It is a widely held belief that some circles in the Brussels bubble are quick to judge. This dismissive culture stifles new ideas before they have a chance to be tested, take off, and become effective.
This is what is happening to the post of the gender advisor to the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the woman who got the post.
An initiative of Sweden, the post was created to establish a function dedicated to gender related matters and promoting the UNSC Resolution 1325 within the EU foreign and security policy.
Since the beginning, it was welcomed halfheartedly by the member states.
Once approved, the position did not go to a Nordic candidate, as was expected, but to Mara Marinaki, former managing director for multilateral affairs in the EEAS.
It seemed like a peculiar choice. A representative from Greece - a country which has not had a stellar record of advancing women, their rights and empowerment, and has yet to develop a National Action Plan to implement UNSCR 1325?
The position, with a small staff of two and a seconded expert, lacks financial resources to advance initiatives. The mandate, however, is huge.
According to the EEAS chief Federica Mogherini “she leads the coordination of the EEAS work on gender equality and women's empowerment, and on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), as well as on promoting proper accountability and ensuring EU internal and external coherence of relevant actions.”
Marinaki’s situation is representative of the general lack of support for gender focused initiatives, in spite of repeated EU statements of commitment.
So where to start in an institution that, while being headed by a woman, operates in a system that is set in its ways, includes procedures that are based on consensus, and operates in the male-dominated field of international relations?
How can you implement change so that the EU reflects what it encourages itself and others to be?
First, the EEAS must be reflective of the societies in the EU member states. Staffing should be more proactively geared towards creating gender parity in practice.
This should start from recruitment and proceed to the inclusion of more women in high-level and decision making positions. It should also cover stronger roles for women in all EU embassies and civilian and military missions around the world.
Creating a pipeline of female talent could send strong signals for member states to follow suit and help turn Mogherini’s promise to have 40 percent women as head of EU delegations into reality.
Marinaki can build on existing support structures for women inside the EEAS, such as the informal network created by deputy secretary general Helga Schmid for the few women already in management positions.
The EEAS should replicate commissioner Kristalina Georgieva’s pursuit to have 40 percent women in the management of the European Commission by 2019 and develop initiatives to encourage women to apply for higher-level positions.
Second, EU institutions would be more credible if the EU’s external action corps was more diverse.
How can we press other nations to have women be visible and active participants in peace and security negotiations if our own teams are not diverse?
Eleven member states still do not have a National Action Plan for UNSC 1325. The EEAS should make it a requirement for member states to respect gender parity when selecting staff to be seconded to the EEAS.
Marinaki should urge the EU and its member states to turn theory into practice: send female diplomats to Brussels and bring relevant, respected, smart women to be part of the negotiation teams abroad as well as in the EU Council, where member states meet.
And women being part of diplomatic or negotiation teams should not be relegated to issues related to women, children or health.
They should be part of negotiations when counter terrorism measures or borders are being defined, transitional governments are being created, or new constitutions are being drafted.
Thirdly, the first EEAS gender advisor can change how the EU communicates on gender and set examples which can create a precedent for future actions.
Her plan to form a circle of friends on gender in EU institutions and member states could demonstrate a real commitment.
It could have a strong element of outreach to NGOs, think tanks, academia, the media and women in the private sector. Marinaki has modest resources, but lots of potential allies.
The EU should tell success stories of a kind of EU support that remains hidden.
For example, its help for an Iraqi woman who managed to gain access to prisons to speak to perpetrators of terrorist acts, or to the Syrian women who have been brought to the peace negotiations in Geneva.
This would highlight the difference that women can make when they are included in negotiations.
There have been previous gender-related initiatives by EEAS staff well before the position of gender advisor was created. Now is the opportunity for Europe to enhance the quality and quantity of women in foreign affairs.
It is also up to women to dare, to come forward, apply, speak up, and to develop their competence and self- awareness. It is up to those in influential leadership positions to lead by example, be role models, coach, support and request change.
It is up to institutions to adapt. The gender advisor can be that voice that reminds people and institutions to implement the policies that they have ratified so that real change can take place.
Given that Marinaki’s own country needs to progress in all these areas and given the fact that her previous portfolio went beyond gender, perhaps gives her a different credibility in this new role and an ability to speak across aisles and sectors.
We should not prematurely dismiss the opportunity that lies in this. Now it is up to her to deliver, and the rest of us who are in favour of gender parity to support her.
Corinna Horst is president of WIIS Brussels and deputy director of The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Brussels.
This article was first published on EUObserver.com.
Photo credit: European Parliament