Dramatic Rise in Women Ambassadors, and How the Washington Post Treats the Story

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Dramatic Rise in Women Ambassadors, and How the Washington Post Treats the Story

Jodi Jacobson

The good news: A 5-fold increase in female ambassadors posted to Washington. The bad, but not surprising news: The Washington Post covers the story on the front page of its print edition, but buries it in "arts and living" online.

The good news: An increasing number of ambassadors posted to Washington are women.

The bad, but not surprising news: The Washington Post, which covered this story on the front page of its print edition, buried this story in the "arts and living" section of its online edition.

Women making strides in economics, politics, business and life generally?  Three out of four U.S. Secretaries of State in both Democratic and Republican administrations are women?  India’s first female ambassador in 50 years; a female ambassador from Oman and one from Colombia.  All are news; all are important signals of movement toward equity of opportunity among women and men.

Coverage by mainstream media? Same old, same old.

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I guess it can be argued that the Post did put the story above the fold on its print edition, but please tell me how it is that a White House state dinner gate-crasher story and NBC’s cancellation of Leno’s show merit the front page of the online edition, arguably used by an increasing number of people in government and politics not to mention outside DC, and a five-fold increase in women ambassadors since the nineties is "arts and living?"

Blood pressure check.  Deep breath.

Back to the good part:

There are 25 female ambassadors posted in Washington, the highest number ever, according to the State Department.

"This is breaking precedent," said Selma "Lucky" Roosevelt, a former U.S. chief of protocol.

Still "women remain a distinct minority — there are 182 accredited
ambassadors in Washington — but their rise from a cadre of five in the
late 1990s to five times that is opening up what had been an elite’s
men club for more than a century."

A key reason for the increase in the number of top U.S. diplomats who are women, according to the Mary Jordan, author of the Post article is what some call the "Hillary effect."

"Hillary Clinton
is so visible" as secretary of state, said Amelia Matos Sumbana, who
just arrived as ambassador from Mozambique. "She makes it easier for
presidents to pick a woman for Washington."

As the Post points out, Madeleine Albright became the first female U.S. secretary of state in 1997. Condoleezza Rice served from 2005 to 2009.

Clinton, now in her second year, is especially well-known abroad
because of her stint as first lady and her presidential run; she is
seen by many as a globetrotting champion of women’s rights.

"The pictures of U.S. diplomacy have been strongly dominated by
photos of women recently," Shankar said. "That helps to broaden the
acceptance of women in the field of diplomacy." 

Claudia Fritsche, the ambassador from Liechtenstein, a principality
that only gave women the right to vote in 1984, said the
Albright-Rice-Clinton sequence has "a worldwide effect. . . . It’s
inspiring, motivating and certainly encouraging."

Albright said that when she spoke to foreign ministers around the
world they told her governments had started thinking, "We need a

Some American diplomats said the appointment of a woman can be a
visible way for a country to signal that is modernizing and in step
with the United States. 

[Except for those signs of regression on women’s rights in the U.S., but we will avoid that issue for now.]

Eleven of the 25 female envoys in Washington are from Africa. Four
are from Caribbean nations. The others are from Bahrain, the
Netherlands, Croatia, Kyrgyzstan, Singapore, Oman, Colombia, India,
Liechtenstein and Nauru, an eight-square-mile Pacific island with only
14,000 people.

Heng Chee Chan, the Singaporean ambassador and the longest-serving
female envoy in Washington, said it has been a "quantum leap" for women
in diplomacy since she arrived here in 1996.


"When a
table was booked under "Ambassador Chan" and she arrived asking for it,
she was told, ‘Oh, he is not here yet.’ "

Many said they are still often bypassed in receiving lines and the male standing beside them is greeted as "Mr. Ambassador."

"Even when I say I am ambassador, people assume I am the spouse,"
said Shankar, who has represented India in Washington for nearly a

More than half of new recruits for the U.S. Foreign Service and 30
percent of the chiefs of mission are now women, according to the State
Department. That is a seismic shift from the days, as late as the
1970s, reports Jordan, when women in the Foreign Service had to quit when they married,
a rule that did not apply to men.

"It was outrageous," said Susan Johnson, president of the American
Foreign Service Association. "The idea was that a married woman could
not be available for worldwide service. She would be having children
and making a home."

That thinking is still alive in many parts of the world. But as the
U.S. Foreign Service moves away from being "pale, male and Yale," the
diplomatic ranks elsewhere are diversifying, too.

Apparently, the pale, male or just plain male focus at the major papers has not shifted in tandem.

What is clear is that this shift in the number of female ambassadors is changing the face and the content of international relations, even if slowly.

The Post quotes Cathy Tinsley, executive director of Georgetown University’s Women’s
Leadership Initiative, as saying that gender diversity at the top of any
organization leads to better decisions. When all the decision-makers
have a similar background and mind-set, they can "amplify the error."

Carolina Barco, the only female ambassador to Washington from Latin America, and a mother of three who has served as Colombia’s foreign
minister, said capability and preparation — not gender — are what
count. She held 630 meetings on Capitol Hill last year to lobby for a
free trade agreement with the United States.

But several female ambassadors said they often bring a different
perspective to discussions than their male counterparts and tend to
focus more on certain issues such as poverty and lack of schooling for

Shankar credited female leaders with turning the world’s spotlight
on the marginalization of Afghan women, and several U.S. diplomats said
that since women have run the State Department, U.S. embassies have
emphasized collecting information on rights abuses against women

Several female ambassadors from developing countries said they are
attentive to issues affecting families, such as health care and the
lack of safe drinking water.

Albright said she guards against saying that women focus on "soft
issues." "They are often the hardest issues: poverty, discrimination,
education and health," she said.

Female envoys often pool their power to land meetings with busy U.S.
senators or media personalities. A group recently met with Supreme
Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Maybe its time to pool their power to land meetings with the news and editorial sections of mainstream media outlets too.  This ain’t about "arts and living," boys.