OPN women leaders
Women’s leadership styles are more inclusive, and women are better able to work with colleagues across the political aisle and to bridge ideological differences Image Credit: Gulf News

Today marks the first International Day of Women in Diplomacy. Announced on June 20 by the United Nations General Assembly, the resolution to celebrate the achievements of women in the field of diplomacy on June 24 of every year was adopted with historical support and great fanfare from 191 member states.

At its very core, the resolution is meant to mark a day where the world recognizesand applauds the trailblazing work that women diplomats have done. It is also a day where countries will tout their achievements and congratulate themselves on recruiting larger than ever numbers of women into their diplomatic corps.

That praise is surely deserved because we are indeed witnessing progress. The number of women ambassadors worldwide is increasing with the share of women ambassadors going from 16% in 2018 to an approximate 22% in 2022.

Several countries (such as Canada and Sweden) have already reached gender equality in their top posts while Norway, South Africa and the United Kingdom are quite close.

With women making headway at the United Nations and beyond, June 24 is indeed a day to commemorate. However, it should also serve as a moment where we pause and reflect on important obstacles that still need to be tackled.

The list of formal and informal rules that hinder the promotion of women to senior roles within their ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) is long and unique to each country. Yet there are other less-seen but equally important challenges that need to be discussed and addressed.

The first challenge revolves around research and metrics. In addition to the annual Women in Diplomacy Index that the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy (AGDA) publishes, there are very few other indices that track the number of women diplomats.

Even the most comprehensive database housed at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, which has tracked more than 80,000 ambassadorial postings since the late 1960s until today, limits its findings to the most senior role — the ambassadorship.

Looking beyond top posts

The indices that exist do not look beyond the top posts — for reasons that have to do with time, resources and, most importantly, access to data. MFAs do not publicly divulge internal data on the number and gender of their employees and asking for that information is often a request that goes unanswered.

It takes an army of research assistants and a lot of time to gather the available information, build and update our databases, and code and analyse our data every year. Even then, what we produce does not reflect the full picture: beyond the position of ambassador, there is a myriad of female deputies, chargées d’affaires, consuls, counsellors, attaches, negotiators, mediators and other state representatives that our existing metrics do not see or capture.

Another challenge is figuring out who counts as a woman in diplomacy. Obviously, career diplomats and politically appointed female diplomats fall into that category. They are the ones that our indices, as imperfect as they may be, measure.

They are also the ones that a day like today is meant to honour. Yet, with theintroduction of “newer” conceptual and analytic frameworks in diplomacy (such as Track 2 or Track 3 diplomacy, public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, space diplomacy, economic diplomacy, etc), diplomacy, both in theory and in practice, is ever-changing and becoming more inclusive.

The traditional definition of “diplomat” — as an official representative of the state — has been somewhat blurred because of the flurry of non-governmental and non-traditional actors (artists, CEOs, scholars, writers, businesswomen and businessmen …) who are quite adept at maintaining the public image of the state and forging relations with others in ways that traditional diplomats can’t.

The #Shecurity Index, an annual metric championed by members of the European Union parliament, tries to remedy that by tracking the number of women in various other fields such as the army, police, and parliaments across the world. Even then, the data is limited to security and foreign policy and does not address the evolving nature of state representation.

Another idea to keep in mind here: when thinking about the diplomatic world in its most classic sense, our current metrics ignore significant categories of female administrators, assistants, and spouses who have — and continue to — formally and informally support male ambassadors in the conduct of their mission. A day like today needs to acknowledge and celebrate all the women who practice diplomacy — in all its forms.

Lastly, an ever-present difficult challenge is eradicating the scepticism that still exists in the minds of many men (and women!) about why designating a day to celebrate women in diplomacy matters. The gender sceptics would have us believe that it is not the gender of a diplomat or politician that matters, but their abilities, skills, overall merit, and the geopolitical and socioeconomic contexts within which they operate.

They will cite a myriad of examples to remind us that many women led their countries through controversial wars and did not enact any meaningful policy to improve the lives of other women. The answer to these sceptics is grounded in research: when women sit at the negotiation table, peace agreements last longer.

When women serve as cabinet members or representatives, they introduce legislation related to health, education, economic empowerment more so than their male counterparts.

Our research also shows that women’s leadership styles are more inclusive, and women are better able to work with colleagues across the political aisle and to bridge ideological differences. The time to clap back at the sceptics is now.

On this June 24, let us do more than celebrate the immense progress that women diplomats have achieved all around the world. Let’s use this day to actively confront the scepticism and gender bias that permeate the minds and hearts of many.

Let’s commit to expanding and perfecting our research and data to increase the visibility of women at all levels of the diplomatic ladder. And let’s remember to make room for and honour the contributions of the scores of women who are taking the world of diplomacy to more inclusive, diverse, transparent and open heights.

Dr Sara Chehab is a faculty member at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy