The making of a gender-balanced foreign service
Stories from the women driving Canada’s diplomatic corps toward equality
Forty years ago, life as a diplomat in Canada’s foreign ministry headquarters in Ottawa looked very different than it does today. Foreign service officers who joined the department as recently as the late 1970s and early 1980s remember it as an old boys’ club — the men arrived at work every day in suits and ties and answered their phones by giving their surnames, and the duties of most women in the department were secretarial.
It wasn’t unusual to come in late and browse The Globe and Mail for awhile — The New York Times would arrive later in the day. Some employees smoked at their desks, and if officers went out for a leisurely lunch, hard liquor was often involved. When five o’clock rolled around, it was common to gather in the deputy director’s office, where discussion could go on for hours about Canada’s policies in the world. It was a time regarded by some male diplomats as one of “fierce debate” and “extraordinary camaraderie.”
Angela Bogdan remembers this period differently. She was the single mother of a young son when she began her diplomatic career, having packed her things and made the drive from Toronto to Ottawa to take a job offer. When she married and had her second child, a daughter, in the mid-1980s, new mothers in the foreign service, as in the rest of the public service, could only avail themselves of 15 weeks of leave on unemployment insurance or use sick leave.
Bogdan returned to work while her daughter was still an infant and was determined to breastfeed for as long as she could, which involved leaving at a regular hour in the evening. “I kept this all quiet and focused on my work, but by 5:00 p.m., I needed to get home,” she recalled. Such a departure time was inconsistent with the prevailing culture, when officers, especially junior ones, were expected to work well into the night.
One late afternoon, just a few days after returning from leave, Bogdan’s supervisor called her in to his office for a conversation. She remembers feeling very uncomfortable, as her body instinctively knew it was approaching five o’clock. As her supervisor went on speaking, she began to fidget.
“He must have noticed and asked me if the discussion was boring me, or if I had somewhere else to be,” Bogdan said. “I guess my maternal instincts took over — I remember replying that he had my full attention from nine to five, but I have an infant at home to feed, and if I don’t leave shortly, Niagara Falls will look like a trickle in comparison to what will happen to me in a few minutes.”
Bogdan recalls that her supervisor appeared stunned but quickly became apologetic. At the time, she said, no one in the department was used to working mothers or the unique challenges involved when women had to return to work so soon after giving birth.
“That particular supervisor became one of my biggest supporters,” said Bogdan, who remained in the foreign service and is now Canada’s consul general in Sydney, Australia. “Thereafter he always supported me to leave when I needed to care for my infant daughter. I learned that day how important it was to speak truth to power and not apologize for being a working mother.”
Madeleine Albright, selected by Bill Clinton as the first female US secretary of state, once said: “It used to be that the only way a woman could truly make her foreign policy views felt was by marrying a diplomat and then pouring tea on an offending ambassador’s lap.”
Indeed, for almost 40 years after the establishment of Canada’s external affairs department in 1909, only men were allowed to write the foreign service entrance examination — if a woman wanted a career in diplomatic work, she had to settle for a job as a secretary or a clerk.
In 1995, Margaret Weiers, who spent two years as a foreign service officer before a long career with the Toronto Star, published a book called Envoys Extraordinary: Women of the Canadian Foreign Service. It’s full of anecdotes from 22 talented, multilingual, mould-breaking women like Agnes McCloskey, one of the department’s very first women, who felt the need to use a “deliberately ambiguous” signature comprised of her initials so that she wouldn’t be ignored by the people she was corresponding with, and Marjorie McKenzie, who wrote the foreign service exam before women were officially allowed to do so and tied for first place, but was never in her career sent abroad.
Women were permitted to write the foreign service examinations and be admitted as actual officers in 1947. But for decades after that, only a handful of women took up the challenge, faced with the age-old dilemma of choosing between marriage or their careers. They were expected to resign when they got married, the presumption being, Weiers wrote, “that married women officers could not be posted abroad because their husbands would be unwilling or unable to accompany them,” resulting in a “dame drain.” The rules were finally changed in 1971 — a full 16 years after the Canadian government removed restrictions on married women in all other government departments.
