Breaking Barriers: Women in Foreign Service Diplomacy

March 25, 2024 by Kate Michael
Breaking Barriers: Women in Foreign Service Diplomacy

WASHINGTON — Women have long played pivotal roles in international diplomacy, though their contributions may have been overshadowed by historical biases and systemic barriers. In honor of Women’s History Month, distinguished voices, including retired Ambassador Barbara Kay Bodine, Ambassador Paula Dobriansky and Allison Mann, Ph.D., historian, National Museum of American Diplomacy, spoke at an event held by the White House Historical Association. The event was moderated by Margaret Brennan of CBS News.

“We have to be very careful not to put women diplomats in what I call the Pink Box,” Bodine, who was appointed ambassador to the Republic of Yemen in 1997, cautioned. “Cultural diplomacy, information diplomacy, sports diplomacy and pick any other adjective you want to put in front … is not gender specific.”

“It’s a modeling demonstration. That women can be in positions of authority, of leadership, as role models … and health, education, rule of law are not women’s issues, they are people’s issues.”

The history of women in diplomacy is rich and multifaceted, as explained by Mann, encompassing key roles played before they were even permitted to be diplomats representing the United States government. However, it wasn’t until relatively recently that significant strides were made in gender parity within the foreign service.

Women currently comprise 35% of the foreign service across all agencies, 40% within the foreign service officer corps and 33% of the chief of mission positions, reflecting ongoing disparities.

The journey toward gender equity within the foreign service was fraught with challenges. According to Mann, until 1972, the State Department mandated that female diplomats resign if they married another foreign service officer.

Bodine and her peers recounted other obstacles they faced, including limitations on language studies and discriminatory assignment practices. Despite these hurdles, they persevered, carving out their paths within the male-dominated realm of diplomacy. 

“I was brought into the foreign service when women weren’t coming in,” Bodine said. “The people who brought me in, [those who] nurtured me, promoted me, assigned me … were the men in the State Department. 

“In a lot of ways, I was leaning on an open door. The men understood that the rules were antiquated, archaic, discriminatory and not good for the foreign service,” she added.

Marriage, though, did often pose a significant deterrent for aspiring female diplomats, including Dobriansky. 

“I actually did want to go into the foreign service,” she said, “but I didn’t do it, and the reason why I didn’t was … marriage. I was thinking ahead. If I got married, then what would happen? It was a real deterrent.”

Dobriansky, a foreign policy expert, instead held key senior roles in the administrations of five U.S. presidents and was appointed the president’s envoy to Northern Ireland from 2007-2009. 

Concerns about the impact of marriage on their careers, coupled with limited opportunities in studies and in the field, hindered many women from pursuing diplomatic roles. However, Dobriansky and Bodine acknowledged the substantial progress made and shifting dynamics within diplomatic spheres.

“If I had gone into law or medicine, I would have faced many of the same obstacles,” she said. “What the State Department was like when I came in was reflecting broader social structures. But if we had waited for the change to happen, the change would not have happened.”

“You had to be the first woman. You had to be the only woman … But that would have been true for almost any profession at these various stages … and I think actually State has done very well.”

Overall, the narrative of women in foreign service diplomacy is one of resilience, perseverance and progress. From challenging institutional barriers to redefining diplomatic norms, women have made indelible contributions to international diplomacy and they continue to shape the field of foreign service, inspiring future generations to defy boundaries.

“I was not the woman ambassador to Yemen, I was the American ambassador to Yemen,” Bodine said. “I never had anybody refuse to deal with me or dismiss me because of gender. I walked in and I was the American representative at whatever rank I was holding.”

Kate can be reached at [email protected].

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