Addressing gender disparity in the diplomatic sphere

29 August, 2017

It is beyond dispute that various sociocultural, ideological, economic, and institutional barriers have historically ensured the exclusion of women from the political arena: the professional space in which the most consequential decisions are made.

From kings, sultans, princes, emirs and prime ministers, to their governments, envoys, and representatives, men have functioned as the primary authors and facilitators of the geopolitical order since the beginnings of human history. Indeed, the culture and structure of diplomacy has been defined and constructed by the chronicles of men.

Whilst modernity continues to challenge archaic patriarchal infrastructures, the practice of diplomacy remains adherent to conventional notions of gender. As a result, diplomacy continues as a sphere rife with power dynamics which serve to reinforce gender inequality and perpetuate the historical ‘otherisation’ of women

My new edited volume, Gender and Diplomacy, published by Routledge Press, uses gender as an analytical lens through which to study diplomacy, opening up a rich vein of scholarship that interrogates how conventionally masculine norms and values have shaped diplomatic practice.

The volume enables students of diplomacy to conduct near-objective assessments of the extent to which normative ideas about manhood inform policy-makers and decision-making in both academic and political contexts. This choice of analytical investigation helps reveal the gender subordination embedded in our conceptualisation of political phenomena, and our studies of political events, and enables the student of diplomacy to reconstruct models of the practice which are more conceptually and causally accurate. Such an analytical approach is important not only for understanding the gendered nature of diplomacy, both theoretical and practical, but also for exposing the locus of power and the shifting contours of political sovereignty and statecraft over time.

We are on a steady path towards non-gendered diplomacy, despite various obstacles, which persist to this day. These play a wide-ranging prohibitive role which spans everything from a complete lack of female participation in some countries to an absence from highest political office in other nations and virtually every scenario in between. While eliminating these obstacles is one way towards achieving equal involvement and representation of women in the diplomatic sphere, such a strategy would depend largely on the open-mindedness of the institutions by whom the barriers were set up in the first place.

Possible solutions to address gender disparity in the diplomatic sphere can be framed as threefold: (1) an institutional awareness of the gender of diplomacy, and a recognition by all levels of management of the continuing obstacles women face whilst serving their institutions; (2) emboldened by this recognition, policy-makers should continue the quest for greater numerical parity within diplomatic institutions. Improving the gender composition of diplomatic bodies may not be enough on its own when dealing with seemingly gender-neutral norms, but it does help challenge the more overt sexism that prevails in these institutions; and (3) while future leaders and policy-makers should continue to work towards increasing women’s numerical representation, their efforts need to be equally focused on restructuring the system to allow for proportionality between numbers and authority, and to create policies which allow institutions to begin questioning their assumptions about what characteristics matter within diplomatic practice, who carries authority, and what an acceptable institutional make-up consists of.

It is only through increasing awareness, and striving to create numerical and substantive change through policy, that we can fully begin to eliminate gender disparity within the practice of the diplomatic craft.

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About the author(s)
Jennifer Cassidy
Departmental Lecturer in Global Governance and Diplomacy

US Department of State/public domain