By 2014, Veronika Wand-Danielsson had already spent seven years as Sweden’s NATO ambassador, working with military counterparts in a male-dominated environment to oversee a challenging portfolio.
In the same year, Sweden made history when it became the first country in the world to unveil an explicitly “feminist” foreign policy that put gender equality and women’s rights at the forefront of its diplomatic agenda.
Wand-Danielsson’s first response to the announcement highlights the impossible choice female diplomats have often faced when called on to become the public face of government gender equality efforts.
“I thought to myself I don’t have to call myself a feminist. God knows how much antagonism that will awaken. It was a personal learning curve,” she told The Washington Diplomat.
But she has since become an active advocate for women’s rights on the diplomatic stage (and the country’s first female ambassador to France), watching as her government is joined by a growing number of leaders that have adopted new measures to make foreign policy more feminist.
The Washington Diplomat recently took the opportunity to Zoom with Wand-Danielsson, an effervescent and eloquent diplomat who will soon be moving from Paris.
She will take up the post of Head of the Americas Directorate at Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In her new role, Wand-Danielsson will be responsible for Sweden’s political, economic, security and cultural relations with North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, a region comprising 35 countries and 12 embassies in total.
Challenging New Landscape
A primary challenge will be engaging with a region where U.S. relations — in the midst of a hotly contested election and the not-exactly-feminist President Donald Trump — will dominate her agenda.
Wand-Danielsson diplomatically stuck to the issues when asked about her priorities.
“The autumn will be most interesting considering the U.S. elections and the consequences the outcome will have, not only for the U.S., but also at global level,” she said.
But she acknowledged the difficulties she could be facing.
“We will have to await the outcome of the forthcoming elections to see whether we can cooperate at the governmental level on promoting a progressive view on feminist foreign policy.”
Still, Wand-Danielsson is used to taking on new challenges. The child of diplomats herself, she learned to embrace a different approach during family postings to Benin and Nigeria.
“I spoke German with my father, Swedish with my mother, English in the streets, and I learned French at school. You can end up in closed international environments, not really anchored in the countries in which you’re living, but that’s not an approach my parents supported, so I always had this integration approach. It creates the basis for a broader understanding of the world,” she said.
Wand-Danielsson graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Stockholm and Uppsala University before completing a certificate of political studies at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris. After working with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, she joined the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rising rapidly through the ranks and working in conjunction with the United Nations, as well as the European Commission and Sweden’s Permanent Representation to the European Union.
Development and EU issues, dominated her early work, and here, too, she adopted a different approach, where empathy served a practical purpose.
“At the beginning, I wanted to work with development issues. The North-South dimension was very important for me. When people feel you can understand a bit of their reality, your messages [and] your views, your policy stands will be more easily accepted, because people don’t feel you’re coming from the moon,” she said.
‘A Very Macho Environment’
As one of four daughters, Wand-Danielsson never worried she’d miss out on opportunities because of her gender. But the difference between Sweden’s approach to inclusivity and the EU’s was starkly highlighted during her time at the European Commission in the mid-2000s.
“I came to a unit with 20 officials, each with a policy sector; we had health, agriculture, fisheries, transport, you name it. And I was Mrs. Drugs Control! And among 20 officials — two women. That for me was quite shocking. It was a very macho environment. It was really old-fashioned,” she said.
But she persevered, and in 2007, she was named Sweden’s ambassador to NATO. She described the selection process with a touch of understated humor.
“The ministry called up and said, ‘NATO is free and they’d like to have a woman, and they want someone with EU experience.’”
It was a professional environment where it was hard not to be aware of gender.
“It was a challenge. If you enter a room, you only see men, a lot of uniforms, some quite handsome — you do become conscious you’re a woman. But you find a way to work in each organization. You have to prove yourself and be good at what you do, become competent and don’t let it intimidate you,” she said.
After becoming ambassador to France in 2014, Wand-Danielsson found herself at the forefront of Sweden’s new feminist foreign policy efforts. As always, she embraced the role.
