Rewriting the Rulebook - Women shaping policy narratives

The EU Delegation to the UK marks International Women’s Day 2023

The EU Delegation to the UK, in partnership with Aspen UK, to mark international Women’s Day 2023 brought together leading speakers from the public policy, think tank, and foreign affairs sectors to discuss the distinctive contribution of women to policy making, and hear how they found success in their field. The gathering created the space to explore gender insights in the policy world.To a packed house, the event was opened by the Delegation’s Deputy Ambassador Nicole Mannion who on welcoming all to Europe House, reminded the room of the great strides being made by the EU to address the inequality faced by women in the workplace and across society. The floor was then given to H.E. Ms Laura Popescu, Ambassador of Romania to the UK and current Chair of Women in Diplomacy Network London. Ambassador Popescu outlined how progress in gender equality is not linear and, worldwide, women are still underrepresented across diplomatic positions. The Ambassador then stressed the importance of the Woman in Diplomacy Network as a platform for promoting friendly dialogue, cooperation, and mentorship between its members.

With that the event’s moderator Deborah Bonetti, Director of the Foreign Press Association in London introduced the panel, selected to give a wide range of view points on the journey of women in the policy world and the challenges faced but also the opportunities open to women in the sector

Rashmin Sagoo, Director of the International Law Programme at Chatham House sketched her path through the European Commission the UK FCDO to the think tank space. Dr Brigid Laffan, a renowned Irish political scientist, current President of the European Policy Centre and Emeritus professor at at the European University Institute walked the audience through her lengthy academic career and policy journey. Dr Laffan spoke of the support networks for women, ensuring the proper promotion of female academics and underlined the importance of mentorship. Dr Karin von Hippel, Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute in London introduced that progress is being made, remembering that while at the beginning of her career at most events she would be among the few women in attendance, she now sees encouraging signs. Fellow panelist Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield of Impetus UK represented the younger cohort of the audience and explained her role as Chairwomen of the Woman in Think Tanks (WiTT) forum and how she founded this organisation in response to her professional experience as a woman in the think tank space and the marked lack of female peers. Ms Arslanagic-Wakefield highlighted the pressing problems with recruitment in UK think tanks and how statistics find that regularly under 20% of vacancy applicants are women.

A lively discussion followed as the panelists worked their way through some of their stand out observations of careers spent in such a male dominated industry. Ms Sagoo highlighted the extensive interdisciplinary work being done at her own Chatham House which is being initiated and led by women. Dr Laffan underscored the competitive nature of academia and again stressed the importance of early career mentorship in such environments, particularly for women as there tend to be far fewer visible role models.

For many a crux issue, the panel questioned the impact of childcare during the ‘promotion years’ and the necessity for adequate support and planning to ensure that the navigation of this period doesn’t negatively impact women whether they decide to have children or not. Touching on the recurrent problem that reportedly women suffer from ‘imposter system’ to a greater degree than men, Ms Arslanagic-Wakefield says a key issue is that the skills of others can be overestimated especially if the workplace environment doesn’t have balanced representation. According to Ms Arslanagic-Wakefield, robust HR procedures and communities like WiTT can help to address these issues and support those affected by them. Ms Sagoo added that a diverse team and supportive male colleagues are crucial to women entering more senior positions. But the expectation shouldn’t be limited to diversity of gender but also of ethnic, socio-economic, and geographical backgrounds too.

Turning to the audience, the panel fielded questions that covered representation in politics, the whole question of ‘returners’ – women who re-join the workforce following a gap devoted to caring for a family and the specific importance of gendered issues being allowed adequate prominence. The importance of normalising the role and parental duties of fathers was not lost in the course of the debate.

Feminist foreign policy

Furthermore, an area that sparked particular interest was the topic of Feminist Foreign Policy. Dr Laffan offered the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a prime example of feminist influenced policy - strongly feminist in nature if not in title. The panel bristled at the suggestion that the word ‘feminist’ was polarising. The room took a moment to discuss the work being done to support marginalised women. The issue of funding was raised once again and that tied in neatly to queries raised as to whether a day such as International Women’s Day was performative only. It was agreed that  whether performative or not, given the gravity of the situation of marginalised women globally any opportunity to shed light, educate and promote understanding should be wholeheartedly welcomed.

Dr von Hippel spoke of the necessity to protect the gains that have been made and gave the terrible example of Afghanistan and how frighteningly quick progress in gender equality can be reversed. The experience and bravery of the women in Iran was also recognised and applauded. The necessity to encourage political literacy was highlighted by Ms Bonetti as a potential key to maintaining progress. Dr Laffan concurred and reminded how crucial it was to protect and cultivate political agency – if agency is lost, as happens arguably with the youth, no lasting progress will be made.

Deputy Ambassador Mannion closed the event, thanking Ambassador Popescu, the panel, audience and moderator for such an engaging and thought-provoking event. It was clear the debate could have continued for hours and still there would be elements of the experience of women in the public and policy space to discuss. The Delegation fully intends to follow this highly successful gathering with further initiatives to explore the integral role to be played by women in the creation of effective policy across sectors – most immediately in the Delegation podcast London Calling EU..stay tuned!
Happy International Women’s Day 2023 !