Women envoys on the rise

A decade ago, the Women in Diplomatic Service was launched in London to highlight the challenges facing women heads of mission and to lobby for change. Elizabeth Stewart investigates the progress that women diplomats have made over the past ten years.


hey say that behind every great man is a good woman – and behind every successful woman is a divorce.

Sadly, that saying is all too true when it comes to women in diplomacy. Balancing career and family has always been challenge for women but is doubly difficult for the peripatetic lifestyle of diplomats.

So on the eve of 10th anniversary celebration of the WDS, Embassy magazine conducted a poll of women diplomats in  London to find out whether the status of women in diplomacy has improved over the past decade.

Are social attitudes changing or is it still true that for women to get ahead in diplomacy they have to get a divorce?

Global stati

In the Embassy survey respondents were unanimous that the status of women in diplomacy has improved over the past decade, but in order to back that perception with hard evidence, it’s worth analysing some key statistics.

The lack of comparable data makes it difficult to calculate the current average proportion of women ambassadors worldwide compared to a decade ago. However, the proportion of women ambassadors in large diplomatic capitals – which have representations from most countries around the world – may be a useful indicator.

At the UN in New York, 15 per cent of permanent representatives are women, compared to 5 per cent a decade ago; in London, the proportion of women heads of mission is 13 per cent, compared to 9 per cent a decade ago; and in Washington, the proportion has risen to 14 per cent, compared to 6 per cent in the late 1990s.

Overall, these statistics suggest that both the absolute number and the proportion of female heads of mission globally has more than doubled, from around 7 per cent a decade ago, to just over 14 per cent today. Although a substantial improvement, the numbers remain relatively low.

Through data gathered from various studies and from information obtained by the Embassy survey, it is possible to draw broad conclusions about the status of women diplomats at a regional level.

In Europe, Nordic countries – Norway, Sweden and Finland in particular – lead the way. According to a study conducted by the Nordic Gender Institute in 2010, Norway has the highest proportion of women ambassadors in Europe with around 30 per cent, compared to just 8.5 per cent in 1995.

Finland and Sweden are not far behind, with 27 per cent of heads of mission compared to 6.9 per cent in 1997 and 8 per cent in 1992 respectively.

In the rest of Europe, the UK compares favourably with 21 per cent of ambassadors and 19 per cent of high commissioners being female, while 22 per cent of senior positions at the FCO are female. 

Around 22 per cent of EU heads of delegation are female and that number has risen sharply since Catherine Ashton took over as High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

Central Europe fares well – especially in countries with newly-formed ministries (such as Estonia, which has 26 per cent) or transformed ministries, following the fall of communism (such as Romania, which has 25 per cent).

In North America, the US sets an example where 27 per cent of ambassadors are women (as opposed to 18 per cent in 2004). Parts of Latin America and the Caribbean are also performing very well. In Grenada four out of its seven ambassadorial appointments have gone to women, including top posts in London, Washington, New York and Beijing. Panama tops the table in Latin America with one out of every four ambassadors being female.

In Africa, South Africa and Rwanda have set the bar high where just under a quarter of heads of mission is female, well above the global average.

Asia-Pacific lags behind but there are some notable exceptions, including the Philippines, where a very creditable 40 per cent of heads of mission are female, and Australia, where 29 per cent of ambassadorial posts are filled by women.

In the Middle East, female representation is typically low, but Egypt and Tunisia buck the trend and have historically appointed a number of women ambassadors.

The Gulf States have very few women heads of mission, but compared to a decade ago, when there were virtually no female ambassadors, important strides have been made: Kuwait was a trailblazer, appointing its first female ambassador in 1993. (It now has two, while Bahrain tops the table with four, amounting to around 15 per cent of all ambassadorial posts).

In 2002, there were 15 female heads of mission in London, representing 9 per cent of all resident heads of mission. Of these, nine were political appointees and so were new entrants in the world of diplomacy.

The remaining six were career diplomats, but tellingly, three of these served in the newly-established foreign ministries of newly independent countries (such as former Yugoslavia or the former Soviet Union), which means they had a relatively rapid rise to the top. Only three out of the 15 were long-term career diplomats who had risen through the ranks of their ministry.

Another revelatory statistic is that, of those women heads of mission serving in London in 2002, more than half were either single, divorced or unaccompanied by a partner or husband.

In 2012, there are 21 women heads of mission – a 40 per cent increase on 10 years ago – representing 13 per cent of all heads of mission in London. The political-career split (11 professionals to 10 political appointees) has swung the other way, which means more professional women diplomats are rising to the top.

However, three out of every four (75 per cent) of today’s female heads of mission are single, divorced or otherwise unaccompanied, which indicates that women at the top continue to have to make tough choices between family life and their careers.

When asked this question, more than four out of five respondents (87 per cent) agreed.