As Bogdan’s experience demonstrates, the department in the 1980s was still very much a man’s world. But by the early 1990s, many women were hopeful about the future: women made up 20 percent of foreign service officers and 7.8 percent of the department’s executive levels. The optimists in the department, Weiers wrote, subscribed to the “critical mass theory: as the number of women increases, their chances of becoming middle- and upper-level managers will increase.”
Two decades later, Justin Trudeau has made gender representation in diplomacy a priority, and for the first time ever, the number of Canadian heads of mission — ambassadors, high commissioners and consuls general — is nearing parity. But while tremendous progress has been made for and by women over the last few decades, a look at the latest figures and interviews with current and former diplomats reveal there is still a way to go before Canada has a truly equal foreign service.
Beyond a pipeline issue
With a major diplomatic reshuffle in his first year in office and in diplomatic appointments made since, Trudeau has emphasized the Canadian government’s commitment to “a greater gender representation” in the makeup of the country’s heads of mission.
According to data shared with OpenCanada by Global Affairs Canada, the gender composition of Canada’s top diplomats has gone from 29 percent women and 71 percent men in 2013, under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to 44 percent women and 56 percent men as of October 2017.
These numbers are remarkably encouraging, especially when compared to other Group of Seven (G7) countries. As of June 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, women made up 36 percent of American ambassadors (Pew does not have data on the breakdown under the Trump administration). In the United Kingdom, women make up a dismal 19 percent, according to recent remarks by British High Commissioner to Canada Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque.
And, on the face of it, the overall percentage of women holding executive positions in Canada’s foreign affairs department is also impressive (these are categorized by the designations EX-01 through EX-05, which include directors, directors general and assistant deputy ministers, as well as heads of mission, which can be any EX level, depending on the size and importance of their mission). As of December 31, 2017, out of 411 executives, 176 were women — 43 percent, similar to the percentage of Canadian heads of mission positions that are held by women.
But breaking down the numbers by EX category tells a bit of a different story.
“It’s sort of glass half full, glass half empty,” said Sarah Taylor, a director general at Global Affairs Canada. In addition to her day job in the department’s North Asia and Oceania section, Taylor is also the department’s champion for women (a position previously held by Bogdan), charged with leading efforts to advance organizational culture change on gender issues.
Taylor’s father, Si, is well-known in the department, having been undersecretary of state for external affairs in the 1980s. “Many of the people in this building know that, but what most people don’t know is my mother was a foreign service officer too [for the British government],” she said.
“My parents met because they were both posted to India at the same time. They fell in love, married, and my mother quit her paid job, but then spent 30 years being an unpaid representative of Canada, including as an ambassador’s wife, taking on enormous quantities of work that nobody was paying her for or necessarily acknowledging.
“So I look at that generation, and then my own experience, and you can see we’ve come a long way…but we’ve still got some big challenges,” Taylor told OpenCanada.
Her brightly lit corner office in the department’s headquarters overlooks the Ottawa River and is adorned with memorabilia from her travels throughout Asia. Over green tea, she laid out the story behind the statistics.
“I came into the foreign service 25 years ago, with an intake that was roughly 50 percent women — so you’d think by now that the pig would have moved through the python, so to speak. You ought to have that at the highest levels,” Taylor said, “but we don’t.”
Similar to when Taylor first entered the foreign service, junior levels today are roughly evenly split between men and women, she says. And while women make up 43 percent of the department’s senior executives, as of December 31, women made up just 36 percent of the top two EX levels (04 and 05), according to data obtained by OpenCanada under access to information legislation. Previous statistics seen by OpenCanada put the percentage of women in the EX-05 category at 25 percent.
Further yet, there is a widely-held sense in the department that the amalgamation of the formerly named Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in 2013 has bolstered these gender statistics, since a significantly higher portion of EX positions at CIDA were held by women, and the current EX numbers don’t distinguish between those in the department with and without the foreign service officer designation.
Taylor is a big subscriber to the Sheryl Sandberg school of thought that encourages women to “lean in” and tries to address the root causes of why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled.
Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, “has identified a real phenomenon that…companies have now been hiring lots of women for a long time, and have lots of women in middle management, but you look at senior management and there’s clearly still a glass ceiling there,” Taylor said. “This isn’t a pipeline issue anymore — we’ve had long enough that we should have fixed that.”
The results of a December 2017 promotional exercise for the EX-03 level underline that there is still work to be done. Out of 20 newly qualified EX-03s, only four were women.
“We find this result surprising given decades of gender-balanced recruitment and the large pool of talented women of merit and proven experience in the Department,” Taylor wrote in a letter, obtained by OpenCanada, addressed to senior management and signed by more than 460 women and men in the department.
The letter continued: “We are also concerned and disappointed that this process, which was presented as a trial of a new approach for future EX competitions within Global Affairs Canada, did not incorporate current best practices, and has actually moved us further away from closing equity gaps within the department.
“In addition, there appears to be low representation of the other employment equity groups and of Francophones,” Taylor wrote. “The result is not representative of the country as a whole, nor of the department. This may be particularly problematic as we advocate internationally for a feminist foreign policy and advance the Feminist International Assistance Policy.”
The statistics on women in senior roles obtained by OpenCanada did not highlight how many, or whether any, of these women are women of colour.
This isn’t a pipeline issue anymore — we’ve had long enough that we should have fixed that.
In addition to looking at what’s going on in the executive ranks, it’s also instructive to look at where, exactly, Canada’s 59 female heads of mission are being sent.
Margaret Weiers placed great emphasis in Envoys Extraordinary on the fact that, as of 1995, while Canada had posted its first female ambassador to the United Nations, it had yet to appoint a female career foreign service officer to the most high-profile posts of Washington, London, Paris, Tokyo, Moscow or Bonn (Jean Casselman Wadds had served as high commissioner to London under Joe Clark, but she was a political appointee).
Progress made on this front over the last 20 years has been notably slow. Long-time Canadian diplomat Marie Gervais-Vidricaire spoke to OpenCanada shortly after ending her term in Germany, where she served as ambassador from September 2013 to May 2017. As late as 2016, Gervais-Vidricaire recalls, “in all the history of the ministry, I was only the second woman career diplomat in a G7 country.”
In 2016 and 2017, Janice Charette, Isabelle Hudon and Alexandra Bugailiskis were appointed to the United Kingdom, France and Italy, respectively, although both Charette and Hudon were political appointees, chosen from outside the ranks of career foreign service officers. Canada has yet to have a female ambassador to the United States or Japan.
Noting that three Canadian female heads of mission to G7 countries is “unheard of,” one official in the department, who preferred not to be identified, said the overall stats are encouraging but cautioned that “they also mask the distribution.”
“There have been some [positive] political signals — very good, UK and France — but when you look at the G7 overall, and then when you look at the G20, you realize okay, the overall percentage increases are good, but women are still being sent to the smaller missions based in countries of lesser importance to Canada.”
For the official and other long-serving foreign service officers, the political appointments of Charette and Hudon come with an asterisk.
“I’m super pleased that we have three female HOMs in the G7 now, but some women in the department might say, hmm…the only way a woman can become an ambassador to France is if the prime minister decides he’s going to make a political appointment. If I’m just hanging out here in the trenches for 25 years as a good, hard-working bureaucrat, I will never aspire to be ambassador in France because the system is never going to get me there.”
The story is indeed similar when it comes to Canada’s heads of mission to G20 countries — out of 19 possible positions, only four are held by women, in France, Italy, the United Kingdom and South Africa.
While Canada’s current foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, is the third woman to hold the title, two decades after Margaret Weiers drove home the point repeatedly in her book, Canada still has not had a female deputy minister of foreign affairs, the department’s top job. There is a wall at 125 Sussex that features portraits of all the men who have held the position — after almost 110 years, not one woman has been deemed capable of joining their ranks. And, as if echoing the photos on the wall, not one room in the building has been named after a female diplomat.
The benefit of standing out
Since the days of women having to choose between marriage or a career as a diplomat, the opportunities for advancement available to women have increased exponentially. But, more than 70 years after women were allowed to write the foreign service exam, women in top diplomatic positions are still seen as the exception rather than the norm.
