Interview conducted by Meagan Torello
Ambassador Thérèse Adam served in the Swiss foreign service for 28 years performing various functions. In her early career she served as an analyst for the Africa region and was sent to the Republic of Niger as the Head of Mission. Having an environmental science background, she became the lead of global environmental division within the Ministry and represented the Swiss government for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. She later became the Assistant Director General of the Directorate of Bilateral and Multilateral Cooperation of the Ministry which focused on cooperation in Eastern European countries. By the time she left the Balkans, Kosovo had achieved independence through the peace process she was involved in. She would then serve as an Ambassador to Mozambique, where she also focused on peacebuilding issues.
Ambassador Adam’s experience as a diplomat is expansive, and this interview aims to give an inside glimpse on her experience in the Swiss foreign service. This portion of the interview has been excerpted from the full interview which will be published in the Journal‘s upcoming Fall/Winter issue, “Global Climate Change: Conflict and Cooperation.”
What drew you into a career in diplomacy?
I think it was my general interest growing up – I cannot say childhood but – in politics. I remember looking to so many important political leaders across the world and their stories and their visions for more peace and better lives. I was fascinated with this. I never thought at that stage to become a diplomat. But I had all these stories from my parents about the Second World War who lived it as young adults. For me, the Second World War was always such a dark story. I always thought how can the world be safer and more peaceful? This was a constant concern for me.
As a student at university, I joined the student commission relating to peace and cooperation and in organizing student exchange. I also became very aware of Switzerland’s role at UN Geneva. To be a neutral country and the [founding country of] the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was great. By this time, we were also speaking more about women’s rights.
I had a more scientific education in Switzerland, but also abroad in Southern Africa. Then I had a breakthrough – that I had to go into a more political area [but] not as a politician. It was helpful that I had knowledge about Switzerland and could look at policies in a different way and its role with bigger countries in the world. I was seeing if I would engage in foreign affairs and work in certain areas which are important for peace and human rights. It was helpful that Switzerland is recognized in these areas and so I was convinced that this was a good [career] choice. So, I liked it and stayed for 28 years and never had a thought to change [careers] afterwards.
What have been some of the most rewarding experiences you have had as Swiss foreign service officer?
There have been many, but I think as a member of the foreign service, you would never do something alone. There is always teamwork but maybe in some areas you have a bigger contribution. I was the director for Eastern Europe, and Switzerland was involved greatly in [that region]. We had to pass this special federal law to the parliament [to aid in Eastern Europe]. Then there was a popular initiative against this law. We were tied for time and we had to get 3,000 signatures to get it to become a public vote. We had to mobilize all our forces to make it known to the public about what will be done [in Eastern Europe] and why Switzerland should contribute to this endeavor: for peace, security, and support the efforts of the EU to integrate these new members in to the organization. We only had a couple of months before the public vote. Public votes are always on Saturday and Sunday and the results are always Sunday afternoon. By 3 o’clock we had found out that we had won – and this was huge for me. It was something special for me and ery many people contributed.
What were some of the most difficult obstacles you encountered while in the foreign service?
I can’t name a specific incident, but I will give you a general one. If you are abroad you are responsible for so many security issues for those who are present – those who are residents, tourists, et cetera. If there is an incident you must hear what they have to say. Sometimes you have information sources about what happens – trust and mistrust in these situations is very difficult. Security issues like these are not easy to tackle. Of course, some are handled easily but there are others that are more challenging [due to] lack of information. If you make the wrong decision it can hamper people.
What challenges did you face as a female foreign service officer?
When I started, I was really among few [women]. This is really hard. I liked what I did but you are aware that you are a very small minority. Even today, and when I was leaving [the foreign service], gender gaps are still being discussed. Now there are women in every meeting and you can discuss gender gaps, however, if you are sitting alone, it is hard to discuss this topic. When you are alone with 25 [men] around the table to discuss certain issues when you have heightened responsibilities this can be challenging. There are many unwritten rules in this men’s club. I saw that I was there as a person to serve a function but sometimes you must break the rules otherwise [discrimination] will go on and on. It’s necessary to do this but it was challenging because I had to know when I could do it. I thought this issue was very important, but you cannot [mention] it every time. It’s not so much an issue anymore even if you speak up 3 times. It’s not perceived as so much of a problem anymore. In the beginning it was quite challenging, but I became much more secure, more [female] colleagues joined, and it became less difficult. I think it’s important that when you have more responsibilities and more possibilities to change something, I think a woman must do it to create better situations for colleagues. The situation must change – you cannot say that every person must do it by herself. The institution must change. If for example you set up a negotiation group and there are 25 men and 1 woman, [women’s issues] get overlooked. However, if you are 18 men and 6 women, these issues can be examined more. It’s really important to reduce the gender gap [in the foreign service].
Women are statistically underrepresented politically both domestically and on the world stage. What advice would you give to women seeking to pursue careers in the foreign service? What should they be prepared for?
I think it’s very important that women are part of foreign affairs and are advancing in [domestic] functions. It’s easy to make ground for more women in foreign affairs especially when working abroad. It’s important to understand the situation of women in the country where you are stationed. On one hand, if you are a female ambassador you have access to all sectors of society. Men have access to all of society, but it is more geared towards men’s [perspectives]. As a woman, you have more access to women’s experiences because women are interested in having contact with other women ambassadors or businesswomen. You have a certain status as a woman – it’s easier for female ambassadors to have contact with all the social groups you want and to better grasp living situations and human rights conditions. You can bring that up as a woman with authorities. I felt more legitimate bringing up women’s rights and other specific issues. Back home you an also inform about separation of women in certain societies which can be used in policy or multilateral dialogues at home. You can make sure that ministries are taking care of women’s issues and strengthening support of women’s NGOs and policies. It’s so important to have women in the foreign service and as an ambassador. It’s really a rewarding job. It’s hard work – for men and women. I can only recommend to any woman who has any interest to go for it because she will succeed.