Already involved with the Women in International Security initiative during her time at NATO, Wand-Danielsson expanded her reach by establishing a network for female ambassadors in Paris, together with her Irish colleague Geraldine Byrne Nason, who is now Ireland’s U.N. envoy. The group in Paris meets on a regular basis with female ambassadors and colleagues from all continents.
“We also invite a high-level representative from the French political, economic or media sphere to discuss and exchange views on women’s roles and challenges in France. It’s an excellent, open-minded setting where we compare notes and learn a lot from each other. France’s first lady, Brigitte Macron, was, for instance, a much appreciated and interesting guest,” she said.
Feminist Foreign Policy Starts at Home
Sweden has been leading the charge on domestic gender equality efforts for years, and it shows. More women than men currently hold management positions in the Swedish public sector, while 46% of Swedish members of parliament are women — 6% higher than the Nordic average. Sweden has ranked first place on the EU’s Gender Equality Index since 2005, bolstered by concerted government efforts, including some of the world’s most progressive parental leave policies.
As a result, female participation in Sweden’s labor force has risen from 49.1% during the 1960s and 1970s to 83.5% today — one of the world’s highest ratios — and the government continues to work on addressing problem areas.
However, while Sweden’s public sector is one of the most gender-equal in Europe and globally, just 36% of managers in the private sector are female. This has prompted the government to reform parental leave regimes, and today, both parents are entitled to 240 days of parental leave — one of the most generous such schemes in the world.
“In the private sector, there’s still a discrepancy between men and women in management boards. But we didn’t want to address it with quotas, it had to be something that came naturally. Gradually, we introduced the father’s month, and then it became three months. It helps companies understand whether they employ a young man or a young woman, both might disappear at some point. And that has started to change the mentality,” said Wand-Danielsson.
Exporting Gender Equality
The drive to translate domestic feminist policy into foreign policy came from Margot Wallström, Sweden’s former foreign minister who was the first vice president of the European Commission and who also worked as a U.N. special envoy on sexual violence in conflict.
It was Wallström’s work in the Congo that prompted a push for gender equality beyond domestic politics, according to Wand-Danielsson. She recalled Wallström telling her that seeing women’s suffering in underdeveloped countries drove Wallström to “devote the rest of my life to helping those women.”
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven invited Wallström to be his foreign minister when he was elected in 2014. She agreed, but on one condition: Löfven had to declare his government a “feminist government,” with a feminist foreign policy to boot. She was successful.
To act as the common thread running through Sweden’s feminist foreign policy, Wallström helping developed the “three R’s” — rights, representation and resources.
Wand-Danielsson explained that rights focuses on legislation: “Are there any discriminatory aspects in [a foreign country’s] constitution? Do we have the legal right to push the policy in a foreign country?”
Representation, for her, means that women must be sitting at the decision-making table. “Wallström goes as far as to say no decision that concerns women should be taken without having a woman involved in the decision-taking process,” Wand-Danielsson told us.
The resources pillar, meanwhile, aims to meet women’s basic needs in areas including education, politics and recreation, so that they can participate on equal footing — “basic things where discrimination starts, right down to having separate changing rooms for women.”
Walking the Talk
Sweden remains the only country to explicitly proclaim and detail a feminist foreign policy, but many others have since joined the cause. In January 2019, Foreign Policy reported that 79 countries have adopted national action plans to elevate the role of women in peace and security processes since 2014.
Australia, Finland, the U.K. and the U.S. are among countries that have created ambassador-level envoy positions for global women’s issues to elevate the role of gender equality in foreign policy, while Australia and France have created dedicated gender equality and women’s empowerment strategies for their foreign aid programs. In June 2017, Canada became the first country to launch a “feminist international assistance policy,” pledging to promote gender equality and female empowerment through its overseas development assistance.
Yet challenges remain. Setting out a feminist foreign policy makes for a great slogan, but many countries have been lagging behind professed plans to reduce the gender gap.
For example, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian acknowledged the gap between intentions and reality during an August 2019 speech when he said: “We must go further in internally implementing the commitment I made for a resolutely feminist foreign policy.”
