Five ways to include more women in foreign policy

From increasing the number of female guests on global affairs shows to adopting a feminist foreign policy, there is more than one way to tackle the challenge. 

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December 24, 2015
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, centre, applauds with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, Chelsea Clinton and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, president of Croatia, and other speakers after the unveiling of "No Ceilings" and the "Not There Yet: A Data Driven Analysis of Gender Equality" study in New York March 9, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

For Twitterati 2015: The Women in Foreign Policy Edition, click here.

Women in many capacities, whether as heads of government or as editors-in-chief, play an important role in shaping foreign policy in the 21st century. But what exactly do we mean when we encourage more women in foreign policy?

We asked several experts to dissect the angles. From women’s participation in the creation and application of policy, to female journalists covering foreign affairs, to a state adopting feminist foreign policy, here are five ways to look at women’s inclusion: 

1. Gender balance in Canada’s foreign policy sector

The decision by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to have a gender-equal cabinet in early November was a long-time coming for Canada. Asked why gender balance is important, Trudeau fittingly answered, “because it’s 2015.” Adrienne Clarkson, the former Governor General of Canada, expressed her excitement; tweeting: “waited so many years for this. No women’s washrooms in 1967 in [House of] Commons.” Now, with an equal amount of men and women in positions of power on the cabinet — with female ministers on the international trade and environment portfolios — many are hopeful of what this will mean for Canadian foreign policy.

Jillian Stirk, a former ambassador to Norway, believes that when it comes to women and gender balance in Canada’s foreign policy sector, there has been an overall improvement over the last few years. “We have seen a significant increase in the number of women working on foreign policy, including at the most senior levels, in recent years,” says Stirk. “Women are leading on the key foreign policy files, including on security, trade policy and relations with our most important partners.”

However, a group of academics, former politicians and other women wrote to Trudeau this month asking for a similar balance to be reached in the Senate. Currently, only 30 out of 83 Senators are women. 

2. Gender balance internationally

How are we doing globally when it comes to women’s participation in foreign policy?

Women’s participation in the development and management of foreign policy within one country (in this case we looked at Canada) must be measured separately from the global perspective, which might count the number of female heads of states or in leadership positions within global governance institutions.

But does women’s representation in global institutions, or bilateral and multilateral dealings, translate into policy that promotes gender equality?

Valerie Percival, assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA), says Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway can serve as positive influencers when it comes to women’s rights in foreign policy and female leadership in the sector: “This is a sweeping generalization, but from my observation, [these women] are impressive because of their depth of knowledge, their skills, their confidence, their kindness and their mentorship of others – both men and women. We have a lot to learn.” 

3. A feminist foreign policy

Sweden made headlines this year after Foreign Affairs Minister Margot Wallström said a feminist foreign policy, which seeks to ensure equality between men and women, would be a fundamental aim of her government. At the United States Institute of Peace, Wallström explained what it means to have a feminist foreign policy, stating, “a feminist foreign policy seeks the same goals as any visionary foreign policy: peace, justice, human rights and human development.” The way Sweden plans to achieve these goals is by changing existing policies to correct any discrimination, exclusion and violence still inflicted on women.

Heather Smith, a professor in the department of international studies at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), defines a feminist foreign policy as a “policy [that] considers the world from an intersectional lens which allows us to include multiple intersecting forces such as gender, race and class in our analysis.”

A feminist foreign policy wouldn’t exclusively advocate for “women’s issues,” Smith says, but rather would be informed by the understanding that an intersectional lens can be applicable to all issues. Using this “intersectional lens” to focus on gender, race and class creates a more “human” foreign policy.  “For me, a feminist foreign policy reminds us that there are real and everyday people affected by our decisions and actions,” says Smith.

Would Canada ever follow in Sweden’s footsteps and move towards a feminist foreign policy? Smith believes it’s unlikely. “Sadly, I don’t think we will ever see a feminist foreign policy writ large,” she says. “In spite of the election of a new Liberal government, there is a long way to go to undo the damage done by the [Stephen] Harper government to our foreign policy reputation and practice.”

Despite the damage, Smith remains hopeful.  The promise by the Liberal government to order an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, and its fulfillment of that promise, is a step in the right direction, but much more can be done. 

4. Women’s rights incorporated into policy

It is often a misconception that more female leaders and voices in foreign policy will result in more discussions and policy formation that incorporates women’s rights. According to NPSIA’s Percival, we make too many assumptions when it comes to women in leadership positions in foreign policy. “Just because you are [a] woman, does not mean that: a) you are aware of the clear evidence that outlines the importance of women’s rights for economic development and stability; b) that you are willing to have the uncomfortable conversations to push women’s rights among foreign policy decision makers and with foreign governments; and, c) that you are an activist in your approach to foreign policy.”

Percival, who is currently living in Mozambique, has observed that she is not seeing much movement on women’s rights despite the impressive number of female ambassadors, heads of donor agencies and other foreign representatives in the country. Both men and women are afraid of pushing too hard, she says. “Foreign representatives — including the representatives from multilateral organizations as well as diplomats and donors — want to maintain a good relationship with the host government. As a consequence, many do not want to discuss subjects or advocate for initiatives that are ‘sensitive.’”

This doesn’t mean that champions of women’s rights causes aren’t making a difference. She names Hillary Clinton, Margot Wallstrom and Flora McDonald as women who’ve worked tirelessly to push women’s rights forward without hesitancy. “I don’t care if I make people feel uncomfortable,” says Percival. “I’m happy to do so when it comes to human rights. But not everyone feels that way. [Some] believe the best way to overcome these issues is through quiet diplomacy. My response – it isn’t working.” 

5. More women’s views on international affairs

A study published in November by The Global Media Monitoring Project found that women in Canada make up only 27 percent of the stories in print, radio and television and only 30 percent of online/digital stories. The study found that the subject areas with the worst gender inequality were in government and politics, economic news, foreign policy and crime and violence. This poses another struggle for women who, after they achieve a position of power in foreign policy, have to also deal with limited media coverage on their work.

Elmira Bayrasli and Lauren Bohn decided they wanted to do something about this issue and created an organization called Foreign Policy Interrupted (FPI) in 2013 to bring awareness to the lack of female representation in foreign policy media discussions. Among other things, FPI assists news media in solidifying female experts to talk on their shows and in their stories.

“Foreign Policy Interrupted is focused on increasing female voices in foreign policy – but it’s not a “women’s” organization per se,” says Bayrasli. “We’re interested in widening the foreign policy discussion and bringing women to the table – not creating an exclusive platform for ourselves. We’re interested in foreign policy as a whole and engaging in the important issues that face us today.”

FPI aims to serve as a catalyst to steer foreign policy out of the 20th century structures that were built by men, for men, into a 21st century reality where essential voices are being sought and heard in order to find solutions. “There are too many challenges in today’s world to be left to only a small segment of the population. Including women is a necessity not for the sake of gender but for the sake of solutions. Today’s wide-ranging challenges — from ISIS to climate change to global health — require a multitude of approaches and solutions,” says Bayrasli.

Stacey Dunseath, executive producer of The Agenda with Steve Paikin on TVOntario (TVO), says that her team has always struggled with ensuring gender equity on their program. After airing two shows back-to-back with panels filled with men, her and her team at TVO decided it was time to make a change.

The problem doesn’t lie in finding qualified women to speak on an issue. As Dunseath puts it, “smart is smart.” Part of the issue lies in the mental barriers that prevent women from displaying their talents — barriers that men may not have to deal with.   

“It’s not just about getting us to speak, it’s not like women are shrinking violets,” says Dunseath. “But if we don’t feel comfortable speaking to certain topics, we’re not going to. And this may be a rash generalization, I know, but men might know part of the topic and they’ll still come on. There is less judgment on male guests, there is a lot more judgment of female guests, and we feel that everyday in the media.”

Along with these mental barriers, the apprehension of appearing on TV may deter women from appearing in news broadcasts. Dunseath says that her team tries to combat this by offering child care supervision for guests, providing full hair and make-up in studio and assisting guests with choosing what to wear for the show. Many of these things may help women to feel more comfortable to speak on television and help to lessen the gender gap in media.

 “There are so many talented and capable women involved and engaged in foreign policy. The challenge is that their voices aren’t being heard. It’s important to include these women in foreign policy discussions and debates,” FPI’s Bayrasli says.