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Husband and wife team form a diplomatic duo

The pair say job sharing has helped their communication as a married couple

As a married couple, the new Mr and Mrs Ambassador to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are breaking through a glass ceiling in Swiss diplomacy.

Christine Schraner Burgener and Christoph Burgener are poised to become the first Swiss to job-share the role of ambassador in a four-year posting to Bangkok.

Each will be responsible for different countries in order to keep the lines of diplomacy straight, but they will be sharing in all other aspects – office, salary and staff.

Burgener thinks it could even be a world first. The only other such reported case is a British couple job sharing the role of ambassador in Zambia and who alternate the work in six-month increments.

“It’s a two for one package,” he said, when the couple met for a quiet moment in a whirlwind month of meetings, packing, Thai lessons and crisis management classes ahead of their departure.

“I think there will be a lot of advantages for the two of us, there will be advantages for the foreign ministry and there will be advantages for our children. So it is really a win, win, win situation.”

It is not the couple’s first job-share. Both worked as counsellors to the ambassador to Ireland in Dublin in the 1990s and more recently as joint heads of the human rights policy section in the foreign ministry in 2001.

However it will be their first role as joint heads of mission. Throughout their working histories they have taken turns to work full- and part-time, so that the other could progress professionally.

Minister’s backing

When the couple started musing about their move two years ago, Schraner Burgener’s father came up with the ambassador job-share idea as a way for both sides to advance in their field while also working part-time.

The concept also had the backing of Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who has been actively promoting gender equality in the ministry.

“She supported us a lot. She was really the key for this model,” said Schraner Burgener.

“If you think about the young diplomats who are coming up now, 50 per cent are women.

“When we started 18 years ago we were only three women in a class of 15. Now it is almost 50/50. She was responsible for this advantageous situation and did a lot for that.”

The couple hope their case will steer a new direction in diplomacy with Switzerland leading the way, shifting away from traditional models where spouses trail around the globe behind their diplomatic partner or face the difficult choice of staying at home and living separately.

“I think that is really a problem in diplomatic work,” she said. “Spouses also have very good jobs here in Switzerland and more and more often they don’t want to go to a foreign country where it is difficult to work, where they have to start new relationships.”

“I think it can sometimes be difficult to decide to start in this career because you think it is not easy moving abroad with families. But we want to give this positive image that it is possible and that we have a very modern department that allows us to work in a part-time job. This could be a model for young diplomats.”

Modern image

“It is clear that some traditions in diplomacy will be questioned,” he said, “but I think that Switzerland has an innovative foreign policy that matches very well with our image, an image we will give to countries that says we are modern, open-minded, really up-to-date.”

They hope it will also set a good example for their children, now aged ten and 13, who are so used to having either mum or dad at home that both are referred to as ‘mapa’.

“I think it was good for the children,” she noted. “They see that you can do something different and they do not have this stereotypical image of women being at home.”

Job sharing is even helping their communication as a married couple, the pair acknowledge.

“We really have to talk a lot and I think that is good for the relationship. I think we share the same values and enthusiasm for the job. We are both optimistic and so on and we have fun at work. I think in the beginning it was more difficult to job-share at home,” she said.

“For definite,” he added, laughing. “We are very optimistic and we see no problems at all.”

“Of course we have to see how it will be reflected on the personnel. I overheard one colleague saying ‘don’t take that to madam, take it in the afternoon to mister because he is less involved in the details’. That is fair enough. There are different ways of management.”

Under scrutiny

“We are under close scrutiny of the people here in Switzerland. We have to deliver, we want to deliver, but we want to do it in our way,” he said.

The Thai authorities are aware of the job sharing situation but have not given a reaction yet.

Preparation for the new post has so far included around 30 meetings with Swiss organisations with interests in Thailand, a crash course in Thai, and English classes for the children to prepare them for the Swiss school in Bangkok.

The ministry has also been prepping them in how to handle potential crises such as the tsunami that struck the region in 2004. Thailand is also home to around 6,000 Swiss and is one of their popular holiday destinations.

“There are a lot of challenges of course but we are really positive. We can’t wait to start work,” added Burgener.

Jessica Dacey,

The first contact between Switzerland and Thailand dates back to the 17th century, when Swiss missionaries published reports of their visits to the kingdom of Siam.

King Chulalongkorn was received by the Swiss cabinet in 1897 and 1907. After his first visit, the two countries negotiated a Friendship and Trade Agreement, later signed in 1931.

The present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, lived in Lausanne with his mother, brother and sister from 1933 to 1950.

Switzerland opened an Honorary Consulate in Bangkok in 1932, and an embassy in 1949.

Ties have been strengthened through the strong presence of Swiss companies in Thailand. In the tsunami in the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004 Switzerland helped with the identification of the victims and the reconstruction of three fishing villages.

Christine Schraner Burgener was born in 1963 and went to primary school in Tokyo after her father was relocated to Japan in his work as a mechanic for Swiss International Air Lines. She the attended high school in Winterthur in Switzerland and studied law, graduating from Zurich University.

She entered the diplomatic service in 1991, with a first post as attaché at the Swiss embassy in Morocco. In 1993 she returned to Bern as desk officer in the human rights section of the international law directorate.

In 1997, she was posted to the embassy in Dublin, job sharing with her husband as counsellor to the ambassador. She then returned to Bern to job share with her husband as head of the human rights policy section, before becoming the diplomatic advisor to the staff office of political affairs in human security. She later headed the international law and human rights division where she has since served as the coordinator for counterterrorism on foreign policy and as secretary of the international humanitarian fact finding commission.

In the new posting she will be Ambassador to Thailand.

Christoph Burgener was born in 1962 in Visp. He studied law, graduating from the Univeristy of Fribourg. He worked on the Asia desk of the Federal Migration Office and then moved to a district court.

He entered the diplomatic service in 1991 working initially in the legal services section of the foreign ministry and then took a posting as attaché at the embassy in Algiers. In 1993, he returned to Bern where he was appointed as desk officer in the directorate of public international law.

In 1997, he was posted to the embassy in Dublin in a job-share with his wife, and in 2001 returned to Bern to job-share again with her as head of the human rights policy section. He moved on to become a diplomatic advisor to the foreign minister and then deputy head of the ministry’s financial and economic division. He has been the foreign policy coordinator of the state secretary since 2005.

In the posting he will be Ambassador to Laos and Cambodia.

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