Celebrating the Rise of Women in Diplomacy

CEO of Grassroot Diplomat, Talyn Rahman-Figueroa, offers an insightful description on how women are rising in the field of diplomacy.

International Women’s Day is a day of celebration applauding the achievements of women worldwide. We have seen that the struggle for equality and empowerment of women in any industry has strong links to unequal power relations, and the case applies for women entering the diplomatic world. Bringing women into diplomacy is a symbol of hope and modernisation for the 21st Century, yet women are underrepresented in senior diplomatic positions. It took the United Kingdom 191 years to finally appoint the first female Head of Mission, and in 2010 only 21.8 percent of senior management positions from 260 diplomatic missions are filled by women.

Throughout history, characteristics associated with "manliness" have been valued in the conduct of international politics and have only been occupied by men. As a traditionally male domain, existing power structures within the diplomatic infrastructure remain to reinforce overt discriminatory practices, making it difficult for women to enter diplomacy at the highest position. Niccolò Machiavelli, one of the earliest diplomatic pioneers, placed much emphasis on the importance of masculine characteristics in conducting state relations. Empirically, states are run and defended by men, and therefore advance only the interest of men. Permitting women in positions of power was theoretically perceived as a threat to male domination and a sign of self-weakness as exemplified by honey-trap methods used to lure male diplomats to sexual seduction.

Diplomat Sir Harold Nicholson echoed Machiavelli’s fear when he said that “women are prone to qualities of zeal, sympathy and intuition which, unless kept under the firmest control, are dangerous qualities in international affairs.” The opinion of British male diplomats implies that women should continue to be subsidiary to high politics and diplomacy, which may explain why employing British women as diplomats in the UK was delayed until 1946.

When considering women in history, there is evidence that women have demonstrated particular masculine traits to assume leadership. A few examples include Joan of Arc, Empress Theodora, and Catherine the Great. However, these women left their mark on history because they - and many others - have typically assumed male roles. When Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister, she quickly became the ultimate feminist icon who smashed through the highest glass ceiling. As women appear so infrequently in positions of authority, expectations of what Thatcher could do for women, as a woman, were higher than any ceiling that she had shattered. Yet feminists have criticised Thatcher for doing nothing to create positive change for women.

Although the British Foreign Office has been employing women since its creation in 1782, routine diplomatic assistance was carried out by the wives of diplomats - all without a salary. Male government officials relied on women’s unpaid labour in maintaining relations with their political counterparts. By the end of the 19th century, diplomacy and hostessing became tightly intertwined to the extent that women married to diplomats were unable to do little else. Before women were admitted as diplomats, diplomatic wives played a vital role in bridging relations between male members from different diplomatic missions. While their work was undervalued by the government, male diplomats depended on their wives’ cooperation by being their “eyes and ears” at functions. Gathering intelligence is an essential task for diplomats. As such, diplomatic wives were entrusted with the duty of creating an atmosphere in the residence where diplomats from different states could get to know each other “man to man” and talk business off the record.

It was not until 1946 that women were given the opportunity to become career diplomats, although in principle this could have been much sooner. There were particular reservations that the Foreign Service would be turned into a matrimonial bureau, considering that single women who married diplomats would have to leave the service. A policy known as "the marriage bar" instructed single women to resign appointment in the event of their marriage, resulting in no fewer than 25 percent of newly-wedded women leaving the service. While being single meant that women were "vulnerable", married female diplomats posed potential threats to taking over posts reserved for married male diplomats, consequently undervaluing the masculine domination for power.

The marriage bar was finally withdrawn in 1972, enabling married women to become employable again without discriminatory stipulation. However, the policy was slow to be put in practice, as women in the most senior posts were all unmarried as far as 1985. No woman was appointed Head of a British diplomatic post before the early 1970s, and the first married female Head of Consulate wasn’t until 1987. The admission and promotion of women continued to be a relative problem even after these changes were implemented. In fact during in the 1990s, 6,583 cases of breaching the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 were reported by women.

The present day number of women in high-level diplomatic positions has been dismal. According to sources, the European Union diplomatic corps only has 11 out of 115 current female ambassadors, leading members to refer to the EU as the “Western European old boys club”. In 2002, only 11 female ambassadors served their country as the Permanent Representative at the United Nations in New York, with 15 female diplomats posted in Washington. These numbers are slightly higher than they were a few years ago, but when comparing against the background of 192 Member States currently in the UN, it means that only 6 percent of diplomats are women. It has been 40 years since women - married or single - have been permitted to compete for top diplomatic posts, but the FCO is still sending female diplomats to many parts of the world for the first time. The UK has yet to appoint a British female diplomat to the UN as its representative, though in August 2010, Dame Rosalind Marsden was newly appointed as the first female British EU Special Representative to Sudan.

Women are innately equipped with diplomatic skills such as negotiating, intelligence seeking and maintaining peace. When regarding the skill of negotiation, women have proven themselves to be capable of deciding what is in their best interest whilst making moral judgements that are rational. Speaking before the UN Security Council in May 2002, Terry Greenbelt stated that governments need women because “women are willing to sit together on the same side of the table…with the commitment and intention of not getting up until – in respect and reciprocity – we can get up together and begin our new history”. The willingness to negotiate and hammer out solutions is an innate trait in women, as the process of engaging in negotiations requires patience, cooperation, careful listening, and mutual understanding. As suggested by former British Ambassador Ms. Frances Guy, women are often better negotiators as they are not put off by male egos that take over negotiations, while they have the stamina and determination to take no for an answer. Conducting foreign policy is the exercise of power, so being undermined by an argumentative woman could theoretically demean some men.

Women make effective diplomats as they also have access to areas that are otherwise restricted to male diplomats. As part of preventive diplomatic measures, diplomats must be able to tap into the whole of society in order to analyse and anticipate future threats in vulnerable areas. In certain parts of the world where gender segregation is prevalent, men are not able to openly reach out to women and, therefore, are only able to consider half the population within their analysis. As women, female diplomats have access to the other 50 percent of the population, specifically in rural and conservative societies, and are hence able to ensure that the voice and concerns of women are not ignored. The presence of a female diplomat can also be considered symbolic and rallying for local women, especially if she is the only female ambassador serving in the country.

Classifying women as weak, vulnerable and submissive are old stereotypes that are no longer acceptable as grounds for misemployment. Rather, the inclusion of women in senior ambassadorial positions illustrates a progressive and modernised diplomatic society that takes to account the opinions and perspectives of women. Although top female politicians in the UK have formerly disappointed feminists in enhancing the political rights of women, a diplomat as appointed by the state is responsible for representing and promoting her nation’s interest and its people.

Diplomacy is not symbolic of men’s status and views of world affairs, but rather it is reflective of a whole society. In respect to this, diplomacy of the 21st Century must be represented equally by men and women of equivalent merit and standing. Women’s equal participation in diplomacy plays a crucial role in the general process of the advancement of women in any field. Considering that more women are securing posts at the FCO, we can speculate that Britain may be able to achieve gender equality within senior management in the next 15-20 years. Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspective at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved.