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Good girls seldom make foreign policy

This piece originally appeared in Issue 6/2016 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe now.

November 30, 2016 - Iwona Reichardt - Articles and Commentary


“Well-behaved women seldom make history” was first the title of an article written in 1975 by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Interestingly, this phrase, first used in the academic context to analyse funeral sermons of Christian women, entered the realm of American pop culture and since the 1990s has been widely used on bumper stickers, coffee mugs and T-shirts. In 2007 it returned to the world of academia, becoming, once again, the title of Ulrich’s publication, this time a book.

When looking at the role of women in the formulation of foreign policy, this phrase can also be relevant. The conclusions of a series of interviews with women who are foreign policy specialists overlap with what Ulrich wrote 40 years ago. In other words, many women who make positive impacts are overlooked – be it by history or the present.

Network paradigm

Foreign policy is often seen as a highly hierarchical and formal sector, even though its development in recent decades is explained through the prism of a network paradigm. This theoretical framework assumes that inter-state relations are not only built through rigid structures and state institutions, but that they are also the result of many networks of diverse ties and connections. In terms of axiology, a high value is placed on such categories as trust and social capital. Practically these assumptions are implemented through the model of public diplomacy which, by stressing the importance of culture, history and education, shows a clear connection with Joseph Nye’s definition of soft power. As Nye argues, soft power opts for influence through appeal and attraction not force and coercion. Its impact is seen as effective when it is positive and involves diverse agents (state and non-state), and not just one centre of command. Foreign relations are thereby more democratic, both at the level of policy-making and implementation. But the question is: how do these theoretical assumptions translate into representative participation? That is to say, one that includes different actors at all stages of the game, including women and their networks.

Questions like this have been returning to me for a quite some time. Reassured by my colleagues that I am not alone in the quest to understand the real implementation of the network paradigm, and thus the role women play in today’s foreign policy making, I began with observations of specialist conferences that focus on the so-called post-Soviet space. Many of them have a strong civil society angle, like the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, and yet all-male panels are relatively commonplace. The same applies to the composition of numerous advisory boards and international conflict-resolution groups. How many women were negotiators of the Minsk agreements? 

Not to limit myself to observations that are always at risk of being subjective and grounded in assumptions, I decided to conduct interviews with women who are directly involved in the process of foreign policy. I spoke with analysts, journalists, public sector employees and academics in three European capitals: Warsaw, Berlin and Kyiv. I talked with them at their workplaces, but also met some in cafés and at conference venues. We talked calmly, analysing the many angles of our work; however other conversations were more hurried , as we exchanged  our reflections and  shared metaphors as we were rushing from one meeting to another. Regardless of the context and length of conversation, I managed to have all the interlocutors explain how they perceived their role in the area of international relations and what were their interpretations of the structure and  functioning of this world. I wanted to know: is a network paradigm being sufficiently implemented by the institutions in all three states or is it merely a vague aspiration?


Warsaw was the first stage of my research. All of the women I spoke with here have impressive achievements and experience. They are internationally recognised experts and opinion-makers. Indeed, some have written articles for this magazine. Overall, their work and talent is something of which the Polish state should be proud. They represent a diverse range of organisations in international affairs – not sharing the same vision – but when we spoke about women in foreign policy, the majority had similar views. Their honesty was as striking as their limited enthusiasm to their experiences.

“I often see how few female colleagues come to our meetings,” said one internationally recognised expert. She continued: “Metaphorically, I can say that there are mostly suits and ties. Very few women.” When I asked her for the interpretation of the situation, I got an answer which was also repeated by several of my interlocutors: “Polish women are very submissive. They do not like (nor want) to promote themselves. And even when they decide to do so, they have to be certain of their knowledge.” This is something, as she says, that can be seen in the area of foreign relations and policy-making. In her view men are different: “Maybe I am a bit unfair towards my male colleagues, but I have a feeling that quite often they say something just for the sake of talking; to be in the spotlight. This is a feature of foreign policy in Poland where much younger male partners, quite often recent college graduates, are so sure of themselves that they push aside their older female colleagues who have more experience and could provide a much more interesting interpretation.”

