UN Security Council resolution 1325 recognizes that women are vital contributors to conflict resolution and prevention and urges their greater participation “in all United Nations peace and security efforts.” Since it passed in 2000, women’s presence on the Security Council has increased markedly. Yet the body tasked with maintaining international peace and security remains overwhelmingly male-dominated.
Representing Jordan, Lithuania, Nigeria, Argentina, Luxembourg, and Bosnia and Herzogovina respectively the diplomats were Dina Kawar (pictured), Raimonda Murmokaité, U. Joy Ogwu, Maria Cristina Perceval, and Slyvie Lucas. They sat on a panel moderated by Patricia Ellis, Co-Founder of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. Alya Ahmed Saif Al-Thani, Qatar’s UN permanent representative, organized the event.
On a panel moderated by the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, six former and current female Security Council members spoke about the strengths and talents they bring to the practice of diplomacy and the gender-based discrimination they still sometimes face. Outside large windows facing the East River dreary gray skies persisted as if spring had not arrived ten days prior. But inside the Delegates’ Dining Room at the UN, the 150-odd highly accomplished women and handful of equally accomplished men were too engaged in dynamic conversation to notice.
They had gathered over a buffet lunch to listen to six permanent representatives, all women, share anecdotes of their accomplishments and vent their frustrations. It was a rare, off-the-record opportunity for them to speak candidly.
Dina Kawar, who the very next day became the first Arab woman to assume the Security Council Presidency, opened the discussion by describing the strengths she feels she and her female colleagues bring to the table. Chief among them is a greater willingness to put their egos aside in order to truly listen to opposing arguments and foster consensus. Such emphasis on cooperation spurs progress whether applied to negotiating a diplomatic response within the Council or engaging with civil society. She and others also stressed that women tend to “do their homework,” reading brief after brief and studying the issues thoroughly so they are better prepared than the men for meetings and debates.
These approaches, along with a greater tendency to follow their intuition, has often served them well, these women said.
Interestingly, none argued that their ways of thinking and behaving were the same as those of their male counterparts. But they disagreed somewhat over the extent to which their “feminine qualities” should be celebrated for the successful outcomes they have spurred or downplayed to avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes.
Some panelists fear that emphasizing their superior listening skills and willingness to compromise might mistakenly imply that women are weak at other, more traditionally “male” skills and approaches. We should not divide methods of practicing diplomacy along gender lines any more than we should divide the issues along those lines, these voices argued. Today’s security crises are so complex it is impossible to extricate the social and humanitarian aspects—those traditionally considered “women’s issues.” Nonetheless, several of these women have been told they were not well-suited to tackle “hard issues.”
For instance, one panelist recalled a time when she was accused of being “too emotional” for making impassioned remarks about the need to do more to end the violence in Syria.
“Of course I was emotional,” she said, noting they were talking about hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions of refugees. “How could anyone not be?” The issue, she explained with understandable frustration, is that when men on the Security Council argue passionately for humanitarian interventions—as they are right to do—it earns them praise for strong leadership, not accusations of hysteria.
I’m not sure if these stereotypes will ever disappear entirely, but I do believe they will eventually dissipate as women begin to fill a critical mass of top leadership positions at the U.N. and elsewhere and establish a track record of desired outcomes. The hope, of course, is that one day soon a woman’s presence on the Security Council will be so commonplace that a debate over the pros and cons of compromise and cooperation in diplomatic negotiations will seem obsolete.
As they work toward achieving this, these six women and their fellow female colleagues are fostering an environment of solidarity to support one another in navigating the persistent challenges.
Photos courtesy: UN Photo by Loey Felipe