Female diplomats clash with male norms

The diplomatic world was long populated entirely by men. Now more and more women are being appointed ambassadors. What gender norms govern diplomacy, and how does this affect female diplomats? These are issues that Ann Towns, a Wallenberg Academy Fellow at the University of Gothenburg, wants to explore.

Ann Towns

Professor of Political Science

Wallenberg Academy Fellow 2013

University of Gothenburg

Research field:
Norms and power international politics

You approach a group of fellow diplomats at a reception, each holding a cocktail, and notice how they huddle together with their backs to you so they can continue their conversation in peace. This happens not just once, but several times. It then becomes clear that you are not merely an ambassador, but a female ambassador.

The scenario has been described by a Norwegian diplomat, and she is not alone in her experiences.

Throughout the 18th century, only men were allowed to work in parliament, and for government agencies and authorities. But more and more doors were opened to women in the 20th century. Not until the 1990’s did the situation change in earnest. Between 2000 and 2010 the proportion of women among Sweden’s ambassadors rose from 14 to 35 percent.

“Many people would probably like to think that diplomacy is gender-neutral – a diplomat is a professional figure. But if diplomats have always been men, that figure assumes male features. For instance, diplomacy has always involved entertaining at home in an environment where people can speak in confidence,” Ann says.

What happens then when women carry out their diplomatic role in these environments? Ann intends to interview diplomats and make her own observations in order to examine whether female traits chafe against the role as diplomat, and how women deal with it.

“As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, you have every opportunity to carry out your project in ideal circumstances. You have five years’ breathing space. In Sweden researchers are otherwise constantly chasing funding, which means people don’t dare to take risks. This grant means that I can be bolder, try out new methods, and so become a better researcher.”

Emotional ties to the gender role

Earlier research has shown that gender patterns are often recreated when women take their place in male-dominated institutions. Both men and women contribute to this, perhaps partly because many have strong emotional ties to their gender role. That feeling is one of the things that Ann wants to study, although she expects it to be difficult. She needs to ask indirect questions and interpret the responses. Her interpretation will also play a crucial part in relation to her observations.

“One needs to put counterquestions to oneself the whole time: ‘Why is my interpretation of this situation the most reasonable one?’ Yet one has to face facts: interpretation plays a major role in science. Sometimes people think that just because some things can be measured in figures, it is not a question of the researcher’s interpretation – but that is not how it is.”

Deviations from the norm reveal patterns

To start with, Ann will be conducting interviews and making observations in Stockholm and Washington.

“I plan to interview a very large number of people. I want to continue until I feel that each new interview yields responses that sound familiar.”

She will be talking to both women and men, although the focus will be on women’s experiences. A number of female diplomats have recounted how they are treated differently than their male colleagues, like the Norwegian diplomat at the reception, or former U.S. Foreign Secretary Condoleezza Rice. Comments about her legs were made to her on several occasions, and in one instance a male diplomat left the negotiating table because he did not consider he could sit opposite a women.

“One way of finding situations where social norms have not been adhered to is to ask women whether they have ever experienced anything of this kind. It may not have happened so many times, but deviation from the norm can speak volumes about the norm itself.”

Hoping for practical findings

Gender aspects of diplomacy are completely uncharted territory, and Ann hopes that her work will be of benefit to the UN and the Swedish foreign ministry, for example – two organizations already making a concerted effort to recruit more women.

“I think I am fairly good at taking complicated theoretical interpretations and explaining them in a an accessible and more inclusive way. When people read my research, they usually either say it’s the best thing they’ve read, or that it absolutely cannot be published. They love it or hate it.”

Research less draining

Before Ann became a researcher she had worked in the field of human rights, first in Peru, then for an organization in Stockholm that was active in El Salvador and Colombia. Her work concerned torture, executions and disappearances. It was very emotionally draining.

“After a while I felt that I could not go on. I was too involved. The only way to cope would have been to harden myself.”

Research became her way of continuing working in the same field, but somewhat more from the outside. She began a PhD course at the University of Minnesota, and since then she has concentrated on issues of power, hierarchy and rights.

“An ethnographic approach, involving fieldwork and observations is still uncommon in international politics. I think it’s extremely important that it be done, and this project gives me the opportunity to do it. To carry out this project I needed funding for a long period, which I have now received from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. For me, this means everything.”

Text Lisa Kirsebom
Translation Maxwell Arding
Photo Magnus Bergström and TT