IWD 2019: Reflecting on Women Who Demanded Change

Last Friday, the UK Consul General in Toronto hosted a tea for International Women’s Day. The Women in Diplomacy tea brought together women from local civic engagement organisations, including Women in Foreign Policy. A discussion took place around the progress that has been made in the UK Foreign Service on gender equality, the impacts that a diplomatic career can have on an individual’s personal life (particularly the gendered impacts),  and their thoughts on the future of diplomacy. In preparation for this event I looked back at the history of women in the FCO and was astonished by the record. 

Despite championing itself as a leading country for gender equality, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has shown slow progress in ensuring equality within the FCO. As of March 2017, only 30% of the FCO senior management and 44% of their UK based staff were women. Comparatively, the Canadian foreign service is approximately 44% women, and the Swedish and French permanent staff in their foreign service is at the 50% mark.

Historically, the first female diplomats in the UK were appointed on a permanent basis beginning in 1947. However, if they married, they were forced to resign and their pension was taken away and instead they were given a dowry of one month for every year of service. It wasn’t until 1972, that the marriage bar was rescinded and women were allowed to stay in the diplomatic service once married. Astonishingly, a married women was not appointed as head of mission until 1987, with Veronica Sutherland’s appointment as HM Ambassador to Abidjan. And it was only recently, in 2018, that the first British black female NneNne Iwuji-Eme, became Head of Mission as the High Commissioner to Maputo. The remarkable progress made since 1947 has been led by women who have broken glass ceilings for the future generations and helped to make the FCO become more gender balanced. Today, the FCO has 54 female Heads of Mission around the world, 59% of the fast stream FCO entrants in 2017 were women, and 50% of the FCO Management Board are women.

During the event in Toronto, the Consul General and Deputy Consul Generals shared their pragmatic advice with the attendees about the decisions they have had to make in their lives to pursue their careers. Three key pieces of advice that I would share with you are:

  1. Follow your ambitions; when you reach a barrier - create a plan to overcome it;

  2. A career in diplomacy with a partner requires honest discussions about the career plans of both partners

  3. Finally, a diplomatic life can be a hard life which requires moving everyone 2-3 years, but nonetheless a fulfilling one.

The advice and experiences relayed by women diplomats at the UK Consul General in Toronto this International Women’s Day was an inspiring reminder that despite barriers, women have previously led, and continue to lead the changes they wish to see in the world of diplomacy. This reiterated that as long as we continue to fight for it - women do, and always will have a place in foreign policy.