Abbie Dann, a former Canadian ambassador to Ukraine who retired in 2013, joined the diplomatic corps around the same time as Bogdan.
Looking back, the situation for women was “pretty grim,” Dann said. “It wasn’t a question of what you could do, it was a question of just trying to get your foot in the door.”
In her late twenties, Dann was posted as assistant trade commissioner to São Paulo, only seven years after women were allowed to join the Trade Commissioner Service. Shortly after her arrival, she recalled, she found out there had been a flurry of discussion between the Canadian posts in Brasilia and São Paulo and department headquarters, with some senior officers questioning the wisdom of her being sent to what was then a “third-world hardship post.”
Dann’s colleagues later told her about the trepidation of some “old school” officers, who worried “Ms. Dann would go out on a mission and she would be raped, murdered and quartered — she would be ineffective, and she would be this and she would be that.”
“Of course I was effective, in part because I learned how to speak the language,” Dann said. “There’d be meetings with the governor’s office, and in those days, no one spoke English in Brazil. They’d say, ‘Send the little girl — the menina,’ and I would do all of the arrangements because no one else among the Canadians could easily speak Portuguese.”
American journalist and author Joan Didion has described how being underestimated as a woman often played to her benefit. “My only advantage as a reporter,” she wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem while in her thirties, “is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.”
Laughing, Dann said her experience as a diplomat was “exactly the same,” adding that she was often mistaken for “the coffee lady.”
“It happened literally until the end of my career,” she said. “Also, if you’re in a macho culture — which most are — [men] want to show off to a woman, so they tell you all sorts of stuff they wouldn’t tell a guy. A definite advantage.”
Dann emphasized that despite the rocky beginnings, once women began to show up and do their job as trade commissioners, “we were accepted by our colleagues, because we were good, and they were pretty decent guys — they began to see us as an asset to the service.”
Like Dann, Taylor thinks a woman’s “oddity value” can be a real plus. “Especially at the senior levels, when you’re representing Canada, you need to stand out…more people are curious to meet you if you’re a woman, so that helps.”
It is perhaps surprising, though, that in 2018, women in senior positions still see themselves as part of a small club.
“You have to be ready to be in circumstances where you’re the only woman in the room,” Taylor said, adding that the upside is a strong sense of solidarity among female diplomats abroad. “There’s still this sense that we’re in the minority, that we have to band together and help one another…I think that’s one of the huge benefits you get.”
Taylor and her team in the department have spent a lot of time digging into what is behind the issue — why the pig hasn’t passed through the proverbial python when it comes to executive positions.
Of Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet, Taylor said: “We’ve been given an example to follow, so let’s make sure we can follow it, and if we can’t follow it, why not? What’s wrong? What are some of the barriers?”
One of the areas Taylor is looking into is that of unconscious bias — how it may be playing out within the department when officers are being promoted, posted abroad or given acting assignments — and how to address it through training and other initiatives.
“It’s still the case that if you give people the same piece of written work and put a different name on it, people judge it differently,” Taylor said.
Referring to orchestras around the world that have seen an increase in female musicians after instituting blind auditions, she added: “I wish we could do the equivalent, for promotion boards or things like that, even on people’s day to day performance. If we could somehow magically put officers or heads of mission behind a screen, almost certainly women’s performance ratings would suddenly go up, because all of us — male and female — rate women lower.”
Taylor’s team has also observed that women — not all, but many — are a little less prone to “lean forward,” and are not applying at the same levels as men for heads of mission positions or promotion exercises.
“As men become more successful, they also rate higher in likeability. As women become more successful, they rank lower in likeability,” Taylor said, citing a TED talk by Sandberg on the subject. “Subconsciously, one of the reasons women may not be leaning in is not because we’re shy or demure or we’ve been trained to be wallflowers, but because the signalling you’re getting back from everyone around you is that if you lean in, people don’t like you.”
Gervais-Vidricaire has studied women in the foreign services of other “like-minded” countries” and has found the same issue of women being more cautious when applying for a promotion or a more senior position.
