Blog | August 28, 2017

Tackling the Underrepresentation of Women in Foreign Policy

BY: KASEY ROBINSON

As women constitute 50% of the population, their underrepresentation in most fields, including in diplomacy and as ambassadors, is disappointing. Historically, one’s gender seems to play a role in appointing and hiring in the diplomatic field, a field traditionally dominated by men.

Women in Leadership

Women have held leadership roles in history: Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi and Golda Meir being a few recent examples. However, these women displayed similar leadership styles to their male counterparts and their policies didn’t reflect the fact that they were female: they were as likely to engage in military conflict, no more likely to promote women within their government, and didn’t display so-called female leadership traits. To be effective and lead to policy changes, female participation must therefore emerge at the grassroots level.

Certain countries, specifically in Scandinavia, are committed to achieving gender equality. Policies do not necessarily translate into having a female leader but in including women at all levels of decision-making. While the current Swedish Prime Minister is male, his team is gender-balanced and it is under the impulsion of its foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, that the Swedish government declared a feminist foreign policy, aiming to strengthen women's Rights, Representation and access to Resources, with consistent Reality checks (4 R’s). Sweden’s policy led to a strain in its relations with Saudi Arabia, when Margot Wallstrom openly criticized the Saudis and challenged their human rights records.

Women at the Negotiating Table

Gender-influenced foreign policies become particularly impactful in post-conflict reconstruction. During a UNSC meeting, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia cited data showing that women’s participation in peace processes increased by 20% the likelihood of a peace agreement lasting at least two years, and by 35% the probability of it lasting 15 years. UN Women further notes: “making women’s participation count is more important than merely counting the number of women included in peace processes.” In other words, giving women a meaningful voice is key to developing and implementing better policies for all, not just for women.

The adoption of UNSCR 1325 constituted a landmark in countering gender imbalance at the negotiating table and recognizing the key component of including women at all stages of the peace-making process. Tackling and punishing sexual violence crimes, which affect women disproportionately, became a central feature in establishing long-lasting peace.

Peacefulness and Domestic Violence

Research has shown that the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness, including in democracies, is its level of violence against women: societies with higher levels of domestic violence are more likely to rely on violence and be involved in militarism and war than societies displaying lower levels of domestic violence. The way a society functions, including how it treats women, influences its level of peacefulness and likelihood to engage in international conflict.

Moreover, states with higher levels of gender equality display lower levels of violence when becoming involved in international disputes, and are less likely to use force first. Hence, addressing domestic violence through gender equality will directly impact a state’s peacefulness.

Combating Stereotypes

Combating deeply-held stereotypes strengthens gender equality. For instance, traits often associated with leadership, such as assertiveness, confidence or boisterousness have traditionally been associated with men and are perceived as necessary skills to be a good states person. Those beliefs go back to childhood stereotypes where girls learn to be ‘kind’ and ‘patient’, and confident girls are called bossy, while boys are ‘assertive’ and ‘loud’. Hence, behaviors, which are tolerated in boys, are often reprimanded in girls. Only by challenging harmful stereotypes early, can we take the necessary step of making politics and international affairs a more inclusive space.

What’s Next in Store?

To address the gender imbalance, we first need to be aware of it. Making gender visible to men and women will benefit all and stress that it’s not a battle against men. Steps to a more balanced foreign policy include: addressing how women are portrayed in the public space; ensuring more equal parental leave; enforcing policies to combat domestic violence; addressing company culture and underlying sexism; and encouraging mentorship and role models for women. With such policies, societies become more peaceful, less likely to engage in military conflict and it has a direct effect on foreign policy.

This article is the First Place winner of the EWI Nextgen Essay Contest 2017. Kasey Robinson holds a BA in English Language and American Studies. She completed an internship for the U.S. government in the summer of 2012 and currently in London as an MSc Gender candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This fall, Kasey will begin her new role as Project manager for Monaco-based NGO 'shecanhecan.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.