International Day for Women In Diplomacy

The Women In Diplomacy Network co-hosted with the FCDO a panel discussion on levelling the playing field for female diplomats

“Someone has to punch through the glass ceiling. Someone has to be a trailblazer. When it’s your turn, take a deep breath and go for it. When you get to the top, turn around and make sure the ladder is there for others to climb.”

With those words, Dame Karen Pierce, Britain’s first female Ambassador to the USA, inspired a Locarno Room packed with 170 female diplomats from 70 nations who had gathered to mark the International Day for Women In Diplomacy with a panel discussion on the theme of The Evolution of Women In Diplomacy – Lessons Drawn; Challenges Ahead.

Britain’s Ambassador to Washington Dame Karen Pierce gives her keynote address

Photo: Patrick Tsui/FCDO

Evolving Role
Women in the Foreign Office have come a long way since 1946 when female diplomats were finally admitted to the foreign service, FCDO Chief Historian Patrick Salmon explained to the audience of female diplomats. But women continued to face barriers, not least the pernicious ‘marriage bar’ which required British female diplomats to resign from the foreign service when they got married.

Only rescinded in 1972, this meant that, until relatively recently, few leadership positions in the Foreign Office were held by women. The first-ever British woman appointed to the role of ambassador was Dame Barbara Salt, in 1962, but it took until 1987 for the Foreign Office to appoint Britain’s first married female Ambassador, Dame Veronica Sutherland, who shared her experiences in the panel discussion, which was moderated by Dame Audrey Glover, the first female Leader of the UK Delegation to the UN’s Human Rights Commission.

Female diplomats on a tour of the FCDO take a look at the Mirror Challenge and the top diplomatic posts filled by women

Addressing the audience, Dame Karen recalled that as a young diplomat she looked up to Dame Veronica Sutherland and Dame Audrey Glover. Having positive role models and mentors was essential to nurture the next generation of female leaders in diplomacy, she said.

Liga Renkmane, a junior female diplomat at the Embassy of Latvia, spoke for the upcoming generation of female diplomats and said how valuable it had been, not only to see women in leadership roles, but to have mentors offering encouragement and informal training and advice on the job.

To encourage female diplomats to aspire to leadership roles, a Mirror Wall was installed at the FCDO in 2018, with 13 mirrors representing the top posts yet to be headed by a woman. Nine have now been filled by portraits of female ambassadors, two of them (the USA and UN) by Dame Karen. The Mirror Challenge continues to inspire the young female diplomats to visualise themselves in top diplomatic posts.

Equal participation
In her remarks, the President of the Women In Diplomacy Network, Romanian Ambassador Laura Popescu, said gender balanced diplomacy was not just the right thing to do, it was also the pragmatic thing to do: having women at the negotiating table made for better diplomatic outcomes.

But progress towards gender parity in diplomacy has been patchy. Only a fifth of heads of mission around the world are women. That is why The Maldives proposed, at the United Nations, to have an International Day for Women in Diplomacy, “to reflect on the challenges faced by women diplomats and actions that can be undertaken to achieve women’s equal, and meaningful participation in diplomacy,” explained the Maldives High Commissioner to the UK Dr Farah Faizal in her remarks.

Work-life balance
Juggling family and a diplomatic career was still a challenge for women diplomats which was why Ambassador Popescu chose ‘Work-Life Balance’ as the theme of her Presidency.

Having both was possible but it required supportive spouses/partners and a supportive foreign ministry. Panellist Rachael Midlen, co-chair of FCDO Women, pointed to some of the FCDO’s family-friendly initiatives such as the introduction of an on-site crèche, career breaks, flexible working, dual postings and job sharing, although, as yet, there were too few job-shares in senior roles. “Having job-sharing ambassadors and job-sharing DHMs and DGs would be a great way to improve the diversity of senior roles,” she said.

Having mainly women fulfilling the role of primary caregivers was part of the problem, said Liga Renkmane. “It is important that there is a broader change in society and how we see women’s roles – in surveys people say that women should aspire to leadership roles but at the same time they also believe that women are the primary care givers. Attitudes are changing but they are changing slowly,” she said.

An inter-generational panel discussion on the evolving role of women in diplomacy. From left: Liga Renkmane (Latvia), Dame Veronica Sutherland, Dame Audrey Glover, the Ambassador of Georgia Sophie Katsarava, Rachel Midlen, co-chair of FCDO Women, and the High Commissioner for the Maldives Dr Farah Faizal

Busting myths
The discussion was also a chance to bust myths, one of which was that female diplomats tended to be given the ‘soft issues’. There was no such thing, stressed Dame Karen who cut her teeth at the UN in Geneva. “Trade, Human Rights, Pandemics are not ‘soft’ – they affect the lives of billions.” Women serve in conflict zones too: she was posted to Afghanistan, while currently Dame Melinda Simmons is UK Ambassador in war-torn Ukraine.

Another trope was that female diplomats didn’t have the same access as their male counterparts. In fact Dame Veronica found that being female often gave her more access than her male colleagues. And even in patriarchal Afghanistan, Dame Karen was treated as an equal.

Dealing with doubt
Being the only female diplomat surrounded by men in suits, can be daunting experience, said Sophie Katsarava, the Ambassador of Georgia and a former Member of Parliament. Women should not let self-doubt hold them back and should be encouraged to apply for senior positions, although appointments should always be based on merit. Confidence, she said, came from being the right person for the job and being on top of your brief.

Men could be allies too, which is why the FCDO offers a training course to help male colleagues champion their female colleagues. Sexist attitudes were best countered with charm and humour, advised the panel, but for matters of sexual harassment and women’s safety, more should be done to protect women.

Challenges ahead
A recent decline in women in senior management at the FCDO was a concern, and required further investigation, said Rachel Midlen. Causes could be exhaustion due to covid, where women took the strain of caregiving. Despite the adoption of more hybrid working, presenteeism and an ‘always-on’ culture at the FCDO, and in diplomacy in general, may be leading to burnout. Offering more support for women going through the menopause was also needed.

It was a reminder that while significant gains had been made, there were challenges ahead and that progress which had been hard fought for could be reversed.

Incoming President of the Women In Diplomacy Network the High Commissioner for Bangladesh Saida Muna

In her closing remarks, the incoming President of the Women In Diplomacy Network, the High Commissioner for Bangladesh HE Saida Muna Tasneem, said the meeting had been a demonstration of the value women bring to diplomacy and the importance of female diplomatic networks, to enable female diplomats to share experiences and advice, flag up concerns, support each other and keep pushing for change. 

Main Photo: The President of the Women In Diplomacy Network, London, Romanian Ambassador Laura Popescu, opens the International Women’s Day meeting in the FCDO’s Locarno Room
Photo: Patrick Tsui/FCDO