Where Are the Women? Gauging Visibility of Female Diplomacy in International Relations

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was an Indian diplomat and politician who was elected as the first female president of the United Nations General Assembly (Photo by Central Press)

Disha Verma

I distinctly remember an international law lecture in the early years of my law school where we set out to explore “sources of law” in various modalities. European scholars and philosophers being referenced to the point of exhaustion in every lecture, it was refreshing to see the words “Hindu Mythology” now scribbled across the whiteboard. “Lord Hanuman’s visit to Lanka in the Ramayana is the first-ever documented instance of diplomacy. And Vibhishana’s honourable choice to not hurt him while on foreign land, the first acknowledgement of diplomatic immunity”, Professor stated impassively, and moved on.

But the thought of High Commissioner Hanuman took up most of my days to come. I read Applied Diplomacy by Retd. Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan and realised how often diplomacy, a seemingly modern instrument of asserting soft-power, has sprung up in ancient texts. Then I watched guest addresses from a few years prior, where Retd. Ambassador K.P. Fabian suggested it was these mythological anecdotes that helped India navigate international relations in the long run. He also recounted historically significant events that shaped Indian diplomacy and then reminisced about several of his own adventures in the service.

In this process, however, something struck me as odd. Where were the women?

Among all the luminaries Fabian mentioned, not a single one was a woman. In the mythology Sreenivasan cited, I could only place a distressed and abducted Sita amongst saviour lords, primate diplomats and hyper-masculine demon-kings. In my own research runs, I struggled to find enough high-ranking female consuls to draw inspiration from. One quickly realises that diplomacy and consular relations do very little justice to women: First, there aren’t enough of them. Second, they consistently occupy low-ranking positions. Third, their contributions to international relations are often actively brushed under the carpet. This article seeks to explore why that is, and what we can do to improve.

Although India’s patriarchal backdrop actively relegates and diminishes working women, this broader exclusion is not limited to Indian diplomacy. Holding foreign office is synonymous with prestige and esteem across the globe, which is why it is guarded with egregiously difficult competitive exams in almost every populous country. The social, financial and recreational charm of Foreign Service attracts aspirants from all intersections of caste, class, creed and gender. But how many does it accommodate?

In most governments across the world, women were not allowed to hold foreign office until the 1970s. Even after that, they were formally banned from marrying while in service well until the 1980s. Reasons cited were undisputed sexist gender norms at the time masquerading as foreign policy customs that still prevail. For instance, the social capital associated with being an ambassador’s wife is both more appealable and achievable to a woman than becoming an ambassador herself. This set in motion an early pattern of very little female representation in the field.

One could attempt to address why: this article, for starters, suggests that countries have long described a successful diplomat as someone rational, strong, tall, polite and level-headed – which quickly eliminates the “weaker”, more “irrationally emotional” sex. Perception of women in high-prestige positions by popular media has not helped either. When Vijayalakshmi Pandit became the first female president of the UN General Assembly in 1953, The Hindu reported: “…President’s job is neither a sinecure, nor that of a figurehead. It carries no financial remuneration, only an overload of responsibility out of all proportion to the frail feminine shoulders which are going to bear it during the year ahead. Mrs. Pandit’s will be the sole task of interpreting complex, ambiguous rules of procedure of the Assembly — on the able performance of which depends not merely the expedition of business, but amicable handling of all the many problems before the House…” Apprehension, doubt and distrust have been hard at the heels of women diplomats across the globe, the ripples of which show in present-day numbers and statistics as well.

Unsurprisingly, women are more likely to hold ambassadorial posts in countries with higher levels of gender equality. Sweden and the US appoint the greatest share of women ambassadors, with Europe contributing the highest in terms of regional representation. But there is a sinister pattern to these appointments. According to a 2018 study by Towns and Niklasson, women ambassadors in these jurisdictions are:

  • Often posted to countries with lower GDPs (on an average) than their male counterparts;
  • Rarely sent to Trade-Intensive Countries (TDCs) to negotiate important trade deals;
  • Appointed to consistently lower-paying and less economically prestigious positions than their male counterparts.

It is interesting to note that Sweden was the first country to announce a “feminist foreign policy” in 2014, followed by the likes of France, Iceland and Mexico. But even this policy commitment to making foreign office more welcoming to women has failed to show up in statistics. Inherent biases show through the cracks, like the hesitation to assign important negotiations to women. Indeed, a substantial statistical change takes time, but the current realities of foreign service are upsetting, regressive and less than ideal.  

Women have not infiltrated male-dominated consular high-tea circles. Women have not been able to network with their contemporaries or beyond their circles due to far less field exposure. Women have not been sent to larger countries for fear of them not being assertive enough to negotiate good deals. Sure, women are now being placed in several consulates, but their professional journeys are much slower from carrying a history of workplace prejudice. Even today, foreign office operates on the unspoken but near-universal understanding that women will have a hard time fitting into new political terrains.

Admittedly, sexism is a usual suspect in every chapter of history. What sets diplomacy apart is: along with archaic stigma, there are practical obstacles too. For instance, consular missions to socially underdeveloped (read: sexist, regressive) countries where women think they would never be seen as equals or taken seriously, are often passed on to them. One can well imagine the emotional fortitude needed for a woman to visit countries where fundamental female autonomy is a punishable offence: and to greet with utmost politeness and high-regard the same politicians that criminalise it. It is possible, then, to argue that women do have a hard time fitting into new political terrains but for entirely different reasons that categorically do not include a lack of talent.

