Spanish Ambassador: Above-average gender equality is the result of huge social changes


Two years ago, Spain, like France, Canada and Germany, subscribed to the principles of feminist foreign policy. Lorea Arribalzaga Ceballos, Spain's ambassador to Slovakia, argues that without strengthening equality within its own diplomatic ranks, it would be impossible for Spain to promote gender equality externally.

Veľvyslankyňa Lorea Arribalzaga Ceballos

How did Spain adopt its guide for the Feminist Foreign Policy and then join countries like Sweden, Canada or France?

In 2020, the current Government came into office and pledged to adopt a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP). One year on, in the midst of pandemic, the guide on the FFP was adopted. This is a very important milestone, but it is part of a bigger and much longer process.

Could you explain that process?

In the mid-1970s, at the end of the Francoist regime, Spain was in a backwards position regarding gender equality. Last year, the European Gender Equality Index ranked Spain as the country with the sixth-highest score among the 27 EU Member States. This underlines the fact that we have experienced enormous societal changes that were a product of the joint work of civil society, individual citizens, and commitment from the public administration.

What helped were significant legislative changes, including a law against violence against women, which were adopted by all parties in Parliament unanimously. In 2007, a law on effective gender equality, which was also a milestone in the legal framework, consecrated the principle of balanced representation. In practice, this law establishes that there may be no less than 40 percent of either gender in political party candidate lists or managerial positions in the public administration.

In this framework, the adoption of the FFP was therefore a question of coherence between the efforts made at the domestic level and our foreign policy. Adopting the FFP guide was also a tool to better implement our various international commitments – such as the Beijing or Istanbul Conventions, etc.

How does the guide transpose principles into the practice of Spanish foreign affairs?

We are still in the process of developing the whole methodological system. Some examples of implementation were actually put in place before the adoption of the guide, so it is not a tabula rasa. It is part of the process of our commitment, and it brings new momentum to the process.

For instance, in general terms, one of the main experiences we have in mainstreaming gender equality is in the field of development cooperation and its evaluation process, where we adopted a gender strategy in 2007. The Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD has repeatedly pointed out that gender equality is a trademark of Spanish development cooperation. In 2020, the DAC confirmed that 50 percent of our bilateral aid had gender equality either as its main objective, or as a significant objective, which places us five points above the OECD average.

Does this momentum you are talking about also bring about change internally in the foreign service?

Certainly. It is hard to pursue the mainstreaming of gender equality into your own actions if you do not look into your own foreign service and try to reinforce equality within it. In that respect, there are challenges ahead, as we are not there yet. According to the Law on Effective Equality, there should be balanced representation (40: 60), and we do not have it. However, a lot of progress has been made.

In fact, women were not allowed to be diplomats between 1941 and 1962 at all. Being male was among the prerequisites to become a diplomat then. The first female career diplomat had taken up her post in 1933, but it was not until 1972 that a second woman became a career diplomat in the Spanish foreign service.

What is the current ratio of female to male diplomats in Spain?

We are currently at 30 percent of women in the foreign service. However, there have been other challenges. For instance, the FFP guide states that the Government has to achieve a minimum of 25 percent women ambassadors in the service by the end of its mandate. We are already there. In the beginning of the Government´s mandate, in 2020, it was 14 percent, and currently we are at 25 percent. However, another aspect is about where these female ambassadors are assigned. In 2020, Spain had no women ambassadors in any of the G20 countries. The objective was to have at least 15 percent of women ambassadors there, which would be three ambassadors, and today, we are already there as well. Up until now, however, we haven´t had a female ambassador in any of the five countries that hold permanent seats on the UN Security Council.

Studies and practice in CEE show that one of the main obstacles for women to reach an ambassadorship is constrained, or non-transparent, selection processes. How do such processes work in Spain?

This is currently changing as well, and a new regulation for a career as a diplomat from Spain is underway. The minister hopes it will be passed before the end of the year. The power to appoint ambassadors will remain the prerogative of the Government, however, the new regulation tries to establish quite a transparent procedure for diplomatic service members to enter competition. In the new system, a list of vacancies for the heads of missions will be published, and members of the diplomatic corps will be able to apply, to state their merits, and their requests will be analysed. The candidate shortlist will then be submitted to the minister.

Ultimately the Government can still appoint someone who is not a member of the diplomatic service, but in Spain, such appointments are relatively rare.

Do the ambassadors of Spain who are female coordinate or cooperate among themselves?

In 2018 a platform was established that later turned into an association, the Association of Female Spanish Diplomats, of which I am also a member, connecting all female Spanish career diplomats, not just ambassadors. One of the activities it organizes is a mentoring program. I have experienced both being a mentor and being a mentee, and I found it extremely useful.

How did your work as ambassador change since the adoption of the FFP?

As this is my first assignment as ambassador, I cannot speak of any changes in practice. However, one of the things we do in terms of consular work is that there is a new, specific protocol for attending to Spanish citizens who become victims of violence against women while outside of Spain. On that issue, specific training for consular personnel is in place.

Since 2019 there is also a new Foreign Ministry regulation stating that if you are organizing a panel, you have to make sure you are complying with the principles of balanced representation (40:60). If you, as a representative of Spain, participate in a conference that is not compliant with the 40:60 rule, you have to request an adjustment. If the gender ratio cannot be adjusted, then you would have to actually specifically motivate the organizers to adjust it, or explain to headquarters why it is important to participate even on a panel that does not abide by such principles.

How does it feel to mainstream gender and the approaches of the FFP agenda in a country, where even the word “gender” is troublesome?

It is important for those of us who come from our own, different experience, to understand and talk to people with different views from ours. I have had the feeling myself that sometimes we all tend to judge just from our own experience and rush to conclusions.

For example, one of the things that surprised me was the fact that maternity leave in Slovakia is so long. I thought it definitely has to be a hindrance to women developing their careers. It was only later that I understood how the system works, for instance, how it is related to children’s kindergarten, etc.

You have to try to make the effort to go beyond your own experience, to see where your own experience might be at fault, and to understand that each country is coming from a different practice. Some things that work for us wouldn’t make any sense elsewhere. I have to say this is humbling at times.

Lorea Arribalzaga Ceballos has been the Spanish Ambassador to Slovakia since 2021. She joined the diplomatic corps in 2001. She has served in embassies in the Czech Republic, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Italy and has also held several important positions within the Spanish Foreign Ministry.

Originally published in Slovak on within a joint project Women as foreign-policy actresses.