The six women in the vanguard of British diplomacy

Appointment of Menna Rawlings means the UK is represented by women in its biggest overseas postings

Clockwise from top left: Jill Gallard, Menna Rawlings, Caroline Wilson, Deborah Bronnert, Karen Pierce, and Barbara Woodward. Getty Images/AFP/Shutterstock 
Clockwise from top left: Jill Gallard, Menna Rawlings, Caroline Wilson, Deborah Bronnert, Karen Pierce, and Barbara Woodward. Getty Images/AFP/Shutterstock 

For the first time, Britain’s top ambassadorships in all of the world’s key diplomatic postings will be held by women after the Paris post was given to Menna Rawlings.

Before 1973, British women diplomats had to resign if they got married and were not sent to posts considered too harsh. In the past half-century, however, they made significant strides in what was previously a male-dominated profession.

Here The National highlights the women in six of the biggest diplomatic posts.

Menna Rawlings

Menna Rawlings and Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop shakes hands after signing a British-Australian nuclear agreement at Parliament House in Canberra. Shutterstock
Menna Rawlings and Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop shakes hands after signing a British-Australian nuclear agreement at Parliament House in Canberra. Shutterstock

The appointment of Menna Rawlings as ambassador to France completes the female dominance of top British ambassadorial posts.

She is clearly a very accomplished diplomat. “You were a great High Commissioner [ambassador] to Australia and I am sure you will be equally eloquent and effective in France!” former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull tweeted.

The married mother of three has served in Washington, Accra, Tel Aviv, Nairobi and Brussels, as well as Australia.

She joined Britain's Foreign Office in 1989 after graduating in international relations from the London School of Economics.

She will take to Paris vast experience from the diplomatic world, along with a humanitarian touch shown during her time in Australia consoling bereaved relatives of murdered backpackers.

The new post is a tough one. The current Anglo-French relationship is challenging given the rancour over Brexit and Covid-19 vaccinations. But it is hoped President Emmanuel Macron will respect her direct manner. “I think it’s very important that we can speak truth to power,” she once said in an interview.

Deborah Bronnert

Deborah Bronnert speaks to the media outside the Moscow City Court in 2020. AFP
Deborah Bronnert speaks to the media outside the Moscow City Court in 2020. AFP

Being "a first" is a status not unfamiliar to Deborah Bronnert who became the first female ambassador to Zimbabwe while the country was in the thrall of president Robert Mugabe.

After another female first as chief operating officer for the Foreign Office, she was appointed ambassador to the tricky posting of Moscow.

Direct and uncompromising – she once had a 90-minute, toe-to-toe discussion with the Zimbabwe autocrat – Ms Bronnert, 54, hopes that one day a woman becoming a first will no longer be newsworthy. “We have got to get to a point where we don’t have any more firsts,” in the quest for full equality, she said in 2014.

Married with two sons, she became a diplomat soon after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in mathematics.

Her time in Moscow, where she worked as an economic counsellor, was not without confrontation – she was summoned to the imposing Russian foreign headquarters in Smolenskaya Square for an official dressing down over diplomatic expulsions.

Barbara Woodward

Barbara Woodward delivers a speech during the Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship in Hangzhou, China. AFP
Barbara Woodward delivers a speech during the Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship in Hangzhou, China. AFP

It came as little surprise that Dame Barbara Woodward achieved one of the top diplomat postings when she replaced Karen Pierce as Britain’s UN ambassador in December.

A diplomat for three decades, Ms Woodward went to New York after five years as ambassador to China, where she was the first woman to hold the post.

She taught herself Chinese while working as an English teacher in Wuhan after graduating in history from the University of St Andrews. She later went on to study international relations at Yale University and then into the diplomatic corps, holding key posts in Moscow, China and the EU.

She has developed a robust exterior in dealing with difficult people after Queen Elizabeth II was overheard in 2015 saying that Chinese officials "were very rude to the ambassador".

Announcing her appointment to the UN, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said she would bring "formidable intellect and dynamic diplomatic skills" to the role.

Karen Pierce

Karen Pierce briefs journalists at the UN Headquarters in New York in 2019. Getty Images
Karen Pierce briefs journalists at the UN Headquarters in New York in 2019. Getty Images

Dame Karen Pierce, the first British woman to hold the UN post, went on to become the first of her gender as ambassador to the US.

Formidable, with a sharp intellect and a deft manner in handling politicians, Ms Pierce has the highest profile among Britain’s female diplomats.

During her 40 years at the Foreign Office, she served in keys posts around the world, starting in Japan. Most of them were challenging, something she appears to relish, including a year as ambassador to Afghanistan in 2015.

In contrast to the image of a stuffy diplomat, Ms Pierce, 61, brings a sense of fun to the job.

She was known to step from helicopters in Afghanistan elegantly dressed, she scolded the Russians over the Novichok poisonings in Salisbury while dressed in a red-and-black feather boa and showed Americans how to make a proper cup of British tea on social media.

Known to host a good party in Washington, she smoothly transitioned from the Donald Trump era into building bridges with the Biden administration, securing the UK as the US president’s first overseas destination.

A mother of two sons, Ms Pierce, who is married to a senior civil servant in the UK Treasury, was among the first to congratulate Ms Rawlings on Twitter, making the point that it was “fantastic that the UK will now be represented by women in all of our G7 counterpart countries”.

Caroline Wilson

Caroline Wilson speaks at a Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce event. Getty Images
Caroline Wilson speaks at a Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce event. Getty Images

A mastery of languages is a considerable advantage for diplomats, although not many can claim to be being fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. Only recently, Caroline Wilson was quoting William Shakespeare on Twitter in one of the Chinese languages as part of her role in promoting Britain’s interests as ambassador to China.

In that role she does not shirk from also promoting “transnational challenges such as health, the environment and girls’ education” to the Chinese.

The Cambridge graduate brings a formidable intellect to the job, having qualified as a barrister and as a fluent speaker of French, German and Russian.

Her strengths are key requirements in her current job. Recently the Chinese authorities denounced Ms Wilson for spreading fake news and bias, that was “severely out of line of her diplomatic role” after she wrote an article in defence of a free press.

Unperturbed, in response Ms Wilson, 50, tweeted: “I stand by my article. No doubt the outgoing Chinese Ambassador to the UK stands by the 170+ pieces he was able to place in the mainstream British media.”

Jill Gallard

Jill Gallard signs the guest book at Bellevue Palace on the occasion of the accreditation by the Federal President in Berlin. Getty Images
Jill Gallard signs the guest book at Bellevue Palace on the occasion of the accreditation by the Federal President in Berlin. Getty Images

Jill Gallard was yet another woman first when she was appointed ambassador to Germany in November.

On her Twitter profile she lists herself as “Proud Mum. Reader. Runner. Love learning languages”, then lists the flags of all those countries whose language she speaks: Germany, France, Spain, Czech Republic and Portugal.

Born in Omagh, Northern Ireland, Ms Gallard graduated in languages from the University of Edinburgh before joining the diplomatic service in 1991. Her career has taken her tacross Europe from Prague to Madrid. She was also ambassador to Portugal.

Married with two children, she worked as the Foreign Office director for the Western Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean.

She is a strong environmentalist, publishing pictures of herself in electric London taxi cabs and, in promoting Britain’s role as chair of the Cop26 climate summit, she tweeted: “We have to act urgently to protect our earth and preserve it for future generations.”

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Updated: May 5, 2021 02:03 PM

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