Women in international relations

Today, it is difficult to imagine international relations without women. In Europe, top women are influencing global affairs: Angela Merkel, the German chancellor; Christine Lagarde, former IMF boss and now European Central Bank president; Kristalina Georgieva, IMF-chair and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.

In the Philippines, seven out of 15 European Union member-states are currently represented by a female ambassador. Women have taken the diplomatic career by storm, despite facing challenges for family life and due to prejudices. With their cognitive and social talents, women are well equipped to answer the demands of today’s diplomacy.

In the Netherlands, the very first female ambassador was appointed in 1956, the year I was born. Maria Witteveen cut a lonely figure in a male dominated sector. In her generation down to the 1970s, a female diplomat who married lost her job. Women made a slow ascent in Dutch diplomacy and it was not before the 1980s that the recruitment of diplomats opened structurally to women. That’s when I started my career. At present, they are at the helm of 37 percent of Dutch missions abroad. Almost on par with the Philippines where women currently score 40 percent of the ambassadorial positions, according to ambassador Delia Domingo-Albert, author of “Women in Diplomacy: the remarkable Ambassadors in the Philippine Foreign Service.”

For centuries diplomacy was the realm of men. Its representatives lived and worked in their own bubble and selected newcomers in their own image. Until the 1970s, most Dutch diplomats originated from Leiden University with a law degree.

Originally, diplomacy was mainly about the relations between governments and about war and peace. The historic costume of Dutch ambassadors included white trousers. White referred to their role in time immemorial as unarmed messengers waving a white flag to signify a cease-fire on a battlefield. Peace and conflict resolution are still central in their work, their only weapon being a pencil or a tablet and their listening and talking.

To date, diplomacy is about playing different roles in different sectors: political affairs, trade, human rights, environment, climate and energy, development, peace and security, multilateral affairs, scientific and cultural cooperation, consular matters.

It means that diplomats face a wide variety of interlocutors from students to heads of state, from businessmen to activists, from scientists to legal experts, church leaders, refugees, artists and last but not least their own community. Diplomats should be able to interact with all and switch from one group to another, adapting their language and style. That’s one reason why we need a diverse diplomatic workforce.

Diplomacy is about representing your country. To be effective and convincing, diplomacy and diplomats should reflect the society and the values they represent. It means equal numbers of female and male diplomats and also inclusion of LGBTI and ethnic and religious minorities. These considerations are nowadays engrained in the recruitment policies of foreign offices in many European member-states.

The numbers are important. It is equally important to create a conducive environment where workers from different backgrounds can feel safe, despite gender, religion or race. It is up to the leadership in any organization to be vigilant that none is excluded or mocked and to address a toxic culture, should it develop. Diversity and inclusion are therefore a priority in the management of Dutch missions abroad.

Women appear well equipped for today’s diplomacy. Their performances equal men in analysis, problem solving and other intellectual tasks. Moreover, in her 2006 book “The Female Brain,” Louann Brizendine demonstrates that, based on hardwired biological differences, women have an edge over men with their verbal agility, their capacity to read faces, their sensitivity to the tone of voices, their ability to connect deeply and develop friendships and their ability to diffuse conflict.

These talents are tremendously important in diplomacy, given the centrality of human relations and communication. It appears that women are able to play a particular constructive role in conflict resolution, not focusing on who is to blame for a problem but how to fix it. In the Philippines, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer made history in 2014 as the first female chief negotiator in the world to sign a final peace accord with a rebel group (MILF), thus ending the 50-years Mindanao conflict. Another example is the negotiation of the Iran Nuclear Deal (2015) by a women’s only team led by Federica Mogherini, then EU High Representative for External Relations, with the Iranian government composed of men only. The Biden administration is now reviving the deal.

Women’s ability to connect is a great asset in a career where you often engage with people you don’t know and whose background is a question mark. In such context, showing interest for somebody’s family or health helps to establish a first understanding. Diplomacy is also about being a facilitator and building trust. Listening, understanding the position of your interlocutor and showing some emotions are essential to react adequately and to reach an agreement.

Another part of diplomacy is bringing people together and promoting exchange. Opening doors and mobilizing their network for stakeholders is a recurrent part of a diplomat’s work. This explains why social events take a large role in diplomacy and it comes naturally to women.

With their multiple qualities and talents, women have a great future in diplomacy international relations.

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Saskia de Lang is Ambassador of the Netherlands to the Philippines and EU Gender Champion 2021.

Credit belongs to : www.philstar.com

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