Let’s Make our voice heard
For many years, I have struggled with the fact that a leadership role might fit my personality. It took until the age of 40 to accept that there is no need to adapt to specific standards (how to dress, talk, and plan a career) to make your voice heard. And that actually, stepping up and embracing yourself as different from others is an excellent way to pave an enduring career path that might take you further than the one that obliges you to fake a personality you don’t possess. I would like to share how I completed my leadership traits by learning from other cultures and how this has helped me access my current FP position as delegate of a regional European government, Catalonia, to Germany.
Living between Berlin and Barcelona, there is still a need to smash persisting prejudices between the people of northern and southern Europe. Within Northern European Countries, there maintains a range of misconceptions within the public opinion of the culture of Southern Europe; this leads to even more misconceptions on the position of women in foreign policy.
In a recent webinar on European civil society with a mainly German audience, a participant said that it was a pity that whilst Northern European countries had managed to develop a robust civil society structure, the Mediterranean region hadn't. He claimed, in times of crisis, people in Southern European countries fall back into family structures and, therefore, into patriarchal systems. Usually, I'm reluctant to debate viewpoints in webinar chats. But on that occasion, I felt a strong wish to challenge his opinion and respond to what, for me, was an example of a clearly biased worldview.
Throughout my adult life, I have migrated within Europe. A journey that ultimately challenged my worldview and, yes, the prejudices I had as a cis white woman. In this article, I want to share my insights, champion female leadership in Southern Europe and honour the ways women of other cultures have found to empower themselves.
Walk the walk and talk the talk: Female hands-on leadership in practice
After the Euro crisis struck in 2008, I witnessed strong networks of women in the Mediterranean region preparing meals for the unemployed and their families in their neighbourhoods. Sometimes, it seemed that these women were compensating for the lack of infrastructure and care provided by their nation states. Due to their deemed informal character, these civil society networks are rarely presented in statistics, this does not mean that they don't exist. Maybe they can only exist because they are informal in structure. In this context, one needs to know that formal civil society organisations are generally quickly absorbed or influenced by the interests of political parties in some countries. A fact that makes direct altruist action within established structures nearly impossible: it serves party interests in the ultima ratio.
I have seen mothers and grandmothers nourish those in need, but I have also seen young women who felt the call to take things into their own hands. Exceeding the spirit of helping others, female leadership in the South of Europe is also present in social struggles aimed at improving living conditions. Organising time banks or resistance against contaminating industries are just two examples of where I have seen young and not-so-young female actors in the front row.
And yes, some of the female leaders of civil society movements have decided to take a step further and engage in politics to upscale their impact. I just want to mention two: Katerina Sakellaropoulou, the president of Greece who excels not only in her professional knowledge as a jurist but also in her activism in environmental issues on the one hand and the late Muriel Casals i Couturier, who, after having dedicated her professional career to economics, took the step forward towards leading one of the prominent cultural civil society associations in Catalonia, a task that took her to a seat in the region's parliament.
It became clear to me that to watch these women means learning to lead. But, of course, I have passed through many moments of doubt, panic before public speeches or before challenging encounters and negotiations. But seeing these hands-on types of female leadership has helped me understand that my role in Foreign Policy is less about me but about the change I can bring to the world through my actions and my leadership. And this conviction propels me to lead myself and my team in a way that I understand is sustainable and positive - and yes: different.
To embrace other cultures has helped me in my career in foreign relations
Throughout the years, I have observed that cis men in Euromediterranean countries might traditionally have the power in the professional world, but women do in their family and home. In contrast, my perception of German culture is that men dominate both - professional and family lives.
I was born and raised in Western Berlin, so when I left home in the early 1990s heading for a new life in another country, I was convinced that nobody around the world was as emancipated as we Berliner girls. But then I noticed glitches in my perception. And many of them were related to how we are supposed to communicate and behave as women. But, living between cultures, I was in the lucky position to be able to choose which habits to stick to and which to substitute for new ones. Of course, there were times that I preferred keeping components of my German-Berliner culture. But from what I have seen and experienced, to claim that there is no such thing as civil engagement or female leadership in civil society organisations in the south of Europe is thoroughly wrong
Generally speaking, knowing more cultures has helped me overcome several limiting beliefs and behaviours, being one of them the insight that women, of course, can have a leading role in professional life. And that is why I am convinced that, without knowing the Mediterranean way women talk in private and public, I would not have been able to embrace the leadership role in my professional career I do have now.
Feminist Foreign Policy is a game-changer
My answer to the webinar's participant mentioned at the beginning of this article was that just because he perceives family structures as patriarchal does not mean this is the case in other countries. And just because women organise themselves in structures that are different from what he is used to does not mean that there are no female civil society leaders.
As feminist foreign politics has the potential to be a game-changer, I'd like to bring the following reflections to the table because I think here is where we can make a difference: Female-led grass-roots movements in the Mediterranean might sometimes not be on the academic radar. Still, they do exist, and there are some great female leaders out there getting stuff done. Consequently, we should embrace other ways of doing things and accept our differences. This is a real opportunity to grow as a person and, yes - also to nourish our career approach. As I mentioned initially, I am convinced that a career path based on self-acceptance and open-mindedness ultimately leads much farther than a career path based on a faked mainstream personality, or at least that is my experience.
Edited by Lauren Matthews