Three out of four (75 per cent) said they had experienced both subtle and overt forms of prejudice. Most felt pressure to work harder to prove themselves; a number said they had been misidentified as a secretary or that their male subordinates had been mistaken for being their superiors; a common complaint was that a woman’s opinions seemed to hold less weight than when a male counterpart expressed them; some said they had been passed over for promotion or had to wait much longer to be given a coveted post; and others felt there was often an “unjust division of tasks” where women tended to be given the more organisational back-office tasks while their male colleagues were given the higher-profile roles where they could take more credit for doing less work.

When asked whether affirmative action could redress these problems, one third was against any form of positive discrimination while two thirds agreed with it, provided the system was still based on merit. But they added that affirmative action would have little impact without a commitment to family-friendly policies.

Many foreign ministries have used a form of affirmative action or gender-balancing interventions in order to ‘feminise’ their foreign services with some success. Some foreign ministries can now boast gender parity in entrants to the diplomatic service, and there is a high proportion of women in lower and middle ranks, but as they rise through the ranks, female representation tapers off sharply.

In a survey of middle and senior ranking female diplomats in London, a number of reasons were offered for the so-called “glass ceiling” – from lack of confidence among women themselves, to men traditionally being offered top jobs over women.

However, lack of support in balancing family and career was cited as the major reason holding women back. Moving from one capital to the next with children is  very hard on families, especially if there is no support at home. This is because men, often due to social pressures, are reluctant to sacrifice their careers to accompany their wives on a posting.

One senior EU diplomat recalls being asked by her head of human resources what she would do with her husband if sent on a foreign posting. “I replied: ‘Do you also ask male diplomats if their wives are prepared to give up personal careers and follow them as mere housewives, to wash socks and iron shirts?’”

But many respondents were keen to point out that the lack of women in senior roles was a generational issue that was likely to change over the next decade or two.

Many countries only opened their ministries to women in the second half of the 20th century – in the case of the UK, it took two world wars and a staffing crisis to pry open the doors of King Charles Street. And even then it was a challenge graduating from the typing pool to diplomatic work.

Another hurdle was the ‘marriage bar’ – which forced a female diplomat to resign from her post at the foreign ministry upon marriage. This was common policy in many countries, including the UK, Australia and the US, and it remained in place right up until the sexual revolution of the 1970s.

Naturally this was a major hindrance to the advancement of women in diplomatic service, few of whom were prepared to sacrifice marriage and family for a career.

It is only now that those who entered the service after the lifting of the marriage bar are beginning to rise to the top.

Statistics gathered by the

poll also reveal a distinct change in social attitudes. Of the middle and senior ranking female diplomats serving in London, nearly two thirds (62.5 per cent) are married or in a partnership, compared to only one in four heads of mission. Of those who are in a partnership, 70 per cent are accompanied.

This indicates that for the younger generation of men, it is now considered socially acceptable to take a career break in order that their wives or partners can advance their careers.

Nevertheless, respondents said dealing with frustrated, out-of-work husbands was stressful. For couples who were both in work, balancing family and career without domestic support was very challenging.

Respondents concluded that to encourage women to enter and remain in the foreign service, foreign ministries needed to introduce family-friendly policies which would benefit both male and female diplomats.

As more women rise through the diplomatic ranks, it is likely there will be more male spouses. Foreign Office statistics bear this out: at present the FCO’s Diplomatic Service Families Association (DSFA) has 1380 male members, making up 38 per cent of partners listed.

The rise in the number of male spouses means strategies to facilitate spouses finding employment will become more important. Key to this will be a more universal approach to work permits. At present, permission for a spouse to work depends on a series of bilateral agreements between countries.

Secondly, as partners may choose to stay at home to further their own careers, it is essential that foreign ministries look into providing domestic support for senior unaccompanied diplomats.

Diplomatic couples could be accommodated with more ‘tandem postings’, where one partner works at the chancery and the other at the consulate; or one works at a multilateral organisation and the other at a bilateral mission. Unfortunately this strategy is only feasible in big diplomatic capitals.

Where this is not possible, another option is ‘neighbouring postings’ so that it is easier for couples to see more of each other. The FCO has ‘neighbouring ambassadors’ in Latin America with Sharon Campbell in Costa Rica and Chris Campbell in Nicaragua.

Britain has even pioneered job-sharing ambassadors in Armenia and Zambia, where a husband and wife team alternate the responsibility of being head of mission.

Family, spouse or partner associations are also vital support networks. The Foreign Office’s Diplomatic Service Families Association actively lobbies the ministry on issues that affect the interests and welfare of British diplomatic families – from advising them about pensions, employment and family break-ups.

At the King Charles Street headquarters, the FCO has introduced a crèche and supports flexible and remote working – including working in a London job from overseas.

The number of female heads of mission at the Foreign Office is at an all-time high of 38, compared to 18 only five years ago.

Clearly this policy mix of promoting diversity and supporting families has paid off with more women diplomats joining – and rising through the ranks – at the Foreign Office.