Debate: Do we urgently need more women in diplomacy or not?

Experts at Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy argue over the importance of gender parity in politics

Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright greets US soldiers at Bondsteel camp near Urosevac, Kosovo. AP Photo
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Women’s representation increases political stability and peace

Last month’s International Women’s Day was a reminder that despite the great progress that women have achieved in the fight for gender equality, the number of them at the top of the political and diplomatic ladder is still deplorably low. According to the 2022 Women in Diplomacy Index, curated by the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy, women make up a mere 21.6 per cent of ambassadors in the largest 40 economies of the world and the EU. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Women’s Power Index found that only 22 countries had a female head of state in 2021. Furthermore, only 13 countries had gender-equal cabinets, and only three had gender-equal legislatures in which women were elected to 50 per cent of the seats. There are 193 countries in the world. To most, gender equality remains a myth.

Some might look at these depressing statistics and be alarmed: why are we not seeing more women lead nations, governments, legislatures and embassies? Others might sound concerned, yet ultimately ask: “So what? What difference does having more women in leadership positions make?” The shortest answer is that it makes a large and very positive one and we have evidence to back up this assertion.

Let us begin with the handling of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. An analysis of 194 countries published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum found that Covid-19 outcomes were “systematically better” in countries led by women. Germany’s Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen and Finland’s Sanna Marin oversaw more proactive and co-ordinated responses to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

There is also evidence that female leaders focus on important socio-economic issues more than their male counterparts do. Drawing on over 40 years of bill-sponsorship data in the US, researchers found that women representatives sponsor crucial bills related to health, education, economic empowerment and gender-based violence more than men do. A separate study of parliamentarians in the US, UK, Rwanda and Russia, found that women pass more legislation than their male counterparts, and co-sponsor bills with other female colleagues across the political aisle at a higher rate than men.

Not only does women’s representation matter in principle, it also increases political stability and peace. Several studies found that when more women are included in government, the likelihood of conflict decreases significantly. An analysis of 182 signed peace agreements between 1989 and 2011 by Inclusive Security found that they are 35 per cent more likely to hold and last when women are involved in the negotiation and mediation process. The inclusion of women in political decision-making reduces the likelihood of conflict, corruption, instability, state-sponsored terrorism and sexual violence. Despite that, women are routinely excluded from peace negotiations. The UN estimates that only 2.4 per cent of mediators and 9 per cent of negotiators are women. This blatant exclusion is an injustice and a wasted opportunity.

Our colleagues on the other side might legitimately question the efficacy of female leaders. Did Margaret Thatcher not launch the Falklands War that led to her re-election? Did Indira Gandhi not suspend democracy by imposing an emergency in India? How about Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi staying, silent in the face of the genocide of the Rohingya people? But these anecdotes do not negate our argument. In fact, they make the opposite point. They remind us of what stares us in the face: for every female leader with a blemish in her career, we can find hundreds of male leaders who have done much worse.

There is also the “meritocracy” argument that would have us believe that what matters is not the gender of a leader but their qualifications and experience. This, again, is an argument for including more women in leadership. If gender doesn’t matter, we can surely promote enough women to take on leadership roles in politics and diplomacy. Can we not find enough qualified women out of populations of millions to represent people in parliament, cabinets, or embassies? Evidently, the “meritocracy” argument has no merit.

Let’s also not forget that navigating male-dominated institutions and political structures can often lead women to choose conformity over disruption and, at other times, confrontation over co-operation. This is not in society's interest. What we need is more gender-inclusive structures where women can thrive and lead.

We would like to leave our readers and our colleagues with this thought: we’re not living in a world where gender equality is a reality. As such, we cannot know for certain whether a gender equal world will be more peaceful or whether the likelihood of war and the persistence of instability, poverty and man-made crises will diminish if more women have decision-making power. The evidence above seems to indicate as much. But to arrive at a definitive answer, more women need to be in senior political and diplomatic roles, in boardrooms, cabinets and parliaments, and governments must ensure that domestic and foreign policies empower women around the world. We simply must build a gender-equal world where women can lead. The facts are on our side and so is the moral imperative. The future will be, too.

