In the early days of my very first job in Brussels as EU Public Affairs assistant, I remember one of the numerous German federal state receptions in a beautiful old Brussels mansion. I looked around and noticed loads of women about my age. To this day, I will not forget how enthusiastic I was, convinced that this job was one where women had an equal chance to thrive, and that we would all grow into higher positions together.
To a certain extent, that certainly happened, and public affairs may indeed be an area where women have more decent chances of developing a high-flying career than in other fields. But during my 20 year career in the Public Affairs business, I have also seen a significant amount of glass ceilings and obstacles in the way of women.
According to a report of recruiting agency Ellwood and Atfield authored by Brussels veteran Mark Dober, 70 per cent of the EU top jobs remain in the hands of (white) men, and women get paid up to 16% less for the same work. The “Brussels Binder” initiative was created recently to battle the notorious under-representation of women on discussion panels – with seminars and discussion panels being a popular Brussels method to draw attention to a particular interest at stake and brand yourself as an expert.
And drawing from some personal, anecdotal evidence: companies (even the biggest and allegedly multinational ones) from traditionally male-dominated industries and from countries where women do not fare very well when it comes to their representation in leadership positions seemingly tend to attract (or exclusively invite) a 90 percent older white male crowd to their Brussels gatherings.
The business (wo)man may wonder, why care? The Public Affairs business remains a very personal one-to-one business, and if boys speak to boys, that may even be helpful for the overall result. Whilst industry and policy knowledge and communication skills count especially at the European level, possessing a sufficient amount of the right contacts is also vital, and even more, the higher up the latter – good old-boys-networks do have a high value.
Women are often reproached of not networking as well as men. Perhaps that is true, perhaps they just do it differently – to stay in the clichés, less bar evenings or soccer clubs, more socialising with parents of their children’s friends at the European school. Less cliché: women may tend to seek out especially the other women in their professional crowds.
It’s not only about the network, it is also about differences in communication. The “Mars and Venus” discussion will lead us onto very thin ice, so I intend to stay away from it – I do however want to point again to feminine and masculine values as defined by academia. If we go with Geert Hofstede, masculine cultures stress values such as assertiveness, competitiveness, or material success and overall reward individual achievements, whilst feminine cultures place a high value at nurturing, quality of life and people.
Whilst I am not trained to scientifically discuss to which extent women or men actually have these values and to which extent these values depend on our socialisation, I dare to state that women, as all other individuals, have distinct ways of communicating – just as men have distinct ways of communicating. Such communication styles resonate differently with employers, with clients, or policymakers.
With increasing diversity on all sides and at all levels – especially more women in higher positions –, it becomes more important than ever, for business purposes, to have people in your ranks who are able to connect to those you want to convince of your arguments. Especially for public affairs purposes, diversity is therefore key – and not only in the lower positions. Many senior professional women – just like us – are found in the consulting business; possibly a profession where the need to incorporate different values is strongest.
Looking around me, the women I met in my early Brussels days and I did grow into higher positions together – just not all in Public Affairs. We are now each others’ clients, consultants, inhouse lobbyists, allies and sometimes lobbyists on different sides, or lobbying targets. And that network has a particular way of communication. Moreover, it is incredibly strong and something no man can break into.
In times where masculine values dominate world politics, the opportunities of this female network may well contribute to much-needed change in how we treat each other, how we do business with each other, and how we politically shape the world around us.
 Hofstede, G. (1991). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. London: McGraw-Hill.
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