“I spoke with women in the foreign service in Sweden, in the UK, in France, in Spain, the Netherlands — I interviewed about 35 people from various countries and that element came out particularly during each conversation that I had,” she said. “Unless women feel that they are 120 percent ready, they will be hesitant, compared to men, where if there are 10 criteria [for the job] they say, well, I have two or three, I’m ready for this.”
Many female foreign service officers “want to perform 100 percent the first week, right away…women still feel that they have to prove that they can do it better,” Gervais-Vidricaire said.
“If you have a family, well, you will think twice, because then you think, will I be able to manage this additional stress plus the family, spouse, kids and so forth?”
Taylor noted that while “things are much better” nowadays in terms of the division of household labour, women still tend to carry much more of the family burden, particularly when looking after young children or elderly parents. And women can still be adversely affected by taking a year of maternity leave — for instance, by missing yearly performance appraisals — which can slow down their career progression.
One might think the “imposter syndrome” Gervais-Vidricaire alluded to dissipates once women reach the upper echelons of the diplomatic corps. Not so, says Louise Blais, Canada’s co-ambassador and deputy permanent representative to the United Nations in New York City.
When making the transition from being an officer to becoming a senior executive or a manager, Blais says, “a lot of us women don’t let go of the officer persona and want everything to be perfect. And sometimes, we don’t think enough about the fact that we have to make that transition.”
After a term as consul general to Atlanta, Blais was appointed to the UN in September. Initially, she said, she was constantly worried that a lack of knowledge of UN files and processes would make her a “disappointment” to the staff she is charged with leading. “That was very much top of mind the whole fall, because it was so stark, the difference between their level of knowledge and mine.”
After a few months, though, Blais came to realize that what her staff needed from her was not the ability to do their jobs for them, but rather a “good leader and manager for the team, and an effective diplomat at the UN.”
“That role transition, that ability to say, ‘I don’t know it all, I will let my people do it’ — that’s the way it should be,” Blais said. “I don’t need to be as good as they are, and on top of all their files, because that’s not realistic, and it wouldn’t be a good use of my time.”
Blais thinks the department, which she says does a lot in terms of training, could focus a bit more on the transition from officer to manager. “You get put in a classroom for a week-long course about becoming a manager or an EX, and after that you’re on your own. But the learning continues, right?”
‘Rotational’ in a modern world
On top of unconscious bias, hesitancy and carrying more domestic responsibilities — all elements that might explain a dearth of women in top positions in business, law, science and other areas — life in the foreign service comes with an additional challenge for women. And it’s a big one: rotationality, or the expectation that one’s career will consist of frequent moves from one part of the world to the next every few years.
Barbara McDougall, who held the position of Canada’s second female foreign minister from 1991–1993, doesn’t sugar-coat the issue. “It would be very tough to be a woman now in the foreign service,” she told OpenCanada. “Aside from moving around all the time, it does have an impact on one’s prospects, either on marriage or some kind of partnership.”
“[Officers] go abroad, well, what’s their spouse going to do?” Taylor asked. “In many places they can’t work or continue their career — that’s a challenge for the foreign service the world over, and not just a challenge for women, men as well. But I do get, sort of anecdotally, that for women, especially at more senior levels, it’s a little bit harder for you to get the male partner to move than it is for female partners and spouses.”
Like Taylor, many interviewees were quick to note that in the twenty-first century, dual-income families where both partners work are increasingly the norm, meaning the issue of rotationality affects both men and women. The cost of living in Western countries is so high, Gervais-Vidricaire noted, that there are serious financial considerations for a foreign service officer going abroad to a country where their spouse can’t work.
She counts herself lucky to have found a partner who also worked for the department, and said that senior leadership was always supportive of their requirement that any move be contingent on them both finding positions in their field, but acknowledges that, of course, “not everybody can find a spouse in the foreign service.”
“If a woman is at the level of head of mission and she accepts a position, let’s say in Asia somewhere, the spouse — let’s say the spouse is a man — will find it very difficult to give up, I don’t know, a position in the financial sector, or as a lawyer, and go away for two, three, four years, and come back,” she said.
