by Caitlin Clifford

Look at that face!” Trump cried, spotting former Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. “Would anyone vote for that?”

This moment, captured in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, is just a taste of the deluge of denigrating rhetoric women have faced from Trump. From menstruating “bimbos” to claims of Clinton’s inability to “satisfy” her husband or America, Trump’s campaign rhetoric damaged perceptions of women in politics and foreign affairs. His race to the White House was plagued with accusations of misogyny. Now, his cabinet looks like it will be one of the most hostile to issues affecting women in recent years. Reviewing cabinet members’ previous positions on issues affecting women, we see hostility towards abortion rights, equal pay, funding for contraception and initiatives fighting domestic violence. Men are also disproportionately represented: Trump’s proposed cabinet currently consists of 13 men and just 4 women.

Politics and foreign affairs remain resolutely male dominated and, while Trump’s “nasty woman” jab towards Clinton has been reclaimed as a rallying cry for feminists, the phrase reinforces society’s discomfort with with ambitious, daring and assertive females.

To be fair, politics is not short of pioneering women: women have led 52 countries as heads of government. But there is a still a dearth of female state leaders. The latest figures from UN Women show that women comprise just 6% of the world’s total.

The diplomatic service is equally hard to penetrate, as a confluence of perceived gender norms and conscious and unconscious bias in foreign policy institutions restrict women’s participation. Foreign affairs is a field where homophily is evident: foreign policy institutions such as the U.S. State Department comprise a high proportion of white men from elite educational backgrounds, making gender, race and class powerful sources of social capital in international relations (IR). While the proportion of female heads of mission has more than doubled since 2000, as of 2012, 86% of heads of diplomatic missions were men. The latest figures show there are only 30 female foreign ministers for 193 UN Member States and the European Union.

For too long, women have been relegated to the margins, with Trump’s rhetoric showing dangerous historical echoes to the British ambassador to Berne in 1933 who protested that “the clever woman would not be liked and the attractive woman would not be taken seriously.” When will we see IR interrogate the continued dominance of men, recognising the value of women’s voices and taking proactive steps to improve their representation in the field?

Diversity in diplomacy is far more than a matter of social justice: it improves performance and projects a more representative face of a country abroad. Diversity doesn’t just augment the talent pool from which to choose. Benefits arise because a diverse workforce injects new cultural identities, priorities and foreign policy perspectives to challenge institutional norms, unconscious bias, and paradigms in IR. As former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, now National Security Advisor, Susan Rice asserted, “today’s multifaceted global challenges demand more varied viewpoints and experiences than ever.” Foreign policy institutions need to avoid the dangers of “groupthink.” As Rice argues, leaders from diverse backgrounds “question one another’s assumptions” to “come up with more creative insights, proffer alternative solutions, and thus make better decisions.”

Increasing women’s representation is an important place to start. But it is insufficient without mechanisms combating institutionalized norms stifling women’s voices. Giving women more seats at the diplomatic table means little if they are forced to play by the ascendant rules, favoring traditional strategies of argumentation promulgated by men. As political scientist Denise Walsh argues, it is not enough to for women to be present in political institutions. Instead, they must have access to the extent that women from diverse backgrounds are integrated in institutions at all levels. Women must also have a voice, according to Walsh, which relies on changing the way women are represented and received in the public sphere. Finally, there must be capacity for contestation such that women can challenge the prevailing “rules of the game.”

Therefore, in order for foreign ministries to make strides in achieving women’s rights, key changes are required both within and outside institutions from a variety of actors. This means improving women’s access to roles in the foreign ministry at all levels, ensuring that obstacles to women’s success within the foreign service are removed, and changing the way that female actors are treated in public debate.

Below are three examples of steps that seek to achieve these goals.


Improving women’s access to roles in the foreign ministry at all levels.

A first step is to include female candidates in consideration for all head of mission posts such as in Norway where the foreign ministry has taken radical steps to improve diversity at the top. If an equal number of men and women apply for a vacant ambassadorial position, the underrepresented gender is preferred. At least one woman is always called to an interview for ambassadorial posts, provided she possesses the qualifications. This has dramatically changed the composition of men and women in Norwegian diplomacy, increasing the proportion of female ambassadors from 8.5% in 1995 to 30% in 2009.


Removing obstacles to women’s success within the foreign service.

Second, foreign ministries must introduce more flexible working practices. A flexible work environment bring benefits to both male and female diplomats, but they are especially important for women in a world where women assume primary responsibilities for child care. Common initiatives include flexible or part-time work and generous paid parental leave. Senior female diplomats have demanded these changes, as was the case for Frances Adamson. Appointed Australia’s first female secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in July, Adamson is  widely respected as an astute public servant who “gets things done.” Adamson has championed flexible working conditions for women throughout her career, wrangling her diplomat roles into ones that actively accommodate raising four children.


Changing the way female actors are treated in public debate.

Finally, a competing discourse of adept female diplomats is necessary to dismantle female stereotypes, challenge men’s ascendency and to show how the dominant discourse used by male diplomats is a social construct that is open to contestation.

Do the names Fu Ying, Lubna Al Qasimi, or Raychelle Omamo ring any bells? They should, because they represent some of the most powerful figures in both domestic politics and IR.

Ying is China’s first female chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the second woman to serve as China’s vice foreign minister. Qasimi is the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while Omamo is currently serving as Kenya’s first female Cabinet Secretary for Defense.

Each took a chainsaw to women’s thorny path to power, but they remain marginalized and underrepresented in mainstream foreign policy discourses. The 2016 podcasts Women in Diplomacy and Women of NATO are great initiatives to challenge the status quo. However, the mainstream media needs to provide sustained coverage of women’s contributions, transcending the tokenism of simply listing “the most powerful women you’ve never heard of” as appeared in a 2012 edition of Foreign Policy.

Reporting women’s work in diplomacy is a delicate balancing act – it must take proactive steps to celebrate their achievements, but should not focus on their work simply due to their gender. Diplomacy is a realm where women and men both add value, and commentators should not make constant recourse to the “female diplomat” as an aberration.  

As Wendy Sherman, America’s chief negotiator in the 2015 Iran nuclear talks pointed out, I don’t sit there as a woman. I don’t sit there as a mother or a grandmother or a Jewish American. I sit there as the United States of America.”

Institutionalised norms, intimidation, and socially prescribed gender roles comprise just some of the myriad historical, cultural and institutional barriers that prevent women’s voices from being heard. It’s high time we recognize this and take proactive steps to raise women’s voices to a roar.