Vienna-based Alumni highlights: H. E. Mr. Leigh Turner, former Ambassador of the United Kingdom

Women and diplomacy

While working on the statistical challenges of the personnel departments in 1984, I was asked to explore why so many female new entrants were exiting the FCO.

I had joined the Diplomatic Service in 1983 alongside twenty other new entrants. Our group included twenty-one different degree subjects[1], eleven non-Oxbridge graduates (historically an above-average proportion and seen as a step towards diversity) and eleven women (ditto).

Within a year, nearly all of the women had resigned. I interviewed them about their reasons for leaving. One or two said they found the male-dominated, public-school vibe of the FCO alienating. But most said the main factor driving them to leave had been the reluctance of their male partners to accompany them on an overseas posting.

Implementing equal opportunities for women diplomats has never been a linear process. In the UK, the 1933 Schuster Report considered the admission of women to the Diplomatic and Consular Services and recommended they remain excluded. Evidence from Heads of Mission published in the report gave a flavour of male sentiment at the time:

‘To put it bluntly, the clever woman would not be liked and the attractive woman would not be taken seriously’ – Sir H.W. Kennard, Berne[2]

‘The interests of the public service would be better served by endeavouring to secure a more virile type of official than by embarking on the experiment of admitting women’ – Sir Patrick Ramsay, Athens.

‘It is unthinkable that a diplomatic or consular officer should produce babies and at the same time do her work properly’ – Sydney Waterlow, Sofia.

Although female diplomats were admitted in 1946, married women were barred from diplomacy until 1972. The first female head of post came the following year; the first married woman in 1987. By 2008 the UK had 18 female heads of mission; and by 2012, 38; but critics argued they were often appointed to less important or desirable posts.

In 2018 the Foreign Office installed a “Mirror Challenge”[3] with pictures of the first women to hold thirteen of the twenty-six top jobs; and mirrors for the remaining thirteen. The idea was to encourage women and other under-represented groups to imagine themselves in those senior positions and create an expectation that their pictures would soon replace the mirrors.

By 2021, five of the thirteen mirrors representing jobs never done by a woman before had turned: Abuja, Berlin, Paris, Tokyo and Washington. The UK had female ambassadors in every other G7 country, plus Moscow, Beijing and at the UN in New York; and in ten out of twenty G20 posts. This did not mean “job done”, but it certainly marked progress.

Lesson: with political will and perseverance, you can change things. Innovation may help, too


[1] The near-irrelevance of degree subject for entering the British Diplomatic Service is a matter of puzzlement elsewhere, but seems to work.

[2] Quotes taken from the excellent “History Notes: Issue 20. Women and the Foreign Office”, FCO Historians, 2018.

[3] Based on an idea from Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University.