Back to basics? Gender parity after 10 years of the European External Action Service (EEAS)

By Margot Jones

International Women’s Day, March 8th, is a moment to acknowledge the importance of women’s equal rights and participation in all aspects of society, celebrate the work of women defending these rights, and take stock of what has been accomplished in this regard. This year, we at EPLO have taken a closer look at the gender balance in the European External Action Service (EEAS), 10 years into its existence.

Gender parity within the EU institutions is not what we would like to be talking about. We would prefer to examine  how the EU’s various actions in support of peace can promote gender justice, or better yet, imagine a feminist foreign policy for the EU. 

However, gender balance has been a commitment since the EEAS was first launched, remains a foundation for the EU’s credibility in its external actions, and must therefore be monitored, especially given that progress on equality has not been linear.

Indeed, gender parity within the EU institutions is central the EU’s various policy commitments to gender equality and the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, and while it has been approximately achieved in terms of the total number of EEAS staff (approximately 47.7% of all current EEAS staff are women), there remains an important gender gap in management positions: 32% of Managing Directors and Deputy Managing Directors, and 36% of Heads of Divisions are women[1]. The High Representative/Vice President (HR/VP), Secretary General, and two Deputy Secretary Generals (an additional Deputy Secretary General is yet to be appointed) are all currently men. 

Whereas the Directorate for the Integrated Approach for Security and Peace (ISP) is one of the main organs in the EEAS working on conflict prevention and peacebuilding, all of the heads of division in ISP are men. Only 1 out of the 9 EU Special Representatives is a woman, 37 of the 149 (24%) EU Delegations and 2 out of the 18 EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations around the world are led by women. Of course, this is not just the responsibility of the EEAS in Brussels but also that of Member States, who should nominate more female candidates for managerial posts.

An important position for the promotion of gender issues within the EEAS, the Advisor on Gender and Diversity (formerly ‘Principal Adviser on Gender and on the Implementation of UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security’) is currently vacant.

This is particularly concerning in light of the ‘gender equality backlash’ currently happening in many places, including Europe. For example, the EU Gender Action Plan III (2020-2025) was not endorsed for Council Conclusions by 3 EU Member States: Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. The COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to setting back gender equality in the workplace worldwide. 

By appointing a near-gender balanced cast of Commissioners in 2019, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has proven that parity at the EU level is possible and primarily a question of political will. We certainly hope that the EEAS and Member States will follow suit and meet their policy commitments to parity in management soon (so we can go back to talking about more substantive issues). 


[1]Figures calculated by the EPLO Secretariat on the basis of the EEAS organisation chart retrieved 3 March 2021. 

Cover image: UN Women. https://www.un.org/en/observances/womens-day

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