Thinam Jakob on Diversity Quotas and Women’s Leadership at International Institutions


While a significant number of women hold leadership positions at international institutions, they often do not rise to the ultimate level of seniority. Men continue to take the spotlight, while women tend to fill deputy or vice positions. Despite progress in recent years, there seems to be a lasting barrier to success—a final obstacle to making it all the way to the top.

There are exceptions, of course: Gita Gopinath is now Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund, and the first woman to hold the position. And under former Vice President Kristalina Georgieva, the European Commission has promised to have women in 40 percent of leadership positions by the end of 2019.

Thinam Jakob works at the office of the European Union’s Trade Commissioner in Brussels. Previously, she was the Diversity Adviser for the European Commission. She talked to Foreign Policy Rising about diversity quotas and barriers to promotion at international institutions.

How did you, a trained lawyer, become the Diversity Adviser at the European Commission? What were the most significant changes you oversaw?

I was truly in the right place at the right time. As first-ever Diversity Adviser at the European Commission, I had the privilege of working for values in which I strongly believed and which enrich the daily lives of the Commission staff. I oversaw the development of a new staff policy that resulted in the Commission’s adoption of its first-ever Diversity Charter. This Charter is embedded in universal values: respect, tolerance and equal opportunities for all staff, independent of gender, disabilities, sexual orientation, and the like. The legal side was, by the way, equally important to ensure the commitment taken by the Commission would stand strong against any challenges.

Europe likes to consider itself progressive. Do its institutions reflect that sentiment, particularly regarding gender?

European institutions are quite progressive by comparison, notably to the business environment. Around 55 percent of all Commission staff are female. But that percentage decreases when looking at higher levels. Therefore, to increase representation, this Commission set itself the target of having 40 percent women in management by the end of its mandate in 2019.

Progress has been very satisfactory so far. In September 2018, 39 percent of all management posts were occupied by women. In senior management, the number rose from 27 to 37 percent, and there was an increase from 14 percent to 28 percent of women in Director-General posts.

Why do so many women remain in middle-management instead of rising to the top?

It is an important decision for women to become part of management. Hesitations are linked to work-life balance issues, but women also often underestimate their own capacities.

Taking time off for family responsibilities is often why women take longer than men to make it into middle management. By then, succession questions for senior management roles may have already been settled in favor of men who have been present and visible.

We need an overall culture and perception change: encourage men to take on family obligations; offer work-life balance options to men and women; regard taking time off as normal for both women and men.

Some argue that gender quotas force companies to hire women for the statistics, not for their abilities, doing more harm than good. Do you agree?

To the extent that obligatory and fixed gender quotas are set without regard to qualification and merits, I agree.

The Commission’s 40 percent policy is based on a multi-faceted approach. Everyone must pass the same selection process, but the Commission invests in encouraging women to apply. The measures include carefully drafting vacancy notices, creating competency development programs, encouraging the creation of women’s networks, or offering coaching. Working conditions accommodate work-life balance for men and women. Monitoring schemes require justification should no women be shortlisted in a selection process. Regular reports on progress in the different Directorates-General must be submitted to the College of Commissioners.

Do we need gender quotas to nudge progress in gender balance that otherwise cannot and will not happen organically?

A small number of women have made it to the top in the past, but the saying goes they would have achieved success anyway because of their exceptional capacities.

What about those women who are as capable as their male colleagues but do not progress? If a talent pool consists in equal proportion of men and women, we can assume talent is equally distributed, and we must ensure this talent can rise to the top. But this is not the case, so there is no other way than stringently setting targets without losing sight of skills and qualification. With the 40 percent quota, the Commission follows research which sees 40 percent female presence as a tipping point. When the representative presence of women at all levels of hierarchy becomes the norm, prejudices no longer hold.

What advice do you have for women looking to rise to senior positions?

DO NOT: remain in your corner. Be invisible. Expect all your good work will somehow be noticed and rewarded.

DO: a good job. Go out and network. Be actively involved in women’s networks in your organization. Develop your skills and capacities. Actively seek assignments that give you visibility. Seek a mentor. And above all: be confident.


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