Female envoys chip at glass ceiling

Male ambassadors outnumber female heads of mission six to one in London, a statistic that sparked a lively debate at a recent meeting co-hosted by the Women in Diplomatic Service and the US Embassy’s Gender Equality Working Group.

Diplomats shared views on why female diplomats were failing to rise through the ranks even after the lifting of the ‘marriage bar’ – which required female diplomats to resign upon getting married.

The lack of support for diplomatic families topped the list of reasons why foreign ministries tended to lose mid-level female envoys. The growing number of ‘unaccompanied posts’ in insecure parts of the world added to the problem. These are the ‘hardship’ posts that diplomats take to increase their chances of promotion.

But social norms were also to blame: women needed to “cede” territory in the domestic realm to men, allowing them to take on child-rearing roles. Negotiating bilateral agreements to enable accompanying male spouses to work was crucial, as was finding gainful employment within the mission. Community liaison officers should also be mindful of the particular needs of male spouses.

While Western society was changing, envoys pointed out that in patriarchal countries, women were still expected to combine their domestic and their diplomatic duties with little support.

Diplomats exchanged views on creative solutions to supporting diplomatic mothers, which included job-sharing and remote working. But these options became limited the more senior a diplomat was. ‘Tandem couples’ presented a similar dilemma – only the larger missions were able to accommodate both officers, and the higher the rank, the harder it was to avoid anti-nepotism rules.

Nevertheless female diplomats were encouraged to hear that, even in patriarchal countries, women envoys were treated as equals or as a “third sex”.

They joked that being a multi-tasking mother was the best training for senior management roles in their ministries.

Photo: US Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Dibble makes her opening remarks
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