Diplomacy is still a man's game

Data shows that there is a chronic global lack of female ambassadors

Globally, the majority of diplomats are male. EPA

As nations around the globe celebrate International Women's Day today, we honour women who have made an impact across all fields, including diplomacy. We are reminded that the number of countries that have female leaders, ambassadors and diplomats at the forefront of decision-making, continues to flourish – reaffirming the expanding roles of women – from East to West.

Milestones have certainly been reached and should be applauded. A gender diversity gap is narrowing and that should be celebrated.

Globally, however, the percentage of women in power remains short. Despite advancements, diplomats continue to overwhelmingly be men – an imbalance that speaks to a persistent diversity and equality challenge.

The importance of gender balance in the workforce has long been on the agenda of organisations in most countries, but diplomacy continues to lag behind many sectors in this regard. This is despite most foreign services recruiting an ever-larger number of female candidates at entry-level positions.

For the third year running, the Women in Diplomacy Index, launched by the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in 2018, maps the percentage of women ambassadors representing the countries of the 40 largest economies in the world, including the EU. The study focuses on ambassadorships, in order to gauge the degree to which women assume some of the most prominent diplomatic positions.

UAE UN Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh. AP

Our 2022 report reveals that, despite progress, women continue to grapple with institutional barriers and gender biases and thus remain underrepresented in ambassadorial positions. The numbers speak for themselves: out of 4,293 ambassadors in our dataset, just 927 are women – a 21.6 per cent representation for the year.

This percentage varies by region, of course. In the Nordic states sampled – Denmark, Norway and Sweden – women make up 40.8 per cent of the top positions, putting that part of the world at the top of our ranking. North America – the US, Canada and Mexico – averages 35.7 per cent and South America – Brazil, Argentina and Colombia – 18.8 per cent. In the EU, it is 23.5 per cent, while Europe as a whole reaches a 29 per cent share.

Asia, excluding the Arab world, averages 13.7 per cent, while Arab states stand at 7.4 percent, with the UAE scoring the highest share at 10.9 per cent.

That diplomatic leadership roles still heavily skew towards males is, perhaps, best illustrated by the fact that top ambassadorial positions are still held by men. Taking the G7 as a proxy for what could be considered a "top post" given these countries' political and economic clout, our study of 40 countries and the EU found that only 60 women ambassadors are posted in all seven countries, with a total of 22 women ambassadors being posted in Canada and the US alone in 2022.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t making progress.

As conflict rages around the world, women need more representation on the global stage. Getty

Since our Index was launched, the majority of countries have appointed a larger number of women to top positions in 2022. The average percentage share of women ambassadors increased marginally over the past year, from 20.7 per cent in 2021 to 21.6 per cent today. A more significant leap has occurred over the past four years, however, with the G20 and EU countries seeing their percentage share increase from 17.1 per cent in 2018 to 20.4 per cent in 2022. Somewhat of a progress. But still, more can – and should – be done.

Some countries are leading the charge. Canada and Sweden, for instance, have appointed the highest share of women ambassadors and permanent representatives in 2022, with 50 per cent of both countries' ambassadorial posts being held by women.

In diplomacy and beyond, female advancement offers pathways to peace. The UAE, for example, is a country where women have long assumed senior political roles. It is ranked as a leading country in gender equality in the region, according to the World Economic Forum's 2021 Global Gender Gap Report.

In 2015, the country established the Gender Balance Council, tasked with increasing the role of women across all positions in government. At least half of the Federal National Council – the legislative body where federal laws have to first pass for review and recommendation – is now comprised of women. One should also mention that the FNC's president from 2015 to 2019 was a woman and a prominent member in the government, Dr Amal Al Qubaisi – the region's first female leader of a national assembly.

In diplomacy, an ever-increasing number of Emirati female trailblazers hold ambassadorial roles in countries including Denmark, Germany, Latvia, France and Poland, while the Assistant Minister for Political Affairs at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, Lana Nusseibeh, is both an ambassador and permanent representative of the UAE to the UN in New York. Together, they are putting the biggest crack in the diplomatic glass ceiling.

But while advancements around the world need to be recognised and celebrated in this regard, the numbers listed above show that the international community is still a long way away from achieving gender parity. To make this happen, women need to be trusted to make the tough decisions, to forward progress, enforce change and make the hard judgment calls that have been historically reserved for men.

As we take stock of the progress that’s been made in recent years, it is incumbent upon us to remind ourselves that the world as a whole is not done shaping the history of diplomacy.

Published: March 08, 2022, 4:00 AM