Role of Women in Shaping Foreign Policy

by H.E. Prof. Ambassador Tal Edgars - 23 March, 2024, 12:00 135 Views 0 Comment

Before the end of the Cold War, only a few women had ever served as foreign ministers anywhere in the world. Since the early 1990s, however, women have frequently served in this capacity, though they are still a minority in foreign policy-making.

In September 2018, Canada and the European Union co-chaired the first ever meeting of female foreign ministers; eighteen of the almost thirty serving female foreign ministers attended, from countries spanning five continents (France24 2018).

The growing number of women in the upper echelons of foreign policy-making institutions raises an obvious question: will they make a difference to foreign policy decisions? Anne-Marie Slaughter (2012) argued that more women in top foreign policy jobs ‘would change the world far more than you think, from giving peace talks a better chance to making us better able to mobilize international coalitions to reordering what issues governments even choose to work on’. Francis Fukuyama (1998) claimed that ‘a world run by women would follow different rules’: it would be ‘less aggressive, adventurous, competitive, and violent’ (p. 27). Networks have burgeoned to encourage women to consider or remain in a career in foreign affairs.

Contemporaneously, Sweden and Canada have declared they will pursue a ‘feminist foreign policy’, and several states have pursued pro-women norms such as the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security, and increasing women’s participation in decision-making (Aggestam and Bergman-Rosamond 2016; Davies and True 2017; Hudson and Leidl 2015; Richey 2001).There is, however, very little academic literature on women in foreign policy-making and their impact on foreign policy-making including outcomes. Furthermore, there has been little use of Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) approaches to try to investigate these questions.

FPA opens the ‘black box’ of the state and provides explanations of how and why foreign policy decisions are made, which puts individuals and groups (from committees to ministries) at the centre of analysis. Yet the sex of decision-makers has rarely been included as a variable or factor to take into account when analysing foreign policy-making. Nor, as Anne Marie D’Aoust (2012) notes, has ‘feminist foreign policy theory’ developed within FPA, in contrast to the development of feminist approaches in International Relations (see also Achilleos-Sarll 2018).

Women and FPA: missing in analysis

Christopher Hill defines foreign policy as ‘the sum of official external relations conducted by an independent actor (usually a state) in international relations’ (Hill 2016, 4). FPA is ‘the examination of how foreign policy decisions are made and has assumed that the source of much behaviour and most change in international politics is human beings, acting individually or in collectivities’ (Hudson 1995, 210). International Relations (IR) theory does not seek to explain decision-making, and as such, does not focus on individuals or relatively small groups (such as bureaucracies) within states. Foreign Policy Analysis fills this gap. FPA has been described as a theory ‘without a home’ (Houghton 2007, 25), though arguably it complements as well as competes with the major IR approaches (Kaarbo 2015).

The various influences on foreign policy decision-making that FPA scholars typically examine include domestic factors (such as public opinion and bureaucratic politics) and international dynamics and events (from the nature of the international system to wars in other regions). The sex of decision-makers and the gendered nature of decision-making, however, have generally been ignored in FPA – despite the fact that its focus is on human beings as decision-makers.

The absence of explicit references to women, men and/or gender across the wide body of FPA literature is striking. A glance at the indexes of popular FPA textbooks reveals no entries for ‘gender’, ‘women’ or ‘men’ (Alden and Aran 2016; Smith, Hadfield and Dunne 2016) – a reflection less of the authors than of the principal concerns of the discipline.  Valerie Hudson (2007, 53) and Christopher Hill (2016, 253) have only brief discussions of gender and foreign policy-making. In the 80 or so issues published through the end of 2018 of the flagship journal of the discipline, Foreign Policy Analysis, only four articles deal directly with gender issues (Calin and Buterbaugh 2018; Caprioli and Douglass 2008; Davies and True 2017; Towns and Niklasson 2017), though another dozen or so either do so partially or include sex as a variable in data collection (almost entirely public opinion surveys). The very first article in Foreign Policy Analysis, by Hudson (2005), surveys the state of the FPA literature and highlights the promising directions of contemporary FPA scholarship, but none of the work discussed involves gender. FPA is gender-free because foreign policy-making has traditionally been seen to be gender-free.