A concrete but controversial example of this is the Swedish-Iran visit of 2017. Shortly after having proclaimed itself as the first feminist government, Sweden sent an entourage of women diplomats to close important trade deals with Iran. Iran has always demanded that diplomats making such visits observe local laws and customs, which include donning the mandatory hijab for women. This is not unusual in consular practice – diplomats are trained to be respectful of cultures and to partake in local traditions to reinforce friendly relations. But this particular visit was different.

At the time, Iran was witnessing historic pushback against the mandatory hijab law from local women and feminist groups. Activists like Masih Alinejad were on the frontlines of possibly the biggest civil uprising modern Iran had seen, to rid the country of an oppressive, patriarchal law. An online campaign urging women to take off their hijabs in public and take pictures of their uncovered heads (an offence punishable with up to 2 months in prison) was catching international traction.

Yet, the Swedish entourage led by erstwhile Prime Minister Stefan Lofven donned hijabs the minute they set foot in Iran, and were never photographed unveiled during their stay. The visit was a consular success. The Swedes achieved what they set out to: negotiating trade-deals to their benefit while maintaining comity with Iran. They manifested the textbook ‘Successful Diplomat’, a first for womankind. Supreme Leader Khamenei had even tweeted positively about this visit, assuring that Sweden had a “good reputation” in Iran.

But Alinejad and several other local activists vastly criticised this move. To them, 11 vocally feminist women – representing a feminist government – had just undone much of the progress that protesting women in Iran had made all while risking their lives daily. The moment these high-ranking women donned the hijab before and for the Iranian administration, they legitimised and endorsed an extremely repressive custom. Successful Diplomats had belittled a feminist revolution.

Now, my understanding of feminism does not allow me to defend the Swedes in this instance. In fact, I would cite the example of Marietje Schaake, a European High Commissioner who has consistently been vocal against hijab laws without caring much about her comity with Iran, to say that it was possible to support the resistance. But I also cannot forego this observation: why does being a Successful Diplomat come at such high costs for women? An all-male Swedish entourage in this instance would have had no difficulty closing deals, receiving a validating tweet from the Premier, and coming back home to only commendations – not backlash. One, because they do not have to don a hijab. But also, because being a man in a country like Iran already gives you a head-start. And this preferential treatment (and easy-way-outs) are available to male diplomats in many different jurisdictions in many different ways.

Another way to assess this is to look at women visiting Iran in non-consular capacities. In 2016, American chess champion Nazi Paikidze chose not to compete at the world championships held in Iran, because she refused to wear a hijab. I cannot say this decision did not affect her personally or professionally, but it was a decision she made in a free, personal, autonomous capacity. Juxtapose this with a female politician or high-ranking diplomat like Emma Bonino, who may be asked to visit Iran to negotiate on behalf of the Italian government. She will be reasonably expected to follow all local laws, including the hijab, regardless of her personal commitment to feminist ideals or support towards Iranian movements. Her decision then, to leave off the hijab, cannot be made in a free, personal, autonomous capacity. It is one that will affect an entire country’s economic policy, and may cost her her job. A job that she had to work twice as hard to earn than her male counterparts; a job that allowed her to be the female representation in this field that she never had.

And that is how I end up here, asking: where are the women? Maybe they hide behind this dichotomy: wanting the high prestige of foreign office but dreading the lack of political autonomy that it inevitably comes with. I think that there are three conclusions that arise from this discussion.

First, women diplomats are invisible. What started as a pattern of exclusion through the marriage-ban and ambassador’s wife trope decades ago has left a profound impact on present-day representation. When there are only a handful of high-ranking female ambassadors for young girls to idolise, ambition and optimism to do well in the field drop quickly, and fewer women end up pursuing it. This cycle of low representation – low interest creates an institution where Retd. Ambassadors’ speeches do not feature a single female name.  

Second, low women to men ratio in the service (especially in higher ranks) creates a disproportionate masculine environment. This may reflect in how diplomats interact with each other, patterns of promotions or why age-old gender biases take so long to be dismantled in the field. Lack of female perspectives on female-centric issues, such as the many missions addressing Female Genital Mutilation in African countries, also renders these missions hollow and meaningless.

Third, women diplomats tend to settle for far less socially or economically prestigious positions within the service. This may stem from the need for safe spaces: most women are assigned lower positions or cadres, the horizontal environment can be much more female-friendly and accommodating. Or, it may be the internalisation of gender norms: the permissible extent of their worth and ambitions as a result of which, they never choose to rise in ranks. Between a rock and a hard place, I sincerely pray it is the former.

We can of course hope that things gets better. But given the egregious realities of diplomacy with its unchecked biases and unkind history, I strongly believe it won’t get better until people in foreign service alter the way they view consular relations as an institution. Each new generation of consulates continues to parrot the now defaced claims of their predecessors, “diplomacy sees no gender”. Even the women in service have called it “gender neutral” before, assuring an audience of aspiring civil servants that their gender will be no bar to their professional journeys.

But as this article shows, these platitudes miss the point. It is not the case that women are being sent home from embassies for not being A Man; neither has Successful Diplomat been described as categorically male in training manuals. Instead, the biases that persist continue to persist because diplomacy sees no gender.

Just like affirmative action seeks to remedy the wrongs against social minorities, diplomacy must also acknowledge the patterns of unfair treatment and inexplicable discrimination against women that it has enabled, encouraged and passed down generations. It must start seeing gender. A possible solution is the uplifting of women and other socially weak classes within the female race. This has already been done in several countries by reserving seats for women in governmental positions, but it must also extend to international organisations, it must reflect in pay-scales, it must manifest in better representation. Most importantly, it must address the arbitrary and unfair standards female diplomats are subjected to and strive to resolve them.


Disha Verma is a graduate of Symbiosis Law School, Pune. You can find her on LinkedIn.


Photo Credits: Nina Leen/ Central Press

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