Merit, not gender, is the most important asset in diplomacy

First up, a disclaimer. We, the authors, both men, are not male chauvinists. We are ideologically liberal feminists, but do not attribute lack of women’s empowerment to gender patriarchy, nor do we advocate a reset of the socio-economic-political order to ensure a just world.

The distinction is important because, as we grew up in different parts of the world (one in the Global South and the other in the Global North) the various feminist movements we have been exposed to have had similar results. This leads us to argue that peace and development can be gender neutral, without discounting the ongoing drive for women’s empowerment.

Approaching this purely as an academic debate, here are our arguments based on empirical facts rather than conviction.

In developing countries, women’s socio-economic rights have lagged behind political rights. Ironically, this is despite several Asian countries having had “elected” women heads of state. In fact, the first woman to be democratically elected as prime minister anywhere in the world was Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) in 1960.

Since then, Asia has had Indira Gandhi in India, Golda Meir in Israel, Corazon Aquino and Gloria Arroyo in the Philippines, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Khaleda Zia and Sheikha Hasina in Bangladesh, Chandrika Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka, Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand and Park Geun-hye in South Korea, as well as a few more partly elected and nominated heads.

Despite this long list of female leaders, the pace of women’s empowerment continues to be limited in these countries. As for peace, the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 took place during Indira Gandhi’s stewardship, and Sri Lanka saw no decrease in the activities of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s reign.

In the Middle East, while some governing elites support women’s empowerment, there is still a strong social sentiment against women’s participation in politics, as well as economic and social discrimination. While the region has granted them the right to vote and contest in elections, a poll suggested that only 15 per cent of those surveyed were “confident” of a woman winning an election, as opposed to 57 per cent being sure that there would be no female winners. Another study revealed that more than 60 per cent of women “opposed” the participation of women in the elections. A study by the Women Affairs Committee of the Democratic Arab-Islamic Wassat Society found that “women are still not convinced about the ability of other women to run for public offices”.

If developing countries justify contrarian positions regarding leadership roles, developed countries are replete with examples of senior female diplomats not being peaceniks. Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright was part of then president Bill Clinton’s war plan in Bosnia; Condoleezza Rice, one of her successors, has repeatedly justified wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as did former top diplomat Hillary Clinton.

And most recently, America’s first female vice-president, Kamala Harris, has not had much diplomatic impact in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Even 11 women defence and foreign ministers currently serving in the 27-member European Union could not prevent warmongering in their neighbourhoods.

A large part of feminist theory asserts that war, racism and repression thrive under patriarchy. If indeed women’s leadership is touted to naturally generate a more inclusive world, how do we explain women being leaders of some neo-fascist and right-wing political parties? Further, why are they silent about gender studies programmes being banned in some European universities?

If these are examples from the political-diplomatic arenas, here is one from wider society. Finland’s current coalition government has five parties, all led by young women. About half the country’s legislative and ministerial offices are occupied by women. This has placed Finland second in the 2021 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report.

Yet 23 per cent of women in the 15 to 49-year category experienced domestic violence in their lifetimes, according to the 2021 UN Global Database on the Prevalence of Violence Against Women. While this is just lower than in the US and the UK, it is higher than in France, Sweden, Italy and Spain – all countries with far less female representatives in the parliaments and governments.

Moreover, though the Nordic countries are the most gender equal in the world, men and women are still making gender-traditional choices in education and work.

Thus, it is not imperative to presume or insist that gender is a deciding factor in diplomacy and leadership. Leaders are not better because they are women, as they are not exempt from economic, domestic and geopolitical realities. Pure biological and psychological differences between men and women do not mean that one is better than the other to ensure peace. It is also, therefore, not vital to believe and advocate that more women in leadership and diplomatic positions would enable a better world.

In such a milieu, is it prudent to use quotas to achieve gender balance as some experts advocate? While gender balance is something to aspire to, would it not be better if this can be achieved through an organic rather than an alienating process? Should we marginalise either half of the population? Where does the buck stop for women’s empowerment – with governments, men or women themselves?

Published: April 05, 2022, 12:28 PM