14 Mar 2019

It's the women, stupid!

“Women make up 51% of the population, but represent less than a quarter of foreign policy positions” -- Micah Zenko wrote in his famous Foreign Policy essay “City of Men” -- that was eight years ago, and, sadly, not much has changed since then.

Karolina Zbytniewska
Karolina Zbytniewska Euractiv, Europe
It's the women, stupid! - NewsMavens
Women Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (WFMM), YouTube.com

It may be difficult to imagine today, but women’s involvement in foreign policy was not unusual in 17th and 18th Century Europe, when closeness to the court -- and not your gender -- was the key credential. French aristocrat René II du BecCrespin was one of the first officially-appointed female ambassadors in history when she was sent to Poland in 1645. In the 19th Century, however, with the changing character of European states and the professionalization of politics and diplomacy, these domains became male exclusive. The first modern era female ambassador was Russia's Alexandra Kollontai, who was appointed ambassador to Sweden in 1943. This is when modern women’s snail-paced walk towards gender equality in foreign relations began…

If we fast forward to today, even though women account for a much greater share of policy positions, they only dominate in the lower half of the career ladder. The top jobs still go to men.

The numbers speak for themselves. In the 28 European Union member states, just 4 women serve as foreign ministers. If we add in the EU’s diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini, who replaced Catherine Ashton -- there are 5.

The US deserves praise for its 3 female secretaries of state and under Barack Obama, the state department was filled with women in positions of influence. However, Donald Trump wiped away all this progress, when he went about making his administration not just more male -- but also older, whiter and richer

In neighboring Canada, the incumbent Chrystia Freeland organized -- with Mogherini -- the first ever Women Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (WFMM) last September. The meeting succeeded on gathering 13 female foreign ministers out of the 24 incumbent -- and there are 195 countries in the world.

Moreover, women make up for just 15% of ambassadors in the world, 10% of peace negotiators, and chair just 5% negotiating processes.

This lack of women in the peace negotiation sounds reckless if we bear in mind that “substantial inclusion of women and civil society groups in a peace negotiation makes the resulting agreement 64% less likely to fail and […] 35% more likely to last at least fifteen years”. At least it is what scientific studies prove. Famously, women played a key role in brokering the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran -- Wendy Sherman on the US side, Mogherini, Ashton and their deputy Helga Schmid on the European. Still, the Iranian negotiators did not shake hands with their female counterparts when the deal was struck due to religious customs that…do not recognize women as equal.

Former UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon famously said, “The world will never realize 100 percent of its goals, if 50 percent of its people cannot realize their full potential."

One aspect of this simple but fundamental truth is well illustrated in this year’s Oscar-winning documentary short “Period. End of Sentence.” It shows how so-called period poverty -- the lack of feminine hygiene products experienced by over 1 billion women globally and over 80% of women in India (!!!) -- deprives them not only of menstruation pads but also indirectly from dignity, education, work and freedom.

Simultaneously, 62% of aid remains gender-blind, female- and gender equality-focused relief has been a somewhat new trend. One of its trailblazers was Hillary Clinton, who already in 1995 -- in her Beijing UN Women’s summit speech -- heralded the policy that she implemented later as secretary of state. According to the “Hillary Doctrine” -- the first doctrine named after a woman -- “the subjugation of women [is] a threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country”. She was criticized by some for not moving beyond rhetoric and double-standards of liaising with countries that acted exactly contrary to her appeals. However, certainly she inspired women and policies around the world. And even though her policies were not as comprehensive as the Swedish and Canadian feminist foreign policy, they certainly were an important prelude.

The handbook “Sweden’s feminist foreign policy” published on the governmental website points out that only a substantial representation of women in foreign policy decision-making will translate into catering to women’s needs in implementation. It is important, as according to the UN,women are disproportionately affected by armed conflicts, illiteracy, violence and oppressive patriarchal traditions.

And without women, policy design is as incomplete as the first Apple comprehensive health tracker that -- to the surprise of women clients -- lacked a period calendar. “Designers may believe they are making products for everyone, but in reality they are mainly making them for men” -- as Caroline Criado Perez demonstrated.  The same goes for foreign policy “design” -- without women it overlooks the needs of one half of humanity. However, foreign policy has much broader implications than the object design. Therefore, it is worth bearing in mind that women’s socio-economic situation is critical to all societies and is the best predictor of a country’s stability. 

It’s the women, stupid!


*Micah Zenko, “City of Men


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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