More non-white women should be making foreign policy decisions for Britain.

By Salina Ahmed

The first woman in Parliament took her seat in the House of Commons just 97 years ago. At the time, the UK’s gradual recognition of women's place in decision-making was expected to reorganise the dynamics of the political world. But when the Equal Franchise Act was passed in 1928, giving women equal voting rights to men, it became obvious that the stigma attached to the female gender was not going to disappear any time soon. In 1929, just 2.3% of MPs were female. After years of systematic construction of a regime that practised fixation of male gratification in events about leadership and achievement, voters inevitably believed women too imprudent to contribute to governmental success, let alone to represent her government in a foreign land.

The argument presented at the time is strangely familiar: it's a man's world. Women should not be in the workforce. Women are impressionable beings who, quite simply, do not bear the initiative of making important decisions. Women should sit tight, sit quiet and raise the children whilst watching their men make first a mess and then a mockery of the world. These ideas were so ingrained in society that Cicely Mayhew, the first female British diplomat, was only entrusted with the responsibility of making overseas decisions in the late 1940's.

This was not an archaic happening although it did create a scope for women to grow in their careers, or at least be recognised for their abilities with the appointment of higher positions. But as we sit proud, applauding this notion with the fallacious assumption that it is synonymous to female success in the UK, we remain absent-minded about the 14% of ethnic minorities who often go underrepresented. Where do we fit in?

The 2014-2015 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Diversity and Equality report states that only 27% of UK-based staff in senior civil service position are women. Out of all UK-based staff members, only 12% are from the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) background. Of them, a shocking 4% partake in senior roles. Are UK foreign services too white? At surface level this may not appear pertinent, but whilst we grow as a diverse country, we haven’t really succeeded as women until we have collaborated with all of them. We haven’t really succeeded as a nation either.

UK foreign policy is advanced through employing a comprehensive outlook of the world. To represent this country beyond its borders and foster important relationships or make conscious and appropriate overseas decisions, we need employees whose heritage, language proficiency, religious sensitivities and traditional customs help to build all the necessary connections. Diversity is important. I am important. My views, my ability, which I share with other non-white women, to take this country's foreign policy forward, should be considered as a topic of discussion, and not as a topic of otherness - both by this country's officials and by women from ethnic minorities themselves.

Currently, ethnic minorities have very little influence toward UK foreign policy because there are too few of us in our foreign service. But the potential it harbours is magnificent should more coloured women advance forward into the field, or were given the opportunity to do so. Whilst the majority of foreign issues concerning the UK are situated in non-white places geographically, this involuntarily involves us placing a greater responsibility on our shoulders. If fulfilled, we will not only employ the self-recognition of our ability to equally succeed in leadership roles, but we will also demonstrate that we can do so whilst carrying two or more parts of the world in our bodies. Only then will we succeed and thrive as female genders in foreign policy. Until then, more non-white women should be making higher decisions for Britain.

About the author:      Salina Ahmed  is an activist engaging on subjects pertaining to religion, social issues and politics. She has partaken in these matters through written entries and public settings, sharing platforms with other intellectuals. Salina currently works with an international development organisation in the Donations sector and is also the co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer of  Inspirited Minds , a charity which raises awareness about mental health illnesses in the Muslim and ethnic minority community. She wishes to see and contribute toward a world absent from ills, conscious of oppression and a society against doctrines of conformity where it is safe to be unpopular.

About the author: 

Salina Ahmed is an activist engaging on subjects pertaining to religion, social issues and politics. She has partaken in these matters through written entries and public settings, sharing platforms with other intellectuals. Salina currently works with an international development organisation in the Donations sector and is also the co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Inspirited Minds, a charity which raises awareness about mental health illnesses in the Muslim and ethnic minority community. She wishes to see and contribute toward a world absent from ills, conscious of oppression and a society against doctrines of conformity where it is safe to be unpopular.

Conference: Embassies in crisis

Earlier this month, Women in Foreign Policy interviewee Dr. Rogelia Pastor-Castro convened a conference about 'Embassies in crisis'. During the event, diplomats and academics discussed how embassies and their staff act during difficult times, from World War II to more recent civil wars such as Yemen and Ukraine. 

