At first, the prospect of becoming the first head of the European Institute for Gender Equality in Vilnius seemed like a change of direction for Virginija Langbakk.
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“The job was more on the management side, and I was framing my career around gender-equality expertise, so I was a bit doubtful,” she recalls. But now she thinks the fit is a good one. “Gender expertise should be our speciality, which makes my experience relevant for the work I have to do.”
She had spent the previous 16 years working as a gender expert in the private and public sectors. “Mostly I was exporting Swedish and Scandinavian ‘best practice’ for gender-equality work” to developing countries, among others, she says.
Her most recent previous position was in the Swedish ministry of foreign affairs, where she worked on international co-operation projects. Working in the newly created EU agency means dealing more closely with the core issues of gender equality. “I’ll be able to focus on the area that I like most,” she says.
The institute’s role is to provide technical support and gender expertise to EU and member state policymakers. This ranges from collecting and analysing data on gender issues, to the development of methodological tools that will help integrate gender considerations into all policy areas.
More broadly, the institute is charged with supporting networking, spreading best practice and raising awareness of gender-equality issues among EU citizens.
While this final point has a campaigning air about it, in general the institute is not allowed to push too hard.
“We are not supposed to do advocacy or lobbying. We have to be objective,” Langbakk says. It will mainly work on the request of policymakers, which she sees as an advantage since it suggests the results will be used.
“It’s not trying to push or persuade,” she says. “Your interventions are not isolated, but consolidated and co-ordinated. In that sense, it’s the chance of a lifetime.”
Langbakk was appointed in April 2009, and much of her time since then has been spent learning the legal and administrative demands of establishing an EU agency. But opening offices in Vilnius has been made easier because she speaks the language – born and raised in Lithuania, she went to Sweden to work after university and now holds Swedish citizenship.
Since the institute formally opened its doors in Vilnius in December, she has been able to concentrate more on recruitment and setting up the expert working groups that will help the staff of 30 in its work.
While other EU agencies can count on recruiting from the European Commission, particularly when tasks such as project management are being outsourced, the institute has to look further afield.
“It is not typical for someone who is a gender expert to work in the Commission,” Langbakk says. “That means that we are trying to recruit from all the member states.”
Ironically, achieving gender balance is also a challenge. “Traditionally, gender-equality issues have been more focused on women’s rights, and that is why there are more women – including me – who work with gender equality,” Langbakk says. “So we have to find measures to recruit more men.”
The few men already working in the field tend to be career civil servants, unlikely to move abroad, so she is placing her hopes on a new generation. “It would be good to have the young ones, the ones who want to develop and create a career in gender equality.”
She thinks it is increasingly possible to think of gender equality as a career, not just an option in campaigning groups or the civil service in countries where gender is a priority.
“When we start working, it will show that this is an important area and you cannot just ignore it, saying that ‘now we have to work with the economy or the environment, but we’ll deal with gender later’.”
Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.