I failed in my search to find a woman who would offer a different view of the matter. All agreed that the situation is quite grim. One academic put it this way: “We are absent, and that is the problem.” Her words describe women at universities where – as I have often heard – the situation is much better than in think tanks and ministries. When I mentioned this assumption, she responded bluntly: “We may be present, but it feels as if we were absent. And that is how things are.”

Disturbed by this view, I decided to confront it by meeting two analysts from a prestigious Polish think tank. I met them independently but heard similar stories, just in different words. The first woman was very straightforward: “In foreign policy men have it better. This is a world still associated with men. The world of big politics. A kind of a ‘secret sphere’ available to only the very few.” Making a reference to past experiences she added, “We cannot forget that for years it was men, and solely men, who were diplomats. And this meant foreign travel, or work in embassies or consulates. It was the men who advised the powerful and the mighty, while their wives at most would come along as companions, possibly working as the embassy secretary.”

Certainly, these times are long gone. In Polish diplomacy we have had female ambassadors including in the most strategic posts. For instance, until very recently, Katarzyna Pełczyńska-Nałęcz was the Polish ambassador to Russia. When I mentioned this, my interlocutor agreed, saying that the trend that we had talked about indeed “changed just like the world had changed in the 20th century”. However, in her view, “the area of international relations is still reserved for men”.  She also pointed out that “so far Poland has had only one female minister of foreign affairs.” Without a doubt this “is an indication of something”, she concludes. It is difficult to disagree with her.

Another indication of something is a noticeable in the lack of solidarity among women who work in foreign policy in Poland. So far there have been no initiatives aimed at integrating them together as a lobby or ensure greater representation. While women associations are present in the world of business, they are unheard of in politics and think tanks. “It is a real desert,” I am told after asking about what formats are offered to women dealing with foreign policy. “We don’t have a single association, no informal group on Facebook, we don’t organise meetings, breakfasts or discussions”. Clearly, a negative consequence of such a shortage is a smaller network of contacts and interactions. Consequently, there are many “boys’” clubs, all-male panels and much fewer women leaders. Following the rule “the quieter you go, the further you get”, Polish women working in foreign policy give in to their male counterparts, whom they allow to steer the direction of international relations, and profit from their hard work.


The next stage of my investigation brought me to Kyiv. Preparing for my trip to Ukraine’s capital, I was extremely interested in the role that women play in post-EuroMaidan politics. Has the last revolution, popularly known as the Revolution of Dignity, brought a real change and an increased participation of women at all levels? For an analysis of the network paradigm, Ukraine seems to be a special case. Choosing the European path, Ukrainian society, mainly thanks to the activism of a great number of volunteers, is trying to implement – often against the will of the ruling elite – wide political changes, which are commonly accepted as democratic governance.

I spoke with women who work in the three most important think tanks dealing with foreign relations. One of them is considered a “star of Ukraine’s foreign policy”. Indeed, it is hard to find a better description for the only Ukrainian who has interviewed a sitting president of the United States. This fact was first brought to my attention after spotting a beautifully framed photo of her and the US president in her office; she also mentioned this encounter during our conversation. She spoke about the think tank that she co-founded after having experienced the glass ceiling while working as a journalist. Re-directing the attention of my interlocutor to the wider context of working women in Ukraine, I hoped to understand the depth of change taking place. My interlocutor has been working in the field for over 20 years, and points to some progress, including the July 2015 law which mandates that at least 30 per cent of candidates in political parties have to be women. She also mentioned Olena Zerkal – the first woman in Ukraine to hold the position of deputy minister of foreign affairs. All the other interlocutors shared enthusiasm towards this nomination.

