As I sit in my quarantined Washington, D.C. apartment, my mind traces back to last spring. Bustling District streets, patrons in restaurants, and the cool air dissipating into the warmth of the new spring season.
I will share an excerpt from my new book A Seat at the Table: Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World. I stepped out on New Hampshire Avenue for a gala and entered the grand Whittemore House through a sea of black ties and floor-length gowns. This Washington, D.C. mansion is also known historically as the Women’s National Democratic Club. The club originated in 1922, shortly after the passage of the 19th Amendment granting American women the right to vote.
Having attended my fair share of receptions and galas, what struck me about this particular event was that the organization honored five women leaders: two ambassadors, a Major General, a U.S. Marine Corps Captain, and a top philanthropic plastic surgeon. The president of the organization hosting the gala was also a woman.
In all honesty, rarely do I hear moving speeches in galas and receptions. We network, eat, drink, and quietly whisper during the keynote remarks. But that evening, you could hear a pin drop. The honorees shared their moving stories, and the tears rolled down my cheek onto my silk jacket. The thought crossed my mind–who is capturing these stories?
While I visit embassies for private events where the appetizers flow endlessly and the open bar attracts the Washington social scene, I must confess: I am not a diplomat. I have frequent interactions with diplomats in my position at a nonprofit advocacy organization. These interactions and conversations inspired my book A Seat at the Table: Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World.
In private conversations–whether over the phone or face-to-face in elegant historic embassies or classic Washington offices–I asked the same questions of these leaders. In these conversations, most replied, “No one has ever asked me that.”
One particular interview illustrated how much women have advanced in the foreign service, and more broadly, the passion required to pursue any goal. Barbara Bodine never imagined her “dysfunctional” upbringing in the San Fernando Valley would lead to her positions as a U.S. Ambassador to Yemen and Deputy Chief of Mission in Kuwait. Bodine heard the word “no” frequently throughout her childhood. Rather than becoming dissuaded, she understood that an education and career were her ticket out. In high school, she discovered her passion for diplomacy and desire to see the world and work on important issues.
Bodine recounts the gender dynamics of pursuing “law, medicine, or . . . a Ph.D.,” or any profession besides an elementary school teacher, nurse, or secretary. As a woman, she was going to change the dynamics the minute she got into the room and sat at the table. “That was the overwhelming environment,” she reflects. What she didn’t know during high school was that this discovery would set off a dramatic chain of events, leading her to live in multiple countries and become an Ambassador.
When Bodine looks back at the progress of women in the foreign service, she sees that it has moved quite fast. Bodine was posted to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of East Asia Affairs in the 70s, then recruited to the Near East Bureau, and was one of the first women to get Chinese and Arabic language training. Her work in the Office of Arabian Peninsula Affairs–including security assistance for all the Arab Gulf States and her role as Country Officer for Yemen–defined the rest of her career. Twenty years later, when she was posted as the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, her Deputy Chief of Mission, political officer, economic officer, and the head of her consular section were all women with Arabic language training. During Bodine’s time in the foreign service, she saw the progress of women–once stymied by the lack of language training–grow to comprise an entire embassy of language-qualified, high-level officers. “Now that is a tremendous change,” notes Bodine.
I wanted to see whether Bodine’s story was unique or if it represented a powerful shift toward more women around the table. In 1970, women constituted less than 5 percent of foreign service officers and only 1 percent of senior-level officers. By 2003, women represented one-third of the officer corps and 25 percent of senior levels. To put that in perspective, the 2019 fortune 500 list of highest-grossing firms has 33 women CEOs on it–in other words, women only represented 6.6 percent. Yes, both sectors saw progress, but not parity.
My research on gender diversity demonstrates the same conclusion in other governmental sectors. The Council on Foreign Relations states, “The participation of civil society groups, including women’s organizations, makes a peace agreement 64 percent less likely to fail.” Thoughtful leadership and peaceful resolutions are vital in navigating geopolitical climates and well-armed countries. Gender diversity is crucial.
In this article series, I share excerpts and stories from my book A Seat at the Table: Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World. I hope you enjoyed the post! If you’re interested in reading A Seat at the Table it is available on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Kobo! If you want to connect, follow me on Twitter @realSusanSloan and reach me on my website susansloan.com.