Gender was a hot topic at last night's #SGdebate

Last night, The Guardian Live and UNA-UK held the latest @1For7Billion campaign #SGdebate. Three of the 11 candidates took the stage, all males. H.E. Antonio Guterres, Former UN High Commissioner for Refugees and former Prime Minister of Portugal came out strongest. H.E. Vuk Jeremic, former President of the UN General Assembly and former Foreign Minister of Serbia kept referring to his detailed platform. And H.E. Dr. Igor Luksic, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Montenegro seemed the least prepared and least knowledgeable about the organisation he aspires to lead. 

Moderator Mark Rice-Oxley opened the debate by acknowledging and explaining the lack of women (scheduling issues) but gender ended up being a hot topic on the night, both in the questions asked and on social media. 

As there was no female candidates on stage, the question "do you consider yourself a feminist" got applauded. How could any candidate have said no? Sadly, most answers focused on the important of 50-50 workforce at the UN, rather than looking into how you can protect and further women's rights and ensure gender equality around the world. 

Then a question was asked (but not really answered) about sexual misconduct by UN peacekeepers.

Event: Young Professionals in Foreign Policy's Women in Foreign Policy panel discussion #YPFP2030

Walking into the British Parliament, you go through St Stephen's Hall. On both sides, statues of famous Parliamentarians, all men, stand tall. Continue into a Committee room and, chances are, there are more representations of men staring at you. 

Yet men were under-represented at the Young Professional in Foreign Policy event dedicated to Women in Foreign Policy. Per panellist Hilary Stauffer's count, there were only 12 of them, a fact Stauffer regretted as we do need men's support to have more women working in the field. 

At the event, human rights lawyer and LSE Visiting Fellow Stauffer discussed the barriers, prejudices and advantages women face in the field alongside Hawthorn London director and former UK Ambassador to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador Julie Chappell OBE and founder and executive director of the Policy Centre for African People Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell

Julie Chappell, Partner at Hawthorn London and former UK Ambassador to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador

Chappell, who spent nearly 15 years at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) before moving to the private sector in late 2014, said she'd hardly met any barrier at FCO. Significant improvements have been made since the days when women had to resign upon getting engaged.

She said the public service probably has some of the most accommodating policies when it comes to family life. At FCO, this translates into couples job-sharing as ambassadors, flexible working hours and the possibility to hold a London-based job from a remote location. 

While posted abroad, Chappell discovered that being a female diplomat almost made her a third sex: despite not being a man, she was allowed into places she would never have been to otherwise. 

She rarely felt outrageous prejudice, although she said she did have to prove herself and work at being taken seriously but, as the youngest British ambassador, that had more to do with age than gender. 

In terms of advantages, being a woman ambassador made her more interesting and widened her sphere of influence. For instance, she was able to reach out to youth organisations no male ambassador had ever spoken to before. 

Hilary Stauffer, International lawyer and Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, London School of Economics

Stauffer hasn't faced many gender-based obstacles either. She argued that it also had to do with her background as a white, middle-class American growing up around Washington DC. 

Her international law specialism, human rights, is female-dominated because it is seen as more nurturing.

As it was always the field she wanted to get into, Stauffer has been willing to make sacrifices; for instance moving country regularly and choosing to put off having a family. 

Although she hasn't faced barriers herself, she was quick to remind attendees that they do exist: 

  • 22% of the world parliamentarians are women
  • 13% of ministers are women
  • 19% of staff on UN field missions are women
  • there were only three female leaders in the post-Charlie Hebdo Paris march

Women are a minority in most international discussions. None of the significant actors in the Middle East peace process are female, she noted. 

Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell, Founder and executive director of the Policy Centre for African People

As women in the West, we don't face challenges, only opportunities suggested Aboa-Bradwell in the opening of her speech.

No law forbids us from getting involved in the field we want, knowing we will face discriminations should encourage us to come up with a plan to overcome them and because of the lack of women, we are more likely to stand out. We shouldn't let anyone restrict us for gender reasons. 

Aboa-Bradwell's advice to make it to the top as a woman in foreign policy: 

  • think not like a man or a woman, but like a human being
  • find a good mentor
  • invest in a good leadership development course

Lastly: the nature of foreign policy in the 21st century has changed. Foreign policy and domestic issues are increasingly linked. Now, we live in a multipolar world that functions in concentric circles, the old block analysis doesn't work anymore. Yet no one has found a satisfactory framework to explain it. Could a woman be the first?

The best tweets from today's @NewAmerica and @fpinterrupted talk "Interrupting Foreign Policy: Bringing Women to the Forefront"