Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico

Women in German foreign policy: A new research agenda

Where are the women in foreign policy? Scholars have increasingly asked this question to uncover how the exclusion of women is embedded in foreign policy institutions, practices, and outcomes worldwide. There is, however, one curious exception to this “gender turn”: scholars have yet to research women in German foreign policy.

This is particularly striking because gender equality and diversity more broadly have become central foreign policy concerns in Germany––both in foreign policy itself and in the German Foreign Office.

So, where are the women in German foreign policy? This article reviews what we know (very little) and advances a new research agenda to address what we don’t know (a lot). It begins, however, with a broader question: Why should we study women foreign policy practitioners in the first place?

Why women?

Women have always played a central role in foreign policy: from negotiators in Renaissance Italy to envoys to the League of Nations, diplomatic wives, and foreign service officials, women have made vital and often invisible contributions to global affairs. To ask about their position, experiences, and practices means taking their agency as foreign policy actors seriously.

Studying women in foreign policy also pushes us to find explanations for their absence or presence, and therefore helps us understand how the current status quo has come to be. This, in turn, illuminates how gendered and other intersecting power structures organise foreign policy practices, discourses, and institutions, thereby maintaining the status quo.

What we know

Although women are central to foreign policy, the case of Germany remains largely underresearched. Only one edited collection, published in 2000 and since out of print, offers some insights.

In Gewandt, Geschickt und Abgesandt: Frauen im diplomatischen Dienst (Dexterous, Skilled, and Dispatched: Women in the Diplomatic Service), historian Christiane Scheidemann and Ursula Müller, the Foreign Office’s Women’s Representative at the time, trace the entrance of women into the foreign service in the 20th century. They also collate 63 brief (auto)biographies of current and former women diplomats, thereby providing a rare glimpse into the experiences, trajectories, and perspectives of women desk officers, ambassadors, and Ministers of State—as well as the barriers they had to face.

The biggest hurdle? Getting in. From 1950-80, on average only two women were admitted to the diplomatic service annually. Dr Albrecht Lohmann, Chief of Staff from 1963-69, is even said to have claimed: “We’ll get the women out again.” While Lohmann’s claim was never fully realised, women’s supposed “unsuitability” for the foreign service meant that they were predominantly appointed to feminised areas of work and progressed much slower through the ranks––if they didn’t leave the service altogether.

Who were the women who made it into the 20th century German diplomatic service? Reading through the (auto)biographies presented by Müller and Scheidemann, one cannot help but notice striking similarities between the “pioneers”. First, they were all white. Second, the vast majority came from middle- and upper-class families or the nobility. Third, and related to their class privilege, they were exceptionally well educated­––many even had PhDs. Fourth, the first generation of women diplomats were rarely married. This was partially a result of the so-called marriage bar; although Germany, unlike the UK or USA, never formally implemented a rule that forced women to leave the service upon their marriage, the job was deemed unsuitable for married women. And fifth, many of them were able to play down, put aside, or ignore their gender. As Iver Neumann put it, they were “diplomat-first-woman-next.”

What we don’t know

22 years have passed since the publication of Müller and Scheidemann’s volume, and much has changed since then. Women are better represented and more visible as foreign policy agents in Germany. Women have also progressed to prestigious senior positions, including Minister of Foreign Affairs (Annalena Baerbock, 2021) and State Secretary, the most senior civil servant (Emily Haber, 2011). The Foreign Office has become much more diverse in its representation of histories of migration, sexual orientations, disabilities, and spiritual beliefs––including and in addition to women.

At the same time, women continue to face obstacles in the foreign service. It is still more socially acceptable, for instance, for men to be accompanied by female partners than vice versa. And serving in the foreign service still requires support from stay-at-home partners––usually women.

This is why women diplomats have begun to push for change themselves. They are calling for equal representation, better compatibility of work and private life, and an end to structural and institutional discrimination.

A new research agenda

These developments as well as the situation of women foreign policy practitioners today has received scant, if any, attention in foreign policy analysis. Therefore, we need a new research agenda to better understand women’s agency and the gendered power structures that organise foreign policymaking in Germany. This will also enable German foreign policy practitioners to put gender equality and diversity into practice.

Seven core areas in particular warrant analytical attention:

  • Descriptive representation: how many women are there? Where are they? And how have numbers changed over time?
  • Biographical data: which social background do women diplomats have?
  • Historical change: how and why did women get where they are today? Have diplomatic practices changed with the inclusion of women?
  • Work: what kind of work do women do? To what extent is this division of work gendered?
  • Experiences: what kinds of experiences do women make? What does this tell us about the entrenchment of masculinities, femininities, and gendered power in foreign policymaking?
  • Structures: which social structures are at play in organising women and their position, experiences, and work in the foreign service?
  • Agency: how do women navigate, maintain, and resist the gendered structures of foreign policy? How do they embody hegemonic masculinities and femininities embedded in foreign policy?

In advancing this research agenda, we need to move away from an understanding of women as a monolithic category that is evident in Müller and Scheidemann’s volume. Instead, we must account for difference. This will direct our view towards the fragmented and intersectional dynamics that create hierarchies between different women. And this, in turn, will allow us to provide a fuller answer to our original question: where are the women in German foreign policy?

Image credit: J. Azanovo / URM nuotr. via Flickr, New Voices logo added by the School of Security Studies at King's College London. Creative Commons license details.

Latest news