Taylor admits there’s “no perfect fix,” although there are a number of things the department has been doing in an effort to help: making arrangements with other countries to allow spouses on diplomatic passports to work; setting up teleworking; trying to place employee couples together. “It’s still always going to be a challenge,” Taylor said. “It’s about how can we be rotational in a modern world.”
“Many people make it work. They love the ability to travel to diverse cultures; representing Canada is an honour, and the work is fascinating,” added Bogdan, who was sent to Belgrade after the bombing of Yugoslavia by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999, and to Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami. “It becomes a way of life — it’s not just a job.”
Walking the talk
When it comes to gender representation in the Canadian foreign service in 2018, it’s clear that the issue isn’t recruitment, it’s retention and promotion. Many feel that besides the well-documented economic and ethical reasons to want equality in the foreign service’s senior ranks, there is a need for the department to “walk the talk” internally on gender parity, in particular under a government that has made a feminist foreign policy and international development a priority.
Taylor says she would like to see more of the department turning its own tools on itself. “We have highly developed expertise in gender-based analysis, which we do on our development programming, so we would like to take some of those same skills and start applying them to our HR practices,” she said, adding that the department’s human resources system is in the midst of a transformation, and that whenever those changes are made, the gender impact should be taken into account.
The clear direction from the Prime Minister’s Office hasn’t gone unnoticed in the department. “We’ve got ministers who are very strong on a feminist approach to foreign policy, we have a feminist prime minister — that’s all great,” Taylor said. “We just need to make sure that we’re doing the same thing in-house.”
“The sense among many interviewees was that the foreign service — and the public service as a whole — should be pulling the private sector into the next century, not simply trailing or trying to keep up.”
Some in the department think senior managers have been on the whole supportive of events put on by the department’s Women’s Network, for example, but wish they would “be bolder and move faster.” The sense among many interviewees was that the foreign service — and the public service as a whole — should be pulling the private sector into the next century, not simply trailing or trying to keep up.
Taylor and her team are aware that culture change takes time, and needs groundswells, and inevitably provokes backlash. Getting men in the department on board and communicating that this isn’t a “he vs. she” issue is something they are keeping front of mind.
This speaks to the importance of male allies, at home and in the workforce.
Blais was offered her first posting in Washington, DC, in the mid-1990s, while she was pregnant with her first child. Dejected, she went home and told her husband how the posting was her “dream job” but that she couldn’t see how they could make the timing work. “My husband looked at me and said, ‘Well, what’s the problem? We’re going, and I’ll stay home, I’ll take care of the baby — you can’t miss this opportunity.’”
With a one-month-old infant, Blais embarked on a career that, two decades later, would find her representing Canada at the UN. “It took a boss that wasn’t going to be scared by a new mother…and it took a husband who said, ‘Are you crazy? This is your chance.’”
Likewise, Bogdan is quick to credit the “tremendous support” she received from male managers over the years. One particular example sticks with her, from when she was tasked with re-opening Canada’s embassy in Belgrade after the NATO bombing. Canada had withdrawn its ambassador after Slobodan Milosevic’s indictment as a war criminal, so Bogdan was sent in as the chargé d’affaires, the second highest post.
“That was probably my toughest moment as a woman, because [my manager] indicated that no other woman had been given this type of opportunity before,” she said. She was also conflicted about accepting the assignment because the posting was ‘unaccompanied,’ meaning it was too dangerous for her daughter, by then 15 years old, to come with her. “That was a lot of pressure on me…if I said no, what was this going to say about how ready and willing women were to step up to do this stuff?”
Ultimately, once the revolution was over and Milosevic was overthrown, most countries’ foreign ministries decided to once again upgrade to ambassadors. “Lloyd Axworthy was our foreign minister at the time, and his team said, well, we need an ambassador in Belgrade,” Bogdan recalls.
“As it was conveyed to me, he indicated that ‘well, we’ve got Angela, why would I put anyone else there?’ So that’s how I made ambassador as young as I did.”
On having it all
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.”
Illustrations by Sami Chouhdary.