Shattering glass in DC: Anne Anderson on a life of diplomatic firsts
Anne Anderson, Ireland’s first female ambassador to the European Union, France and the UN, has broken yet more new diplomatic ground with her latest role as Ireland’s representative tothe United States
Anne Anderson, Ireland’s ambassador to the US. Photograph: Marty Katz/washingtonphotographer.com
Anne Anderson has had a career of firsts. As one of the most senior women in the Irish foreign service and a male-dominated diplomatic world, she wasn’t just Ire land’s first female ambassador to the European Union on her appointment in 2001 but, remarkably, the first woman ambassador to the EU from any member state.
She became Ireland’s first female ambassador to France in 2005, to the United Nations in New York in 2009 and to the United States when she took over the role in August in a reshuffle of ambassadorial roles.
After replacing Michael Collins (who has moved to Berlin) as ambassador, Anderson presented her credentials to the US president Barack Obama at an official ceremony at the White House last month.
“As soon as I walked into the office, the first thing he said was, ‘That’s the perfect dress.’ I laughed because he was conscious of it being a green dress,” says Anderson. “He obviously had been briefed that I was the first woman ambassador. He said it was past time but that he was very glad to see me.”
Obama has promoted women to the highest positions in his administration. Hillary Clinton was secretary of state until earlier this year. Irish-born human rights campaigner Samantha Power, one of his advisers, was appointed US ambassador to the UN. Janet Yellen, vice chair of the Federal Reserve, is tipped to become the first female chairman of the US central bank, replacing Ben Bernanke.
Anderson – who is in Dublin today to attend the Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin – says women may be taking more prominent roles in public life but they are still in a small minority. Fewer than 15 per cent of ambassadors to the UN were female during her time in New York. For her, being at the forefront of a long-overdue correction in the gender imbalance has been exciting and challenging.
She speaks proudly of breaking through the glass ceiling and of the older Irish women she has met in Irish-American communities since moving to the US. These are women who emigrated decades ago to work as domestic servants. Anderson is struck by how the appointment of a woman to such a senior role resonates with other Irish women and “how much it affirms women”, she says.
“Most professional women enjoy the sound of glass shattering. At the same time, one is conscious of the historical background against which this is happening,” she says.
“I am very aware of that, that we had a marriage ban in the Irish diplomatic service until we joined the European Union so there were generations of women whose talent and potential could not be fully utilised, so that inculcates an appropriate modesty when you recognise that background.”
The gender inequality is being corrected slowly. Eamon Gilmore, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, has made a personal commitment to ensure more women are appointed to represent Ireland abroad and there are now 15 female ambassadors in Irish embassies, or about one in every four Irish ambassadors.
Anderson says the life and work of a diplomat is challenging for “a two-career couple”, where one spouse inevitably must make career sacrifices because of the travel involved in the foreign service.
“Society being what it is, when there is that challenge, the burden falls more heavily on women because in this career if you are married, you have to have a spouse who is ready to accompany you, to uproot and to make career sacrifices. In societal terms that is still difficult for a male spouse to do,” she says.
Women were well outnumbered when Anderson joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in November 1972, fresh out of UCD at just 19 years of age with a degree in history and politics. She believes that her gender played against her on occasions when she sought to move up the career ladder.
In the early years of her career, she felt that some roles, such as high-profile positions dealing with Irish America and Northern Ireland, were regarded as more “macho jobs” and that these positions were perceived in the department to be “more readily and easily done by men”.
“It took a while for the message to be understood that women were equally able to do those jobs. “It made no sense in any terms for women not to play their full role in those jobs,” she says.
“Yes, there were attitudinal issues. I don’t want to exaggerate it. I have had a wonderful career, in the most interesting jobs, but if I am honest I would acknowledge that in those early decades there were still residual attitudes that had to be confronted.”
While wary of generalising, Anderson believes that women have skills that allow them to excel in diplomatic situations where conflicting parties must collaborate and create “win-win outcomes”. At a time when diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran and the conflict in Syria have come to the fore, such skills are required now more than ever.