Why are there so few women in V4 diplomacy?

Very few women have made it into the V4’s top ranking diplomatic jobs. While equal opportunities exist on paper, there is still a long way to go before conditions are created that will make the numbers more representative.

Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic od Poland


V4 diplomacy is dominated by men. Women are best represented in the Czech Republic, but even there, only 17% of ambassadors are female. With merely 5 women among its ambassadors, Slovakia is the biggest laggard.

It is symbolic that the few candidates who competed for the title of the world’s first professional female ambassador were all delegated by extraordinarily short-lived governments, and all quietly forgotten by posterity. It was Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) representing the Soviet Union, who made it into (some of) the official accounts as the first ever female ambassador. Kollontai served in Norway in 1923, Mexico between in 1926 and 1927 and Sweden from 1930 until 1945 as the ambassador of a country that lacked international recognition. 1

The fate of the other three “first” female ambassadors was similar to Kollontai’s. Armenian writer, Diana Abgar (1859-1937), was the ambassador of the first Armenian Republic in Japan from 1918 to 1920. The Hungarian professional feminist, Rózsa Schwimmer (1877-1948), served as the representative of the revolutionary Károlyi-government in Switzerland between 1918-1919. Another from Switzerland was Jadvyga Chodakauskaite-Tubeliene (1891-1998), an activist in the women’s movement, who set up the Lithuanian mission between 1918 and 1919. In the tight grip of hegemonic powers and among geopolitical constraints, these “first” female ambassadors also struggled with their greatest disadvantage: they were women.

Kollontai, as a representative of the Soviet Union, excellently capitalized on her sense of humor, her erudition and her polyglotism during various negotiations, inspiring the movie Ninochka (1939) starring Greta Garbo. The story of these “firsts” helps us understand why women’s presence in the diplomatic service of the Visegrad Four is still so meager.

1989 brought few changes

Women’s participation in international relations can be seen from two angles: how women themselves became active, professional agents of diplomatic processes; and how they turned into the subjects and often the victims of said processes and decisions. 2 The predecessors of Abgar and Kollontai were women who, by their husband or fathers’ side, and within the privileged walls of drawing rooms, used their informal power and confabulation to practice diplomacy.

Schwimmer and Chodakauskaite-Tubeliene represented a different modality: they entered international diplomatic circles through the internationally organized and institutionalized women’s movement and its networks. At the time in Switzerland the Hungarian Schwimmer was deemed too leftist for the task of representing a country that was up against the Triple Entente’s troupes and losing the battle. No wonder she had little success. 3

Diplomacy is an international profession which requires serious professional and linguistic training, and for the successful practice one typically was part of the elite. During diplomacy’s classical era only aristocrats belonged to elite circles. In the modern era of diplomacy access can be attained through education at elite institutions. Despite all women’s emancipatory struggles, it is no surprise that in diplomatic fields, men most adamantly preserve their institutional privileges.

If we examine the lives of these four female ambassadors, it is apparent that all received ambassadorial tasks due to the social changes after WW1, which both destroyed and created states. It is no surprise either that, as a result of second wave feminism’s efforts for fighting for different forms of inequality, more female ambassadors were delegated from the 1980s onwards, though these were still exceptions to the rule.

According to research conducted in late 2014 in the Visegrad countries, women were seldomly delegated for ambassadorial positions between 1975 and 1989 under state communism, when women’s equality was nominally and officially propagated. 4 One can rightly ask if in this respect 1989 brought any changes to the Visegrad countries’ diplomatic services. In principle it could have, because the previous cadres who trained mainly in Moscow were replaced by people who were well-traveled and multi-lingual. For the most part however, men were replaced by men.

According to the same 2014 research, bilateral diplomatic positions in all four Visegrad countries were occupied by men by over 80%: Czech Republic 84%, Poland 86%, Hungary 88%, Slovakia 95%. When it comes to international organizations, male leadership also dominates: Czech Republic 71%, Poland 86%, Hungary 75%, Slovakia 71%. Though the number of ambassadors has multiplied as the number of independent states has increased, Hungary still fares the worst, with 95% of its ambassadors male. The Czech Republic with a high proportion of male ambassadors at 85% is the closest to parity, while 90% of Poland and Slovakia’s embassies are led by men. Compare these number to Norway’s 64%, which itself is still far from its stated and propagated goal of parity. 5 In key diplomatic positions, namely the EU, Germany, the US, Great Britain and Russia, at most one woman represents the V4.

The percentages may be misleading, because the research focuses on a small group within which the appointment of a female Minister of Foreign Affairs would considerably shift the ratio. Still, the numbers demonstrate that the situation differs greatly from other prestigious professions and from other countries, like the Scandinavian states. I analyze the reasons for this below.

Is diplomacy for women?

Historically international diplomacy has been considered a man’s realm in the Visegrad countries, remaining so even after 1989. Surveying this phenomenon is the first step towards achieving potential change.

Women gain space very slowly in politics, especially when it comes to institutional leadership. There are still many of the opinion that women should focus on areas that were considered the female domain, that is: social affairs, education and culture. 6The Visegrad countries diplomatic rhetoric frames foreign affairs and the sometimes merciless representation of interests via the “hard” power exercised in military affairs, as “no country for women.” It gets conflated with the prejudiced supposition that women as a whole are peace-loving and reject the use of force. If women were to behave accordingly, they would fulfill these imaginary expectations and as a result reduce their professional capacity to maneuver in diplomacy.

