2014, St. Patrick’s Day. The Taoiseach’s programme in DC had gone well and our delegation had arrived in New York. A minor incident intruded: I had arranged a meeting which the Taoiseach wanted; there was a misunderstanding with one of his senior officials, and an exchange of words followed which was overheard by a journalist. There were some overblown media headlines over the next few days, before the whole thing receded.
As I said, nothing seismic and it would scarcely be worth recalling had the incident not brought some pretty shocking sexism to the surface. References appeared in the media to my being “too big for my boots”, to my “Prada” shoes, (let me interject here that I have never owned Prada shoes in my life; and I don’t know anyone on a civil salary who has!); how I looked and how I dressed.
It was a jarring – but perhaps salutary - reminder of the attitudes that professional women still have to contend with.
Over these past three years, I have also had reason to adopt a rather more nuanced view as to how good it was for senior women in the Administration in Washington. I came to know a number of these women well, and to hear their stories. Just a couple of vignettes.
I hosted a reception recently for a distinguished senior woman official, head of one of the major US scientific and environmental agencies. As it happened, she had an Admiral on her staff, a man who reported to her, who was also at the reception. They both told me, with a degree of amusement but underlying seriousness, about a strategy they had developed over the years. He would always accompany her on official networking occasions, at her shoulder, fully uniformed and badged. This was important, they explained, as a signifier of status. Otherwise, she would risk being side-lined, since the unspoken but prevailing assumption on these occasions was that people of consequence in the room – the people one needed to direct oneself towards and impress - were male.
I have, from time to time, experienced something along these lines myself in DC (where, unfortunately, I don’t have the benefit of an Admiral at my shoulder!). No issues at all when people know in advance it’s a woman Ambassador. But otherwise, come into a room with a man at one’s side; someone will say, “Here is the Ambassador”, and the chances are that hands will be outstretched to greet the man.
In other words, for Ambassadors (and I would suspect the same is true for CEOs and Board Chairs) the default setting is male. And clearly the only thing that’s going to change that is critical mass. Everyone here obviously knows that – since you’re in the 30% Club – but it bears repeating over and over.
Another vignette; this time relating to women in the White House. Even under the equality-conscious President Obama, it seems that all was not quite as it should be in the earlier years of his Administration. In key White House meetings, the women – over time - came to feel that male voices were disproportionately carrying weight. They got together and analysed what was happening and why. They agreed to develop a conscious practice of “amplification”: when one woman made a cogent point, other women would deliberately support it and credit her: “As Mary said…”
I think most of us are familiar with this particular syndrome, but it was something of an eye opener that it was still an issue – even in the Obama White House.
The ultimate reality check came with the Presidential Election. Of course I am not going to make a political speech here this evening. Our Embassy works in an entirely bipartisan way in Washington. I have met President Trump, and had the honour of attending the Inauguration last Friday, and it goes without saying that we will be working towards a fruitful and forthcoming relationship with the incoming Administration. But you could not have lived through this campaign in the US without being struck by the sexism and misogyny that accompanied it. Seeking to elect a woman to the White House is constantly referred to as the effort to break the “ultimate, highest glass ceiling”. Based on what I have seen, I’m inclined to think this ceiling is more reinforced concrete than glass!
The title of my talk also encompasses the diaspora, so let me say a word on that subject. My interaction with Irish America has been one of the most enriching aspects of my posting: their love for and loyalty towards Ireland never ceases to inspire me. The diaspora comprises many interwoven strands and there is no single catch-all characterisation. Some of the organisations are progressive; others are rooted in an earlier vision of Ireland and perhaps an earlier vision of America.
Since my appointment, I have had a series of courteous and mutually respectful but honest exchanges with the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. The Friendly Sons have been an all-male organisation since their foundation in 1771. In the majority of their branches, the main annual activity is the St Patrick’s Day dinner. Frankly, it falls so far short of how a joyful and inclusive St. Patrick’s Day could be, when hundreds of men gather for a celebratory dinner and shut the door on women.
Early last year, I was delighted to receive a communication from the Friendly Sons of St Patrick in Philadelphia – the cradle of the organisation - informing me that they had decided to revise their policy of nearly 250 years and to admit women members, and inviting me to become the first female member.
There was a wonderfully positive, celebratory evening in Philadelphia when I was admitted to the Society, along with other women. And this led to one of the most cherished moments of my DC posting. At the White House reception on St Patrick’s Day last year, when President Obama addressed the guests, he warmly referenced my admission to the Friendly Sons and went on to quote an excerpt of the speech I had given in Philadelphia: “To quote Ambassador Anderson: There are no second class citizens; there are no children of a lesser God”.
As I said, a lovely moment – and important to remind ourselves that, when one keeps knocking on doors, they may eventually open.
Moving from the personal anecdotes back to the issues, I would make three points before concluding.
Firstly, we need to ensure that there is a balanced, clear-eyed identification of the problems. The constraints on women’s advancement are threefold: attitudinal issues for women themselves, workplace issues and societal issues. And each set of issues needs to be comprehensively addressed.
Throughout my posting in the US, I have time and again addressed women’s groups – not just in New York or DC but in more far-flung places like Missoula, Montana, or Anchorage, Alaska. The problems that keep coming to the fore in these discussions are the ones that women experience in their own psyche: the confidence issues, the limits we place on our aspirations, the trade-offs between ambition and likeability, the guilt of working mothers.
These issues are absolutely real and absolutely need to be addressed. Of course we have responsibilities as women to fashion our own futures. But we also have to remember: it’s not all on us: I worry sometimes that – at least in the US - women will drown in self-help books while letting employers and governments and the media off the hook.
Secondly, and very briefly. My title was about diversity but, given the focus of today’s meeting, I have treated this in terms of gender diversity. But diplomacy of course will be enriched by diversity in all its forms. We represent a rainbow of people: male, female, gay, straight – and, in an increasingly multi ethnic nation, let’s all look forward to the future Ruth Neggas of Irish diplomacy.
The third point is one that I want to leave you with. Particularly in my current post, but in previous ones too, one of my core responsibilities has been protecting and promoting Ireland’s image and reputation. Our success in so many areas depends on this, but it is vital to our economic performance. Again and again we talk about our talent – and all our feedback from the key economic decision-makers, the corporate heavy hitters, suggests that this is indeed one of the most compelling elements of our FDI offer. Particularly in the period ahead as we are buffeted by Brexit, and the increasing likelihood of some type of corporate tax reform in the U.S., image and talent will become more than ever important.
So what is this image we project? It is one of a modern, progressive, country with a dynamic and flexible workforce. In other words, a “cool” Ireland, in the American sense. Implicit in all of this is an image of Ireland that has women, in critical mass, in senior echelons of business and in the board rooms. That’s part of the very definition of modernity. And so we need to walk the talk - especially as the competition heats up on every front, we need to make sure that the reality matches this projection of ourselves.
On that note, let me finish and repeat my thanks for this invitation to address you, and to applaud the good work of the 30% Club. Although I retire from the Foreign Service this summer, this is a cause I will continue to support, in whatever capacity in the future – there is just too much unfinished business.