She chaired the P5+1 group of nations unobtrusively and led their lengthy negotiations with Iran quietly, but Baroness Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, is hard to miss in the official photograph marking the Nov. 24 deal struck in Geneva, the only woman in a lineup of suits. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, towering above her in the image, hailed her as a “persistent and dogged negotiator.” José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, attributed the historic breakthrough, the first diplomatic pact between Washington and Tehran in 34 years, to Ashton’s “tireless engagement and dedication.” For a politician derided in her native Britain as a “national embarrassment,” reportedly dismissed as a “zero” by French officials and in 2011 ranked least effective of European officials, such praise may not only have come as a welcome change, but a disorientating one.
She shouldn’t worry. Business as usual already looks set to resume, and not only because the agreement itself, for a six-month cessation by Iran of its nuclear program in return for a loosening of sanctions, looks far from secure. As details emerge about negotiations behind the negotiations, it’s becoming clear that some of the crucial movement took place outside the scope of Ashton’s influence. That won’t stop opponents of the deal, who decry its terms as appeasement of Iran, from lumping the blame on Ashton.
As the E.U.’s first foreign policy chief, Ashton has reconciled hostile parties (she helped to broker April’s peace deal between Serbia and Kosovo, for example), but she’s never been able to reconcile the skeptics about her own abilities. One reason may be the suspicion, articulated by the mass-market Daily Mail, that gender got her the gig: the European Commission “wanted women candidates.”
It’s a taint that often sticks to prominent women and Ashton’s career history doesn’t help. “A lot of the things I’ve done happened to me, as it were,” she remarked in conversation with TIME earlier this year. She has rarely applied for jobs, falling into high-profile positions rather than seeking them out. Then Prime Minister Tony Blair gave her a peerage in 1999 and later installed her as a minister in his Labour government. His successor as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, put Ashton in his Cabinet, then dispatched her to Brussels as the E.U. trade commissioner before nominating her in 2009 for her current role. “One of the interesting questions that I sometimes ask other women is: Had the job been advertised, would you have applied for it?” she told TIME. “And I don’t know the answer to that question except that I wouldn’t have applied to join the House of Lords. I certainly wouldn’t have applied to be a government minister. I wouldn’t have applied to be a commissioner, and I wouldn’t have applied for this [the E.U. foreign policy job].”
Structural impediments still block women’s progress and cultural baggage continues to deter women from aiming high. Some women who do get ahead, like Ashton, do so by bypassing conventional routes to power only to face greater hurdles in proving themselves. Yet they may bring to their roles a different, softer character palette than the sorts of high achievers — male or female — who battle and boast their way to the top.
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A description often applied to Ashton is that she’s self-effacing. She doesn’t go in for grandstanding. And her negotiating technique will at the very least have helped to keep the Iran talks going. She told TIME:
When I chair meetings of 27 Foreign Ministers, of whom the vast, vast majority are men, or if I’m bringing together people to develop a task force for Egypt to get economics and politics to function, or working on the Middle East, or thinking about how we support Burma through its transition, my instinct is always to try and bring everybody together into one place and to work through what it is we can offer and what it is we can do. And for the ownership of that to be everyone’s.
She added: “You can achieve an awful lot if you’re prepared not to take the credit.”