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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Women in Diplomacy and Feminist Policy

Vaishnavi Pallapothu looks at the barriers to entry for women in the fields of government and diplomacy and makes a case for the adoption of feminist foreign policies world over.

Duhaime’s Legal Dictionary states that ‘Diplomats, peacefully, courteously, formally or politically represent or negotiate between states on their relations generally or in regards to specific issues as may from time to time arise’.The progress of diplomacy has advanced throughout history, especially due to the creations of international organizations such as former League of Nations and current United Nations.

It is widely known that historically, diplomacy has been dominated by men. Women were not admitted to diplomatic and international affair services in any appreciable numbers until 1933, when 13 countries, including Nicaragua and Turkey, had women diplomats. Even today, women taking up major roles in diplomacy still remains a rarity. As of March 2016, according to the UN, the number of women ambassadors (serving as their respective countries’ representatives) has increased to 37 — out of 193 Member States — from 31 in 2014. While women’s representation and participation in government politics has increased over time, there are still more than 30 states in which fewer than 10% of legislators are women.

Barriers to entry

Three factors that function as barriers to the inclusion of women in diplomacy are: gender stereotypes, cultural norms and overt discriminatory practices of policy institutions. Very often, women in politics are channeled into areas of public interest which are perceived to be “women’s issues”. Discussions surrounding military, war and security (especially) are seen as policy-making arenas that are unsuitable for women. Society at large, continues to doubt that women can be equally as effective as men in leadership positions that involve direct dealing with other nations or other nationals. “Masculine” qualities such as assertiveness are seen as desirable in this field, hence women are singled out because they are assumed to be too gentle for a job in diplomacy.

While there are significantly many more women working in foreign policy today, you don’t see them speaking often in the media, working in senior positions or even participate in global conferences. What accounts for the gap is the distinction between voice and mere presence. Ultimately, voice needs amplification which will come from numbers and adequate representation.

Representation of women in government and diplomacy

It is interesting to note where women are being represented within the governments. Feminist research has demonstrated that the over-representation of men tends to increase with the power and prestige of positions. For instance, women are more likely to be prime ministers rather than presidents, there being no coincidence that prime ministers generally have fewer powers relative to presidents. The widely perceived notion of women as collaborators and deliberators (peacemakers in essence) and their lower degree of political autonomy may account for why women have been more successful in attaining leadership positions as prime ministers in higher numbers than as presidents. Female ministers and legislators often are found clustered in what are seen as ‘feminine’ or ‘soft’ fields traditionally linked to the private sphere and/or to women as a group. Men are found in what are stereotypically considered ‘hard’ fields of military and finance.

Impact of gender-biased policies and unequal representation

Based on research conducted by the World Economic Forum (in November 2017), countries where men and women are closer to enjoying equal rights (such as the Scandinavian countries) are much more economically and socially competitive than those where the gender gap is much higher. In countries where women and girls have limited or no access to medical care, education, voting rights and business, it comes as no surprise that these are the countries that deny basic human rights to women and are therefore some of the poorest. Such countries are also disadvantaged by lower quality of life, weaker government structures and slower economic growth.

Excluding women not only from an economic or social standpoint, but also from security negotiations, exacts a measurable cost. Peace treaties and post-conflict discussions are struck by mostly male military and political leaders. Women, although they endure much of the residual violence and poverty caused by violent conflicts, are excluded from negotiations and peace-rebuilding/sustaining efforts.

The solution? A Feminist Foreign Policy:

In February 2015, Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström, explained the “feminist foreign policy” idea by saying “A feminist foreign policy seeks the same goals as any visionary foreign policy: peace, justice, human rights and human development”.

The central approach to a feminist foreign policy is twofold: gender parity and gender sensitivity. The former is associated with increasing opportunities for women in leadership positions and the latter is concerned with examining the impact of domestic and foreign policies on alleviating gender inequality in all spheres. An intersectional approach is also mandatory, whereby the intersections between gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, class etc… are take into serious consideration. An intersectional feminist foreign policy will also aim to engage civil society (women activists) to endorse and promote a gender equal society.


It is with no hesitation or doubt that it can be asserted that promoting the status of women is a strategy towards a smarter foreign policy. This does not mean that futures are feminized, but ones in which women and men participate in reducing damage and unequal hierarchical social structures. Defining and redefining the role of women in diplomacy will present new opportunities for what women can contribute in this arena and in effect


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