Mayor's Women's Day event focuses on breaking glass ceiling of diplomacy

Breakfast reception features female heads of mission for France, Germany and U.K.

A trio of trailblazing female diplomats dished out sage career advice during an International Women’s Day Breakfast Reception hosted Thursday by Mayor Jim Watson at Ottawa City Hall.

British High Commissioner Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque, French Ambassador Kareen Rispal and German Ambassador Sabine Sparwasser each took turns speaking to a crowd of more than 350 and answering questions. Most of the invited guests were women, with the exception of a strong showing of male elected officials.

Their presence in Ottawa marks the first time Britain, France and Germany have sent female ambassadors to Canada. Also invited to participate was U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft, but she had to send her regrets due to work travel, said the mayor.

The room heard how le Jeune d’Allegeershecque joined the foreign service after graduating from university with a degree in French literature. It's important to get an education because it opens so many doors, she said.

Her 32-year-long career has taken her to Singapore, Venezuela, Colombia, the United States and Austria.

international women's day
British High Commissioner Susan le Jeune d'Allegeershecque at the International Women's Day breakfast reception. Photo by Caroline Phillips

The high commissioner's tips included: Don’t have rigid career plans because great opportunities might come along; shrug off feelings of female guilt (“I learned earlier not to feel so guilty and my kids have turned out quite well”); and don't worry about trying to be a perfectionist.

“It’s not possible when you have busy jobs like ours. Everything can’t be perfect. It’s about understanding that good enough is good enough.”

"We can do everything that men can do, and we can quite often do it a lot better than they can"

She also reminded women to be vocal about their ambitions and to believe in themselves.

“We can do everything that men can do, and we can quite often do it a lot better than they can.”

When the French ambassador arrived in Ottawa last year, there were 27 ambassadors who had come before her. All men.

She reflected back to a period in her career when she felt pressured at work to downplay her role as a mother of four.

“One of my regrets is that for my entire career I was acting like, pretending like I had no children,” said Rispal, who was, in fact, a good, caring mother.

It’s understandable, particularly when she was asked during job interviews how she would manage with four kids.

international women's day
French Ambassador Kareen Rispal at the International Women's Day breakfast reception. Photo by Caroline Phillips

She expressed support for gender quotas, or mandatory targets, to increase female leadership.

“Otherwise, things won’t change,” said Rispal, who joined the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1986.

The German ambassador used to live and work in Ottawa 15 years ago, and was in charge of the embassy for about a year, while it was between ambassadors. The embassy has a portrait gallery of former ambassadors – mostly serious-looking men in dark suits.

“I had to come back to get my picture up,” Sparwasser joked of her return to Ottawa as head of mission.

international women's day
German Ambassador Sabine Sparwasser at the International Women's Day breakfast reception. Photo by Caroline Phillips

The career diplomat talked about the wonderful support and encouragement that she’s had from her Canadian husband and their kids.

“There was one particular point in my career where I was offered a job and I did what I shouldn’t do – but what a lot of women do – and I said, ‘I can’t do this. I’m not good enough.'

“And it was my daughter who sat me down and said, ‘You cannot do this to me. You know you can do it, because how on earth are you then going to tell me to go and be brave?’ And so I did it.”

A key to success, she said, is resilience.

“If you have a setback, forget about it, don’t be bitter about it. The bitterness shapes your life in a way that is not good for you. Just get up the next day and start again.”

She drew on the example of Christine Lagarde – the current managing director of the International Monetary Fund – twice failed the exams to get into the French civil service.

“Look where she is,” Sparwasser said.

The discussion wrapped up with some brief thank-you remarks by the mayor, who recalled the advice that his own mother used to give him and his sister, Jayne: Always aim high, there’s plenty of room.

international women's day
Mayor Jim Watson with British High Commissioner Susan le Jeune d'Allegeershecque, French Ambassador Kareen Rispal and German Ambassador Sabine Sparwasser. Photo by Caroline Phillips

– caroline@obj.ca