The interviews in Kyiv demonstrate that the situation of women who work in foreign policy is very different than that of their Polish counterparts. Many Ukrainian analysts admit that in the post-Maidan Ukraine there is room for everyone, regardless of gender. Activism is still very strong and anyone who has a vision and determination can achieve a lot. This was the impression I was given. However, cultural aspects, such as the legacy of Soviet politics and diplomacy remain. Unlike the conversations in Warsaw and Berlin, the Ukrainian women I spoke with formulated such statements as: “I have never felt that being a woman is some kind of obstacle in this work. Just the opposite. It would even help me at times. Especially in negotiations.” Or: “I have never experienced any form of discrimination. It is true that in my work I am surrounded by men; there are many more of them, but indeed I do not feel that I am somehow discriminated.” And even: “Women are simply less ambitious and they lack confidence.”

While such statements were not necessarily repeated by all the women I spoke with they do point to a certain paradox: even though democratisation in Ukraine seems to be taking place based on the rule of equal rights, the agents that are creating it are hesitant to apply some western categories that – in their view – do not seem to fit the Ukrainian context. This explains why some were somewhat steering clear of gender terminology and did not hesitate to say that having children is a serious problem if you want to have a professional career. Despite that, they seemed quite aware of the burden that falls on women’s shoulders, pointing out that very few men take paternity leave and the support that young Ukrainian mothers receive is inadequate.


My final stop was Berlin. The capital of a state governed by the iron fist of a woman for whom – as I heard from many people – the issue of women’s rights is one of the many things that Angela Merkel does not talk much about. In spite of the fact that the majority of my interlocutors are in favour of Merkel retaining her post for the next term (perceived as a guarantee of Europe’s stability), she will probably not go down in history as a revolutionary politician when it comes to women’s rights. However, there are many women whose work has contributed to a much better situation for women working in foreign affairs in Germany than is the case in Poland or Ukraine. In my conversations, I kept hearing such names as Rita Suessmuth, Marielouise Beck, Constanze Stelzenmuelle and Sylke Tempel. Tempel’s name   was cited almost every time I brought up the issue of women’s associations. Thanks to the work of this very dynamic chief editor of the magazine International Politik that Women in International Security (WIS) have been organising a widely recognised women’s breakfast during the prestigious Munich Security Forum for many years now.

The conversations I had with German women led me to believe that women have succeeded in tackling two problems that remain in Poland and Ukraine: a need to create networks for women working in foreign affairs and a more egalitarian approach to childcare and parental leave. With regards to the latter, the situation in Germany is still far from ideal (most of my interlocutors point out that the situation is much better in France or Scandinavian countries) and many women “still feel that they need to choose between their professional career and private life”; however changes are taking place and a number of the women who have been working in foreign policy the longest pointed out that each decade brings progress.

Nevertheless the German women I spoke with admit that they are under a lot of pressure. A very traditional family model where a woman is expected to spend the first three years of a child’s life at home is a point of concern. This outlook is particularly common in the western and more conservative parts of Germany. In diplomacy, the challenge that is mentioned the most is the professional path of the husbands, which do not always allow for women to take foreign posts. Like their Polish and Ukrainian colleagues, German women are also very well aware of the fact that their male colleagues are not as willing to share power and the privileged positions in foreign policy as one would expect.

My stay in all three capitals was meant to capture the real process of foreign policy making as well as the forces that drive it. I tried to find out why, despite very clear and prominent declarations of equal opportunity, women still seem to be pushed aside and whether men are destined to remain in control. The lessons that I have learnt call for cautious optimism. Change and progress are possible and are, in fact, taking place in all three states, but their reach is uneven and often met with internal hurdles. Unfortunately, Ulrich’s thesis that the positive impact women make is often overlooked, despite their hard work and valuable experience, can be confirmed in the area of foreign policy as well.  

*Material for this text was collected in three cities – Warsaw, Kyiv and Berlin – thanks to a grant received from the Foundation of Polish-German Co-operation.

Iwona Reichardt is the deputy editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe.  

[1] L.T. Ulrich, Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

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