Women in Foreign Affairs Continue to Face Challenges. It’s Time to Address Them.

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British civil servant Gertrude Bell was pictured in Iraq having an afternoon tea with Middle Eastern soldiers on a jagged rock face in 1922. She was the only woman allowed to hold the position of civil servant. In 1933, Charles Howard Smith, U.K. Assistant Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, was charged with an inquiry into whether women should be working in diplomatic consular services. Smith regarded female access to diplomatic leadership as “unthinkable” and “a nuisance.”

We have come far since those days. Today, more than 50 countries have female foreign ministers, and women have gained an increasingly important role in foreign policy and security institutions, ranging from diplomacy to peacekeeping.

But despite all the progress made, women in foreign affairs continue to face the issues of emotional burdens and the declining value of institutions which affect the perceived influence of female diplomats. While the number of women in diplomatic, peacekeeping and military affairs has increased, challenges affecting the quality of their work persist and should be addressed by governments around the world.

Expectations of Emotional Duties

Although the number of women in military operations has increased since 2013, women often continue to work in the traditional ways that societies expect them to.

Pre-assumed roles by male colleagues, and self-reinforced stereotypes, help perpetuate the view that female leaders must do more than their male counterparts to make themselves valuable. Women are known to take on added burdens and work double shifts. The higher the position a woman attains in foreign affairs, the more likely she is to take on additional duties. For example, women are often asked to volunteer at schools and orphanages in their free time, working a double shift not replicated by male colleagues and beyond their set hours.

On top of the burden of working extra hours, women also bear responsibilities related to their attributed emotional abilities. Anonymous interviews conducted by Lesley J. Pruitt reveal this to be true especially in dangerous and unpredictable geopolitical situations. A South African female military officer quoted by Pruitt stated that women are employed as “they can talk to a man to soften his heart.” Pruitt’s study on female military officials in the Formed Police Unit in India also suggests that women are viewed as having more “natural abilities” than men to handle gender-based crimes, such as those relating to the care of orphans and young children. 

While Dr. Claire Yorke’s interview on the importance of emotional empathy is compelling, the example here is one of emotional burden rather than encouragement. These emotional duties have become a strain on the effective power of women in foreign policy institutions.  

Women’s roles in foreign affairs have been dictated by gender-based assumptions, obscuring their role as pivotal actors in international security. The issue here is not about women working in diplomacy or other foreign policy institutions in general. The issue concerns the duties which women are expected to perform at these institutions. Access to foreign affairs posts does not mean equal impact and duty for men and women.  

Diplomacy: A Threatened Institution

Another challenge for women is the declining prestige of diplomatic institutions. Globally, many ministries of foreign affairs are losing their influence, affecting women’s ability to influence events on the world stage. It is not the quantity, but the esteem of female roles in diplomacy that needs revising. 

Take Australia for example. In the last 30 years, it has taken several steps forward in terms of gender inclusivity in diplomatic leadership. Australia currently holds its third consecutive female foreign minister and third female foreign secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). However, the status of the DFAT has evolved in a negative way. In 1987, after the departments of foreign affairs and trade in Australia merged into a single unity, duties of the separate branches were no longer mutually exclusive and valued as an independent contribution to the operations of foreign policy. 

Women gained more access to diplomatic positions and since 2006 occupy 50.3% of roles in the department. But the emphasis on bureaucratic neutrality, and the decrease of opportunities for influential international posts by 40.1% since 1984, indicates a major challenge to the impact of Australian diplomats and ministers. Women are gaining near equal representation in roles, while the institution itself is valued less.  

The Way Forward

Delegations of diplomatic roles remain highly polarized. Although women are still a minority within foreign affairs and international security institutions, the issue is not one of quantity. Rather, the influence of women is undermined through assumptions of gender-based roles and the perceived significance of the career they occupy. These challenges continue to constrain women’s influence in international security.

Solutions should be specific, yet address the need for female leaders, military officials, and ambassadors to be integrated into an attractive workplace where men and women work alongside each other. 

Governments should provide training to ensure all diplomats and officials have the technical expertise and involvement necessary to exert influence in their career. This will provide the mechanism for women to take leadership in male-dominated sectors, with the foundational confidence that they can take part in diplomatic decisions. 

Additionally, governments could create budgetary targets for funding women’s advancement, in the form of direct support to women-led organizations. To measure impact, they should also provide financial support to global data collection on the progress of female leadership in diplomacy and international security.

Acknowledging the challenges women face, and creating target-based solutions which maintain the value of foreign affairs institutions where women occupy power, remains an important task for policymakers around the world.

Anouska Jha is a third-year history student at University College London (UCL), a policy columnist at the UCL Diplomacy Review, and a researcher for the Bentham Brookes Institute think tank.

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