There are, however, some publications specifically on the influence women may have on foreign policy-making. The most extensive treatment of this issue is Nancy McGlen and Meredith Reid Sarkees’ Women in Foreign Policy: The Insiders (1993). Principally through interviewing, they studied the experiences and attitudes of female and male policy-makers in the US, and concluded that there is little evidence that female policy-makers have a distinctly women’s perspective on major issues or that adding women to foreign policy-making processes changes foreign policy outputs, although women tend to have a different, more people-centric, managerial style. The study is dated (the research was conducted in the late 1980s) but is the most comprehensive attempt to understand the role and impact of women foreign policy-makers in one national context.

More recently, Sylvia Bashevkin (2014) has examined the impact of women as senior foreign policy decision-makers in ten developed democracies, and found that in several countries, female decision-makers voiced more gender equality claims than male decisionmakers, and are associated with increased aid for women in the Global South. Michael Koch and Sarah Fulton’s study of public office holders in 22 democracies shows that the ‘ability of female officeholders [in security policy areas] to represent women’s interests is context dependent—varying with the level of party control over legislators and the gender stereotypes that officeholders confront’ (Koch and Fulton 2011, 1).

There is a growing body of research that looks at the role of particular women or groups of women serving as diplomats or in international negotiations over the past few centuries (Cassidy 2017; McCarthy 2014; Sluga and James 2016), while more recent work adds a focus on descriptive representation and gendered institutions to the study of gender and diplomacy (Aggestam and Towns 2018, 2019). Women in political leadership, which may include leadership on foreign policy issues, has also attracted scholarly attention (Carroll 2001; Genovese and Steckenrider 2013; Ngunjiri and Madsen 2015; Sharma 2016). This literature, however, does not focus on the process of foreign policy-making.

There has been a more extensive study of the attitudes and opinions of women and men on foreign policy issues, much of which demonstrates that ‘women tend to be more peaceful and less militaristic than men’ (Bjanegård and Melander 2017, 479; see also Clements 2011; Eichenberg 2019; Fite, Genex and Wilcox 1990; Togeby 1994), and that women hold more isolationist foreign policy attitudes than men (Mansfield, Mutz and Silver 2015), although these findings are not always confirmed (see Holsti and Rosenau 1981; Tessler and Warriner 1997). Several studies have also exposed a ‘feminist gap’: feminist men and women are more liberal on foreign policy than non-feminist men and women (Bjanegård and Melander 2017; Fite, Genex and Wilcox 1990). There is less literature on the differing attitudes of female and male policy-makers, with some studies showing differences (Bashevkin 2014) and others none (McGlen and Sarkees 1993).

Some of the work that has been done on ‘gender-sensitive’ policies such as gender mainstreaming (particularly in the realm of security policy and development policy) has linked such outcomes to gender-sensitive foreign policy-makers. Jacqui True has argued that one of the three factors promoting gender mainstreaming in global public policy is ‘the growing numbers of feminist-oriented or gender-sensitive women and men in foreign policy and global governance leadership positions’ (True 2003, p. 374). Gender-sensitive individuals are not necessarily female, as Davies and True (2017) find in the case of former British Foreign Secretary William Hague and his efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict (see also work on the Clinton Administration in Garner 2013). Roberta Guerrina and Katharine A. M. Wright (2016) explain the lack of gender mainstreaming in EU external affairs as the absence of a ‘velvet’ or ‘feminist’ triangle, composed of ‘femocrats’ (individuals within a bureaucratic structure who want to work towards feminist goals), civil society organisations and epistemic communities.

Recent studies have linked the extent of gender equality in a state and that state’s foreign policy (Hudson, Ballif-Spanvill, Caprioli and Emmett 2012). Brysk and Mehta (2014) find that more sexually equal countries are more likely to support international commitments against state violence against individuals, to provide more and higher quality development aid, to defend children’s rights, and to support antidiscrimination measures on both sex and sexual orientation. These are significant findings, but the outcomes are not linked to the foreign policy-making process.

