Forbes Woman Summit

On March 29, the Dutch Ambassador Stella Ronner-Grubacic held a speech during the official opening ceremony of Forbes Woman Summit

Speech Dutch Ambassador Stella Ronner-Grubacic

Forbes Woman  Summit – Leadership redefined

What an honour to give a key note speech on this topic – about which there is so much to say, from different perspectives: as a professional, as a female ambassador, and simply as a woman, an individual. I will try in my introduction to look at the issue of women in leadership positions from these different perspectives.

Let me start by stating the obvious: The world in which we live, work, socialize, perform and raise our children in, is, in general, not friendly to women.

Here are some numbers that prove this beyond any doubt:

The majority of the 1,5 billion people living on 1 dollar a day, or less (the absolute poverty line) are women. More worrisome still: when we look at the number of men vs women caught in this poverty cycle, we see an increasing gap, a phenomenon that is called the feminization of poverty.

Also on the global level: men are more likely to be literate, with 100 men considered literate for every 88 women. This is the result of the fact that women have less access to education, which results, among other things, from early marriages: almost 750 million women and girls alive today, were married before their 18th birthday. Consider at the consequences this has for education of girls and women and be aware that one extra year of secondary education can increase a woman’s income as much as 25% a year! 

To mention one other, even more disturbing figure: no less than 35 precent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.

It goes without saying that all these factors lead to deep and structural inequalities between men and women.

The World Economic Forum estimates that gender parity globally may now be more than 170 years away. Previously, they estimated an 80-year time. Then it was 120 years. So we see a continuing slow down.

So the question we should pose ourselves today is: how are we going to speed up. Who is going to address the inequalities of this world which is largely led and governed by men. Because it is a world led by men. We have numbers for that as well: only 22.8 per cent of all national parliamentarians are women and only 18.3 per cent of government ministers worldwide are women.

Part of the answer is here with us today. The women that despite the odds managed to breakthrough, and women like all of us here, who are aware that the odds are against us, and that we need to find better ways to address these inequalities.

And this, of course, not just because addressing the existing inequality would mean a world more kind and fair to women. But because it would mean a better world for all, men and children included.

Obviously, a good starting basis for addressing inequalities is having the necessary legal framework. Legislation promoting gender equality and combating any form of discrimination. However, simply to have the legal framework developed and adopted is not enough. We need implementation, we need to have the laws enforced.

The Istanbul Convention is an important legal istrument. Romania has adopted it two years ago but the legislation translating it into national law is still pending.

I already shared with you the global statistics for domestic violence; unfortunately, Romania is no exception.

Now that Romania is having a woman as Prime Minister for the first time in its history, I think women in this country have every hope to believe that concrete actions will be taken towards harmonizing the existing Romanian legislation with the provisions of the Istanbul Convention.

So there is still a long way to go, and that road may at times seem steep and slippery. Why is that so? I mentioned to you earlier that gender parity globally is increasingly far away, something which is referred to as a ‘creeping delay’. The reasons for this creeping delay are many, but one deserves to mentioned: it is the so-called unconscious bias.

To illustrate what I mean by this, I would like to invite you to take a look at the relationship between gender and ambassador appointments. First of all: the share of female ambassadors is low, one might say: extremely low. According to recent studies, 85% percent of the world’s ambassadors are male. Not surprisingly, the share of female ambassadors is not distributed uniformly among countries and regions: overall, the Nordic countries send out the most women ambassadors (35%), followed by the US (24%). Overall in Europe, the share of women in ambassadors appointments is 14%.What is more interesting, however, is the question whether women are less likely than men to end up as ambassadors in countries with the highest economic and military status, the so-called high status positions. While women end up in low-prestige ones. Indeed, accoding to studies, this seems to be the case: women are less likely than men to end up as ambassadors in countries with the highest military and economic status. The pattern is not gradual, but rather follows the ‘glass ceiling’ pattern, i.e. it is not as if women cannot reach the top at all (and some women clearly do succeed in reaching the most prestiguous military and economic postings), but women’s prospects for doing so are worse than for our male counterparts.  And it becomes more and more difficult as women climb the career ladder.

However, there is more to be said about this: namely, the difficulty for female diplomats to reach high status positions has the effect of ‘channelling’ women and men into the hierarchies that anyway exist in international relations. To put it differently, having mostly female diplomats in lower prestige positions, and men in high-status ones, not only reflects the gender inequality in indivdual countries, but also reinforces the equation in international politics between, on the one hand, men/high status and, on the other, women/lower status. So, unfortunately, diplomats being an important factor for the relations between states on the highest level, thus seem to contribute to maintaining the existing gender patterns.

In the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs we have less than 30% women in ambassadorial or other high positions. Why? I already mentioned earlier the issues of unconscious bias: when a company or an organization is recruiting for a leadership position, there tends to be a preference for candidates that resemble those who do the selection, the biased recruitment pattern: women that strive for a leadership position need to respond to certain characteristics that are generally considered important to be succesful in those positions – and that are generally ‘male’ qualities, such as dominance, strength or even toughness, a focus on business and less on relation. Whereas women are generally perceived as more performing in communication, an inclusive style of leadership, friendliness, even fragility.

But from my own experience, I would say that there is something else, too: in my view, organizations tend to evaluate  the career path of women in the same way it evaluates the career path of men. Meaning: one expects a linear career path, a gradual climbing of the career ladder. In my opinion this is a mistake. A woman’s career cannot possibly be as linear as the one of a man. What we need to keep in mind is this:

The life of a woman passes through several phases, that also determine her career – much more than in the case of men. It means that women might take more steps at a time, at some point in their career, while in other periods of their lives they might have to slow down a bit. In other words: if you are a woman, your career is not necessarily a continuous upward trend you start in your early twenties. A woman’s career starts later or it may get interrupted at some point, when the private situation requires it.

Companies and organizations like my own Ministry need to acknowledge the reasons that might make a woman’s career look more erratic. To be aware of the fact that, just because a woman is having a slower start, does not mean that she is less ambitious or capable than her male colleage, but rather that she has different priorities at a certain moment in her life.

Coming back to the legislative framework, this particular aspect would also explain why, even we apply empowering measures, such as quotas, meant to bring more equality in an organisation, these will not yield the desired results if we do not understand the different dynamics between a woman and a man’s career path. Not that I would consider these measures futile. On contrary, I think they are necessary as a starting point that can generate a positive change.

I am actually happy that my Ministry only recently approved an ambitious plan, aiming at having by 2020 40% of ambassadorial and consul generals’ positions being filled in by women.

To conclude, there is a lot of work ahead. The road to perfect equality between men and women is still long and at times steep. And we may encounter setbacks. It places a burden on those of us who have succeeded getting into a position where our voice is heard: we need, no we are obliged, to raise awareness, both inside and outside of our organizations. We have to generate the change that will make this world friendlier to our daughters and granddaughters. If we do not start doing things differently, who will? To end with a quote that I came across recently: “If you do what you have always done, you’ll get what you have always gotten”.

Let’s begin to change – today.