Foreign Office review to help women get top jobs

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The Independent Online
ROBIN COOK has ordered a review of Foreign Office rules as part of an initiative designed to put more women into senior posts.

Determined to drive out the old-fashioned image which has often put off women thinking of applying for diplomatic posts, he has asked officials to consider the introduction of more flexible working conditions.

This summer's new intake of 23 "fast-track" graduates is more than 50 per cent female. But the Foreign Secretary believes there is still a long way to go. Out of 145 ambassadors and high commissioners in the service, just six are women. Of those only one, the Dublin ambassador Veronica Sutherland, is married.

One of the problems the department faces is that until 1972 its female staff were expected to leave work when they got married. Because officials had to spend many years in post before reaching the most senior positions, some of those women might now have been ambassadors.

Foreign Office sources say the figures on this year's intake are not the only encouraging signs. One in five of those on the Diplomatic Service's grade five - the rung below senior management level - is now female, compared with one in 10 a decade ago.

Although Foreign Office staff, both men and women, can take career breaks of up to five years they come back into their jobs at the same level at which they left. That means women who take time out to have families often return to find that their colleagues have left them behind.

Now it is being suggested that staff could earn credits for the experience they get while they are away, including that of raising a family. Robin Cook has asked his personnel and policy staff to conduct a review of career breaks to see if they can be used to help women return to work and continue their careers. "The Foreign Secretary wants to ensure we have a system where people don't lose out by taking time out," one source said. "Women are being unfairly disadvantaged by being the only person who can give birth."

Officials at the Foreign Office acknowledged that there were cultural factors at work. Few female diplomats had husbands who are prepared to give up their jobs and travel to postings with them, although Ms Sutherland's husband, an academic, was able to do so.

In a world in which both partners tended to work it was difficult for any diplomat, male or female, to take a spouse abroad with them, they said. The department did try to help diplomats' husbands and wives to find employment and to post husband and wife teams who both worked for the Foreign Office abroad together.

Britain's six women ambassadors and high commissioners are Maeve Fort, High Commissioner in South Africa, Rosemary Spencer, Ambassador to The Netherlands, Glynne Evans, Ambassador to Chile, Barbara Hay, Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Jessica Pearce, Ambassador to Belarus, and Veronica Sutherland.