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Gender and Diplomacy: The Role of Women in Foreign Service

The representation of women in foreign service has been steadily increasing over the years, yet their contribution remains under-acknowledged and underutilized.

This article highlights the growing significance of women in diplomacy, focusing on their role in foreign service, their unique strengths, and the challenges they face.

Women in Diplomacy: A Historical Overview

Historically, diplomacy was largely a male domain. The late 20th century marked the beginning of significant changes. In 1933, Ruth Bryan Owen became the first woman to serve as a United States ambassador, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the envoy to Denmark [1]. However, the diplomatic arena remained male-dominated until the late 20th century when the increasing importance of soft power, human rights, and international development began to emphasize the role of women in diplomacy [2].

The Role of Women in Foreign Service

Today, women diplomats are central to foreign service in numerous capacities, including negotiation, conflict resolution, public diplomacy, development cooperation, and human rights protection.

Women, with their unique perspectives and skillsets, often employ a more collaborative and inclusive approach to diplomacy [3].

This contributes to more comprehensive and long-term solutions to international issues, including peacebuilding in conflict-ridden areas. An excellent example is the women peacebuilders' significant contributions in Northern Ireland, Liberia, and the Philippines [4].

Moreover, women diplomats play a vital role in promoting gender equality and women's rights on a global scale. They can leverage their positions to influence policies that ensure the protection and promotion of women's rights, both within their host nations and internationally. A notable instance is Sweden's 'feminist foreign policy,' which is led by female diplomats and focuses on enhancing women's rights across the world [5].

The Challenges Women Diplomats Face

Despite these strides, women in foreign service continue to face significant challenges. The gender disparity in leadership roles is stark, with only a small proportion of ambassadorial or equivalent posts being held by women. As of my knowledge cutoff in September 2021, women make up just 20% of the world's ambassadors [6].

Additionally, women diplomats often grapple with stereotypes and biases, both within their organizations and in their host countries. These barriers can hinder their effectiveness and restrict their opportunities for advancement [7].

Furthermore, balancing personal life with the demanding nature of diplomatic assignments is another challenge, often more pronounced for women due to societal expectations related to family responsibilities [8].

The Way Forward

Increasing women's representation in foreign service not only advocates for gender equality but also promotes better decision-making and enhances the effectiveness of diplomatic missions.

Policies promoting gender equality, family-friendly measures, and mentorship programs can encourage more women to join and remain in foreign service.

In addition, challenging gender stereotypes, promoting women's leadership, and celebrating their contributions to diplomacy can play a significant role in empowering women diplomats.

Moreover, international organizations and countries can prioritize gender equality in their diplomatic appointments, fostering a more balanced and inclusive diplomatic community.

The role of women in diplomacy is pivotal to foreign service, bringing distinct skills and perspectives to the table. Overcoming the challenges they face and recognizing their contribution is crucial for ensuring more effective and inclusive diplomacy.

As we move forward, the hope is for a diplomatic sphere where women are not only adequately represented but also recognized for their unique value, where their voices resonate in the corridors of power and policy shaping.


[1] Gould-Davies, N. (2019). The Changing World of Diplomacy. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics.

[2] Whitman, T. (2011). Out of the Shadows: Women in Diplomacy. Foreign Service Journal.

[3] Lee, D. & Hudson, V. (2014). Bridging the gender gap in billateral diplomacy. Foreign Service Journal.

[4] Paffenholz, T. (2016). Making Women Count - Not Just Counting Women: Assessing Women’s Inclusion and Influence on Peace Negotiations. UN Women.

[5] Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. (2018). Handbook on feminist foreign policy.

[6] Wilson Center. (2020). Women Ambassadors Serving the United States. Global Women’s Leadership Initiative.

[7] Aggestam, K., & Towns, A. (2018). The gender turn in diplomacy: a new research agenda. International Feminist Journal of Politics.

[8] Neumann, I.B., & Laatikainen, K.V. (2019). Professionalism and Identity in Diplomacy’s Working Practices. Diplomatic Cultures and International Politics.


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