BRUSSELS Pressure is growing on European Union leaders to appoint a woman as the bloc's president or foreign affairs chief and break the male grip on its top jobs.
EU leaders hope to decide who will fill the post at a summit in Brussels on Thursday but although several women are widely thought to be on the long list of candidates, none is seen as a frontrunner.
Failure to name a women to a top job could undermine the EU's efforts to present itself as dynamic and modern and to win over sceptical Europeans who, opinion polls show, widely regard it as out of touch with their daily lives.
"It would be a good thing if we could have one of the posts for a woman, but there are very few women nominated," Swedish EU Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstrom said in Brussels on Monday.
"If you look at the lists so far, there are quite a few women who have been foreign ministers or prime ministers ... it would be a good thing if we could have one of those candidates."
Sweden, which holds the EU presidency, is leading efforts to fill the jobs but is struggling to find anyone with unanimous support among the 27 member states, although Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy is frontrunner to become president.
Sweden must also find a secretary-general of the secretariat of the Council of EU leaders, a less high-profile job. It says it considers gender balance important but most member states have failed to put forward any female candidates.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU commissioner for external relations, said it would be good to have qualified women in top jobs but said she did not want to see tokenism or quotas.
"As a woman I am always in favour of qualified women but at the same time I have never been a woman that has spoken out for quota women," she told reporters.
Among the women mentioned for either president or foreign affairs chief are former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Frieberga, French politician Elisabeth Guigou and Britain's Catherine Ashton, the EU trade commissioner.
Three women in senior EU roles are so frustrated that there are not many more women in the running that they wrote to the Financial Times to voice their concerns.
"Two important appointments will be made for the European Union ... and once more it is looking more and more likely that only men will be nominated," European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallstrom, European Parliament Vice-President Diana Wallis and Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes wrote.
"The right man in the right job is often a woman. Appointing women would make Europe richer and more representative and bring it closer to all citizens. This can happen, but it requires some bold decisions."
Even though European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso wants more women in top jobs, the next EU executive is likely to have fewer women than now, they wrote.
The calls for more women in top jobs are echoed by many men. Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb cited the example of the United States, listing secretaries of state Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice as examples.
"I would find it rather odd if we have four or five top jobs and all of them were held by blokes," he said.
"I want to see a more modern, more dynamic EU. Women are an important part of that. If there could be agreement on a woman for president of the EU Council or foreign affairs chief I think that would be great."
(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Jon Hemming)