The making of a gender-balanced foreign service

Good mix of data and female foreign service officer perspectives by Catherine Tsalikis of OpenCanada:

…Over the decades, being a woman in the foreign service has gotten easier, but life as a diplomat today is not without its sacrifices. In a job that requires setting up shop in a different country every few years, is it really possible for women to “have it all”?

“I got married at 35 and I had thought, oh my god, maybe it’ll never happen!” Gervais-Vidricaire laughed. She says that when she was in her thirties, “very, very few women became EXs and had a family…I think it was good to show that it was possible to do it; I got married, I had two kids.”

Bogdan describes her time in Belgrade as being hard on her family. But she points out that her children have benefited over the years from being exposed to different cultures and now have a deeper appreciation of what it means to be Canadian. “My daughter was with me the weekend we went through that kind of revolution where a million people came out into the streets to defend their vote,” she remembers. “At such a developmental age, [she] actually saw the birth of democracy…it was such an incredibly powerful experience.”

And ultimately, of course, “having it all” means different things to different people.

Blais points out that even with all the progressive measures the department has put in place over the years — maternity leave, paternity leave, leave (without pay) for child-rearing or taking care of elderly relatives, a compressed work week — numbers have yet to reach parity at the upper management levels.

“I’m not sure we have a full diagnostic of why that is,” she says, adding that it would be helpful to set up longer, extended exit interviews with women who don’t return after taking a period of leave without pay, or after maternity leave.

“If I’m going to be truthful, I have to say that I think part of the reason why we’ve got this issue of not enough representation in the senior ranks is that there are a lot of women in the department who are incredibly talented but decide to have different priorities. And that’s okay too.”

McDougall agrees, and says that when it comes to supporting and promoting women in all industries, “it’s not necessarily so that they get to be president of the corporation or the managing partner of the law firm, but so that they have more choices.”

But for those who do aspire to have a spouse and a family while fulfilling ambitious career goals, Blais believes it’s possible, although not without some hardship and, often, sheer exhaustion.

She looks back on her first decade or so with kids as her “Wonder Woman” years, juggling her priorities as a foreign service officer, wife and mother. She made it a point to always have breakfast during the week with her sons, never accepting early-morning meetings unless she was travelling. On the flip side, weekday evenings were fair game for representing Canada at receptions and work functions. “There were two worlds, and I was running in between them, and I was working very, very hard,” Blais recalls.

As her kids grew into teenagers, and the “adrenaline stopped pumping,” Blais did go through a period of intense burnout and soul-searching. “I was petering on the edge for a while there, and finally it went off balance altogether.” Looking back, she thinks maybe she could have “dialled down the intensity a little bit” and still have made her way. “But I am pretty convinced that I am where I am today because I was very dedicated to my work,” she said.

Now, with her team at the UN, she is careful to apply what she knows about the importance of mental health and maintaining a “very fragile equilibrium.”

“What I try to do now as a manager is to let my staff know that perhaps you don’t need to be here until eight or nine o’clock. Do you really need that, or are you doing it because that’s what you feel you must do to do a good job? Sometimes those are two different things.”

This is something Blais wishes someone had done for her. “I think women tend to be very intense. We care so much about the work, and not to say that men don’t, but there’s a real, almost emotional attachment to the quality of our work that can be dangerous if we don’t manage it better.”

With two decades of diplomacy under her belt, Blais says that a sense of perspective is perhaps the most important tool a woman in the foreign service can have in her arsenal — no second-guessing, no getting emotionally drawn into whether her advice is being retained, or whether she handled a negotiation perfectly.

“When you become a leader, people count on you to be strong, and in order to be strong you have to have perspective,” she said.

“You know how people say, well, if I don’t do this right, no one’s going to die…you know what, actually somebody could die! It’s larger than life, what we do.

Over the decades, being a woman in the foreign service has gotten easier, but life as a diplomat today is not without its sacrifices. In a job that requires setting up shop in a different country every few years, is it really possible for women to “have it all”?

“I got married at 35 and I had thought, oh my god, maybe it’ll never happen!” Gervais-Vidricaire laughed. She says that when she was in her thirties, “very, very few women became EXs and had a family…I think it was good to show that it was possible to do it; I got married, I had two kids.”

Bogdan describes her time in Belgrade as being hard on her family. But she points out that her children have benefited over the years from being exposed to different cultures and now have a deeper appreciation of what it means to be Canadian. “My daughter was with me the weekend we went through that kind of revolution where a million people came out into the streets to defend their vote,” she remembers. “At such a developmental age, [she] actually saw the birth of democracy…it was such an incredibly powerful experience.”

And ultimately, of course, “having it all” means different things to different people.

Blais points out that even with all the progressive measures the department has put in place over the years — maternity leave, paternity leave, leave (without pay) for child-rearing or taking care of elderly relatives, a compressed work week — numbers have yet to reach parity at the upper management levels.

“I’m not sure we have a full diagnostic of why that is,” she says, adding that it would be helpful to set up longer, extended exit interviews with women who don’t return after taking a period of leave without pay, or after maternity leave.

“If I’m going to be truthful, I have to say that I think part of the reason why we’ve got this issue of not enough representation in the senior ranks is that there are a lot of women in the department who are incredibly talented but decide to have different priorities. And that’s okay too.”

McDougall agrees, and says that when it comes to supporting and promoting women in all industries, “it’s not necessarily so that they get to be president of the corporation or the managing partner of the law firm, but so that they have more choices.”

But for those who do aspire to have a spouse and a family while fulfilling ambitious career goals, Blais believes it’s possible, although not without some hardship and, often, sheer exhaustion.

She looks back on her first decade or so with kids as her “Wonder Woman” years, juggling her priorities as a foreign service officer, wife and mother. She made it a point to always have breakfast during the week with her sons, never accepting early-morning meetings unless she was travelling. On the flip side, weekday evenings were fair game for representing Canada at receptions and work functions. “There were two worlds, and I was running in between them, and I was working very, very hard,” Blais recalls.

As her kids grew into teenagers, and the “adrenaline stopped pumping,” Blais did go through a period of intense burnout and soul-searching. “I was petering on the edge for a while there, and finally it went off balance altogether.” Looking back, she thinks maybe she could have “dialled down the intensity a little bit” and still have made her way. “But I am pretty convinced that I am where I am today because I was very dedicated to my work,” she said.

Now, with her team at the UN, she is careful to apply what she knows about the importance of mental health and maintaining a “very fragile equilibrium.”

“What I try to do now as a manager is to let my staff know that perhaps you don’t need to be here until eight or nine o’clock. Do you really need that, or are you doing it because that’s what you feel you must do to do a good job? Sometimes those are two different things.”

This is something Blais wishes someone had done for her. “I think women tend to be very intense. We care so much about the work, and not to say that men don’t, but there’s a real, almost emotional attachment to the quality of our work that can be dangerous if we don’t manage it better.”

With two decades of diplomacy under her belt, Blais says that a sense of perspective is perhaps the most important tool a woman in the foreign service can have in her arsenal — no second-guessing, no getting emotionally drawn into whether her advice is being retained, or whether she handled a negotiation perfectly.

“When you become a leader, people count on you to be strong, and in order to be strong you have to have perspective,” she said.

“You know how people say, well, if I don’t do this right, no one’s going to die…you know what, actually somebody could die! It’s larger than life, what we do.”

via The making of a gender-balanced foreign service

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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