Opinion Articles

The diplomatic glass ceiling

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The latest diversity statistics from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) reveal that women are outnumbered by men by three to one in the senior grades (equivalent to grades 1-5). This might not seem especially surprising. After all, diplomacy is notoriously family-unfriendly, requiring long stints overseas and extensive out-of-hours entertaining. Given that women still carry out the lion’s share of the childcare and housework in 21st-century Britain and are far more likely to work flexibly or part-time to fit around domestic responsibilities, is it any wonder that they hit a glass ceiling in diplomacy, as in so many other spheres?

These observations explain in part why women make up only 25% of the senior grades of the British Diplomatic Service, but they do not tell the full story. For that we must return to the complex and often heated debates over women’s suitability for diplomatic careers which unfolded in the 1930s and 40s. Women’s marginalisation in this high-prestige occupation has a long history, whose legacy is still felt today.

Despite winning the vote and access to most professions after the First World War, women did not become eligible for posts in the Diplomatic Service until 1946. The Foreign Office remained convinced that the ‘representation of national interests abroad,’ as Sir Reader Bullard, Ambassador to Iran put it, was ‘the only career for which women are totally unsuited.’ What made women such a bad fit for diplomacy in the official mind? Much of it was prejudice born of Victorian attitudes about women’s ‘natural’ emotionalism, sentimentality and physical fragility. Harold Nicolson, the writer, MP and former diplomat, defined the chief feminine virtues as intuition and sympathy, both of which, in his view, were ‘absolutely fatal in diplomacy.’

Other defenders of the masculine status quo argued that women could not withstand unpleasant climates or project the kind of manly authority required in the consular arm of the Service, where officers lived alone in remote outposts or unsavoury port towns. Pulling inebriated British sailors out of foreign brothels or investigating alleged cases of ‘homosexual crime’ on board British merchant ships were tasks which lay beyond the capacity of women, Foreign Office chiefs argued. Added to this was the perceived threat that female diplomats posed to the cosy, male camaraderie created by shared 'old school ties.' ‘The introduction of a girl’ warned Ralph Stevenson, who had served in Germany, Bulgaria and Holland, ‘would be a very disturbing factor and quite possibly impair the efficiency of the Chancery machine.’

Two other arguments were advanced by Foreign Office chiefs to justify women’s continued exclusion from the Service before 1946. The first skilfully shifted the blame away from the Foreign Office and on to Johnny foreigner, whose ‘backward’ views towards women’s emancipation made it impossible to send a female diplomat into the field. ‘Both we and our representative would be an object of derision,’ was the view of Tom Snow, Ambassador to Tokyo, commenting on this prospect in 1933, when the Foreign Office convened a departmental committee to consider women’s suitability for diplomatic careers. Yet, as feminists pointed out at the time, it was not true that female diplomats would be unwelcome everywhere, as several governments, including the USA and Soviet Russia, had admitted women to their respective diplomatic services.

By contrast, the second argument, proved much harder to challenge. It focused on the troublesome question of the female diplomat’s marital status. Here she couldn’t win: if she remained single, the Foreign Office lost the traditional (and unpaid) labours of the diplomatic spouse, who, from the mid-19th century had accompanied her diplomat husband in his overseas postings and dutifully played the role of devoted and gracious hostess. Conversely, if a female diplomat wished to marry, it was inconceivable that her husband would trail after her, making resignation more or less inevitable. These very different assumptions about diplomatic husbands and wives endured beyond 1946, as reflected in the introduction of a marriage regulation which stipulated that any female officer wishing to get married would be required to resign.

The marriage bar remained until 1973. Any woman diplomat serious about pursuing a long-term career had therefore to sacrifice all hope of matrimony and children, and many highly talented women were lost to the Service for this reason, such as Mary Galbraith, who resigned in 1963 after 12 years of distinguished service in Budapest, London and New York to marry a colleague and thereafter became a diplomat’s wife. Countless other female graduates were deterred from even applying, with many plumping for the home Civil Service instead, where no marriage bar was in force.  

In short, women arrived late on the diplomatic scene due to a range of deeply-held beliefs about the qualities deemed necessary for effective diplomacy – qualities men were assumed to be endowed with. Even after British women’s invaluable service in the Second World War forced the Foreign Office to overturn its policy of exclusion, these attitudes ran deep.  Many female officers had their overseas postings blocked by ambassadors who preferred to have a man (and his wife). Others were prevented from learning a ‘hard’ language like Arabic or Japanese because they would leave on getting married (due to the marriage bar), thus wasting resources. As Veronica Sutherland (who joined the Foreign Office in 1965) recalled, a female colleague had been allowed to learn Thai and then ‘promptly got married, so they weren’t prepared to risk another woman at that stage.’

This situation changed gradually through the 1980s and 1990s, as more women entered the Diplomatic Service and began to demonstrate that marriage and eventually even motherhood were not incompatible with representing Britain’s interests overseas. Veronica Sutherland became the first married woman ambassador in 1987, followed soon after by Juliet Campbell. Both were childless, but women in the generation below made the break-through for mothers, with Judith MacGregor, Mariot Leslie and Frances Guy all achieving ambassadorial rank in the early years of the millennium having successful juggled family with career.

Gradually, over the same period, the Foreign Office woke up to the challenges and opportunities presented by a more diverse diplomatic workforce. This included not only greater numbers of women, but more members of minority ethnic groups and openly gay officers – who had been forced to conceal their sexuality until the early 1990s due to perceived ‘security’ risks. Today these groups benefit from dedicated support networks, mentoring and development initiatives as well as diversity policies and tools championed by senior FCO officials.

Despite these efforts, the fact that women remain seriously underrepresented is - at least in part - a legacy of a long history of a profession established in the nineteenth century for elite white men supported by uncomplaining spouses. This model for conducting diplomacy has been out of step with the aspirations of both men and women for some time, but only since the late 1990s has the Foreign Office made a concerted effort to consign the old assumptions about gender roles to the past. With women still only filling a quarter of top posts, there is still a long way to go.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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