France has made the right sounds, but it has far more to do to. On representation, despite some improvements over the last decade, it lags full equality and Sweden’s record by a distance. 26% of France’s ambassadors are women (compared to 11% in 2012), while 25% of MFA directors and heads of department are women (compared to 22% in 2012). A feminist foreign policy being implemented by a culture which sees a 3:1 ratio of men to women in top positions may well lack the legitimacy to be taken seriously.
The issue extends further to the ‘resources’ aspect of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy, according to Wand-Danielsson: “France, even though they are trying to copy our feminist foreign policy, many Swedes are amazed to see that they still have the couple’s tax return. In Germany, in France that’s still the case,” she said.
For Wand-Danielsson, the question of where the U.S. stands in the debate will now be an important one.
An American feminist foreign policy has not exactly been on the radar of the Trump administration, although institutions including the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) have considered what a U.S. feminist foreign policy could look like.
However, a report from the Center for Global Development indicated that more needs to be done to strengthen feminist values at home before America can realistically think about exporting them to the rest of the world. Most recently, the issue of women’s rights made headlines with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, which will inevitably become a battleground again over abortion.
Beyond America’s culture wars, the country lags behind many of its peers in the developed (and developing) world in closing the gender equality gap both in the public and private sector. While women have made gains in the political sphere, they still only held about a quarter of the seats in the U.S. House and Senate in 2020. And economically, the coronavirus pandemic has hit women harder than men, exposing deep-seated inequalities in the workforce.
Nonetheless, Wand-Danielsson argued there are reasons to be optimistic about the prospects of a feminist foreign policy in the United States.
“The U.S. has many strong women leaders, both in politics, where we have witnessed a welcome rise of women in the U.S. Congress, but also in most areas of society. We are impressed by the many strong and excellent U.S. women that are engaged in promoting women rights, for instance in business,” she said.
‘Seeing the Light’
For Wand-Danielsson, the argument for gender equality is simple: It’s beneficial to everyone.
She traces the rise of a government-backed feminism in Sweden to the post-war consensus years. In contrast to oft-lauded “innate egalitarian tendencies” of Nordic countries, she views the move toward state-backed feminism as being driven by economic necessity.
“I would argue in the postwar period during the 1950s and 1960s, the economic factor was the driving force for the social democratic aspect with the legal basis for equality following,” she said.
“Sweden is a very big country — the third-biggest country in Europe by size, with 10 million people today — and we’re very export-oriented. In order to be progressive, you have to have a good economy, and in order to get the economy going with a not-so-big population, you are dependent on both men and women working.”
Sweden recognized early that social services, kindergarten and childcare were needed if women were to be able to join the workforce at a time when Europe was experiencing economic convulsions following World War II. The introduction of compulsory separate taxation in 1971 (as opposed to taxing a couple’s combined income) was crucial to increasing women’s real wages and wages relative to men’s, as well as providing the basis for female emancipation. “Women then didn’t need to stay with their husband for economic reasons,” Wand-Danielsson said.
It’s widely agreed that a nation’s economy can’t advance if half of its population is excluded from the workforce. But in addition to economic prosperity, many policymakers and experts agree that women are also key to peace and stability.
Numerous studies have found that peace agreements are more likely to last when women participate in the peace process. The McKinsey Global Institute, meanwhile, reported in 2015 that raising female labor force participation to match men’s participation would add $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025. In Sweden alone, full gender parity in the workforce would boost GDP growth by 19%.
As she focuses on her new role and the unprecedented challenges she will face in a year marked by significant geopolitical schisms, a global pandemic that has hit women hardest and America’s retreat from the world stage, Wand-Danielsson remains optimistic that, given the myriad benefits of promoting women’s empowerment, the rest of the world will eventually fall in line with Sweden.
She also laughed at the term.
“I wouldn’t call it ‘falling in line’ so much as seeing the light.”
Alexander Cook is a King’s College London postgraduate student. He recently completed an international security master’s degree at Sciences Po in Paris and has previously worked for The Royal Institute of International Affairs Chatham House in London.
Paige Aarhus (@paigeaarhus) is a journalist and analyst who has written from East Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and India. She is currently studying for a master’s in international security at Sciences Po in Paris.