Belgian diplomacy: Still a man's game

Belgian diplomacy: Still a man's game
Business meeting. Credit: Unsplash

Despite efforts to create a more diverse workforce, Belgian diplomacy remains a male-dominated affair, reported Het Nieuwsblad.

Foreign Minister Jadha Lahbib (MR) on Tuesday congratulated the Belgian diplomats who will start their new posts in August, paying special attention to the five women who will serve diplomatic roles. One of these is Ariadne Petridis, who is now Belgium's new permanent representative to NATO, which marks the first time a woman has held this role.

But other than Petridis, none of the top diplomatic posts went to women.

The diplomatic assignments are as follows: Caroline Vermeulen will become ambassador in Vienna and Cathy Buggenhout in Belgrade. The other women in leading positions are Hilde Van Inthoudt and France Jamart, who will be consul general in Lubumbashi and Marseilles respectively.

Wilmès' action plan

Belgium's leading diplomats are still men. Lahbib's predecessor Sophie Wilmès (MR) had launched an action plan to diversify the diplomatic corps, such that female diplomats were given a female mentor. The trajectory included workshops, career guidance and visibility campaigns.

For positions in which representation is under 30%, the Foreign Affairs Ministry would use positive discrimination in cases where candidates had the same competencies.

Yet so far, these efforts seem in vain with only 15% of management positions held by women, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The top jobs, such as the Permanent Representative to the EU or ambassador to Washington or Peking, are all held by men.

"The fact that women are more likely to think of their families and are less willing to change their lives for a busy job on the other side of the world is only a small part of the reason," one male diplomat told Het Nieuwsblad. "That used to be the case, now it's much less of a problem."

Can Lahbib turn things around?

Various attempts to feminise the corps have had limited results. Even 20 years ago, Foreign Minister Louis Michel (MR) tried to diversify workforce. Now, more registrations for the diplomatic exams have resulted in a slight turnaround, but it has not translated into action.

The hope is that with a female Foreign Minister at the helm things may change. Lahbib is only the second woman to lead Belgium's diplomatic efforts, taking the reigns from Wilmès, who was Belgium's first female Foreign Minister when she took over in 2020. Wilmès stopped earlier this year to care for her sick husband.

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