Top diplomat reveals she assumed starting family would end career

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A diplomat from Northern Ireland serving as the UK’s ambassador to Germany has told how she always assumed she would have to give up her career if she started a family.

Omagh-born Jill Gallard said she never imagined she would play a key role in helping pull together the UK’s joint declaration with Germany, which was signed by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and his German counterpart Heiko Maas earlier this year.

The 53-year-old mother-of-two is one of a number of women representing the Government in key postings.

Women represent the UK in Germany, the US, China, France, Italy, Japan, Australia, Russia and the United Nations in New York.

The Foreign Office banned women from diplomatic roles until 1946 and required them to resign if they got married until 1973.

Ms Gallard said: “When I joined the Foreign Office in 1991, I’d always thought I’d have to leave if I got married and had kids.

“All the senior women seemed to be single or not have children and so the message that sent was that, actually you cannot do this job and have a family, if you are a woman.

“My husband and I didn’t marry until our late 30s. When I had my first posting as an ambassador to Lisbon in 2011, our sons were only aged three and one.

“I remember at the time, I could not find a female British ambassador who had done the job with such young children. It’s very different now, but back then I remember being very nervous about all of the evening commitments. I thought, ‘I’ll just have to do my best’.

“Having a very hands-on husband helps. Moving around, I used to think I’d have to marry a poet who could sit on a mountain wherever I was posted, but I married a civil servant who is very portable.

“When my boys were toddlers, I would always try to go home for five o’clock for tea and bath-time, then I would go to a reception and be like an Exocet missile, talking to the most important people, and then escape so I could be back for bedtime as often as possible.

Jill Gallard initially believed she would have to abandon her career when she started a family (handout/PA)
Jill Gallard initially believed she would have to abandon her career when she started a family (handout/PA)

“It’s just bizarre now to think that in my lifetime female diplomats were required to quit if they got married.

“My generation are now the first to do this job with working spouses and kids and we are definitely heading in the right direction.

“I’ve worked with all of the female ambassadors currently in the key roles and it’s almost like a sisterhood because we’ve come up the hard way.

“When we started, you’d look up and not see any people like you, so many of us spend a lot of time mentoring younger female diplomats. None of that existed 20 years ago.”

Ms Gallard was appointed as the UK’s first female envoy to Germany in November – tasked with managing Britain’s relationship with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.

Both countries signed a bilateral joint declaration on June 30 agreeing shared foreign and security policy co-operation on issues including climate change, human rights and international development.

Ms Gallard said: “Many Germans are openly disappointed that the UK has chosen to leave the EU, but at the same time they are pragmatic and understand it was a democratic decision.

“The UK-Germany joint declaration is all about how we look forward and work together on the big global challenges.

“Our force for good agenda really chimes with a lot of what German foreign policy is on issues such as climate change, democracy, human rights, and international development.”

Ms Gallard was born in Omagh before her family relocated to Co Antrim when she was two. She went on to study French and Spanish at Edinburgh University and can now also speak German, Portuguese and Czech.

As Northern Ireland marks its centenary, Ms Gallard believes her upbringing during the Troubles may have helped her make a success of her career in diplomacy.

She said: “Growing up in Northern Ireland during the worst years of the Troubles definitely gave me a desire to see more dialogue, less conflict.

“When I say to people, 3,000 people were killed in that conflict – same as the Twin Towers – people are surprised and say ‘Really? Was it that many?’.

“I’ve lost friends to terrorism. I was posted in Madrid when the Good Friday Agreement happened in 1998. I still remember that being the end of 30 years of violence and watching it on TV and bursting into tears.

“I remember that feeling of relief thinking ‘It’s over. The next generation will not have this hanging over them’. That really inspired me and gave me hope for the future.”

For more information on Northern Ireland’s centenary, go to ourstoryinthemaking.com.

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