In sum, there is a growing body of literature that addresses, at least tangentially, the role of women in foreign policy-making. The next section considers why there has not been more literature on the effects of growing numbers of female foreign policy-makers.


The UN resolution called “International Day of Women in Diplomacy” reiterates that the participation of women, on equal terms with men and at all levels of decision-making, is essential to the achievement of sustainable development, peace and democracy. Marked on 24 June, this day is a call to recognize the critical contributions of women to shaping the multilateral system and their indispensable role in diplomacy. Today we celebrate the trailblazers, women who negotiated peace agreements and strengthened international relations – in the hope also to inspire the next generation of women to pursue diplomacy as a career option.

Women have been playing a crucial role in global governance since the drafting and signing of the United Nations Charter in 1945. Women and girls represent half of the world’s population and, therefore, also half of its potential. Women bring immense benefits to diplomacy. Their leadership styles, expertise and priorities broaden the scope of issues under consideration and the quality of outcomes. A growing body of research tells us that the lack of parity in women’s representation in foreign policy is in fact detrimental to peace. Also, data tell us that when women have a seat at the table, the odds of reducing instability and conflict improve significantly and peace agreements last longer. Today’s complex societal challenges – from climate change to pandemics, to human rights violations to sustaining peace, to inflation and economic uncertainty– cannot be resolved unless women leaders are equally represented and gender equality principles are integrated across the board.

As of 2014, 143 countries guaranteed equality between men and women in their constitutions; another 52 countries have yet to make this important commitment. Advocating for increased representation of women in key decision-making positions will greatly shape and implement multilateral agendas.

Between 1992 and 2019, women represented 13 per cent of negotiators, 6 per cent of mediators and 6 per cent of signatories in peace processes worldwide. Gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls will also make a crucial contribution to progress across all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets. The systematic mainstreaming of a gender perspective in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda is crucial, especially since SDG 5 calls for women’s equal participation in decision-making.

At the UNGA’s 76th Session, the General Assembly by consensus declared the 24th of June each year to be the International Day of Women in Diplomacy. By the resolution (A/RES/76/269) the Assembly invited all Member States, United Nations organizations, non-governmental groups, academic institutions and associations of women diplomats — where they exist — to observe the Day in a manner that each considers most appropriate, including through education and public awareness-raising.

Today, out of the 193 Member States of the United Nations, only 34 women serve as elected Heads of State or Government. Whilst progress has been made in many countries, the global proportion of women in other levels of political office worldwide still has far to go: 21% of the world’s ministers, 26% of national parliamentarians, and 34% of elected seats of local government. According to a new UN report, at the current pace of progress, equal representation in parliament will not be achieved until 2062.

It is optimistic that the number of women ambassadors and permanent representatives worldwide is increasing with the share of women going from 16% in 2018 to 20.5% in 2023. Although Bosnia and Herzegovina is positioned above the global average with 28% of women ambassadors claiming 25th place globally, it is still lagging behind most of its immediate neighbours.


This article has illustrated that the sex of decision-makers and gendered decision-making processes have been remarkably absent from Foreign Policy Analysis literature. The core textbooks and flagship journal of the discipline have by and large not addressed a number of questions regarding the role that women policy-makers play in decision-making, the gendered nature of decision-making processes, and the link that these two factors have with foreign policy outcomes. FPA is largely gender-free because foreign policy-making has traditionally, but erroneously, been seen to be gender-free.

The article identified several analytical challenges facing researchers studying the role of women in foreign policy-making, including the problem of identifying whether or not there are relevant differences between women and men policy-makers such that increasing numbers of women would have an impact on the policy-making process. Taking a wider view of gender and gendered norms, institutions and processes is suggested as a starting point for investigating the impact of gender in foreign policy-making. There is much work to be done to fill our knowledge gaps about the impact of female policy-makers and gendered foreign policy processes and institutions on outcomes.

H.E. Prof. Ambassador Tal Edgars
Author is a Special Envoy and GBSH Consult Group Executive Chairman Worldwide.

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