The nature of international diplomacy work necessitates long and continuous education. Women presently encounter educational disadvantages as in many other professions, because of the difficulties of balancing work and childcare. Positing the issue in this manner is inherently discriminatory because it assumes that only women – and not men – have to juggle family and work. The four ambassadors (and their few female successors) solved this problem in the 1920s either having or not having children. Being a female ambassador certainly represents a privileged position in and of itself. However the best case scenario for a female diplomat who must temporarily leave her trade to oblige childcare duties, is her return to the same or equivalent position in a rigid hierarchy, while her peers accomplish their professional training to ensure their professional advancement in her absence.

The other argument against appointing women in leading diplomatic positions relates to the scheduling of work. The reconciliation of family life and work is especially demanding for women in diplomatic careers. As in many other professions, like laboratory research, a diplomat’s working hours are not limited to an eight hours standard. In international diplomacy a workday goes from morning until late evening, sometimes each evening with multiple events.

The diplomatic service in itself is strictly hierarchical, because an embassy has many employees from accountant to military attaché, but there is only one ambassador, who officially represents their country’s “opinion” formulated in the inner circles of power. In leadership theory a general doubt is cast on whether women are suitable for leadership at all. In past decades such doubt has been overcome in luckier parts of the world. The ”first” four female ambassadors demonstrate that women are indeed qualified for such leadership positions. Women’s exclusion due to stereotypes and structural inequality is utterly anti-democratic. Ambassadors are part of the state’s image. In American diplomacy experts in foreign affairs do their jobs while ambassadors generally exercise representative tasks, conveying messages already cleared by the expert body.

Twenty-five years after the fall of the regime and norms that would sanction sexism against women still have not changed. Former Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and tenured CEU professor Péter Balázs in an interview given to critical political weekly Magyar Narancs said that: “If a woman says no, it means perhaps. If she says perhaps, it means yes. If she says yes, she is not a real woman. Now if a diplomat says yes, it means perhaps. If he says perhaps, it means no. And if he says no, then he is not a real diplomat”. 7 This quote exemplifies the kinds of obstacles women face when choosing a diplomatic career as not taken simply seriously because they are women.

Why is it even a question if there is an absence of women in international diplomacy?

The most commonly used view of positions with great prestige and power are that they are filled on a “merit base,” with the best people getting appointed. As demonstrated in the previous section, because women start with a load of structural disadvantages, the “merit based” appointments merely perpetuate existing structures.

The first notion that brings attention to the dearth of women in diplomacy, is the principle of democracy: it is not democratic if a group is excluded from a profession. Despite all the mystification that surrounds it, international diplomacy is a profession like any other, but one with great prestige, high status and compensation. However, there is a surprising argument deployed by some feminists that supports the inclusion of women, which says that because women have different skills, are kinder, more cooperative and eager to avoid conflict, they relate to men in a complementary, supplementary role. This argument is especially dangerous that women should be involved in the diplomatic service in greater numbers because of these “complementary” features as it assumes that all women possess the same characteristic traits (non-confrontationality, empathy, cooperativeness, etc.), as if they were biologically predetermined. Moreover, this questions the democratic principle that each person has the right to perform the work they wish to perform, because the principle of equal chance is not fulfilled.

Possible change?

The diplomatic service, despite the equalizing politics of state-appropriated feminism, has remained a male profession; successors of the four “first” female ambassadors are few. What would change this sorrowful image represented by the V4’s latest survey? According to the above quoted research the percentage of female ambassadors was less than 1% between 1975 and 1989 in Polish, Hungarian and Czechoslovakian foreign affairs. For decades a woman was scarcely appointed as an ambassador. Ambassadorial positions, which represent the peak of diplomatic career remained men’s privilege after 1989 as well.

If one follows the “merit based” argument, we cannot expect much change in the forthcoming period either, because social differences are continuously increasing. The “neoliberal neopatriarchal order” works via preserving the secondary status of women, as exemplified by the above-quoted interview with the former Minister Balázs. Still there are means to change the situation.

Firstly, there are the international conventions and their observance. Such is the CEDAW report which systematically requests countries’ numerical data on women in public positions, diplomacy included. The second is the deliberate recruitment of women for diplomatic service, which is a step towards the quota, but for this specific support institutions and provisions are necessary. In the Scandinavian countries improvements happened with the introduction of the quota, which aimed at combatting structural disadvantages. Making inequality visible is the first step towards the introduction and ratification of quotas. This necessitates inner political change, which the Visegrad countries have already started.

The rude awakening women felt at the 2009 Polish commemoration of the events of 1989, where they realized they were posteriorly erased from the Solidarity movement and its history. This prompted informal and later formalized activity which lead to the successful passing of the Polish parliamentary quota bill. This gave women the courage to organize and institutionalize themselves so well that the Polish Women’s Congress not only became a political player that could not be sidestepped on policy issues, but achieved the legally regulated 35% quota on the party lists at the elections. (In Hungary the percentage of women in Parliament is 9%, the worst among EU member states.) Of course, it will take time for this change in approach to impact policy making.

In Hungary, the left-appointed, all-male Bajnai-government (2009-2010) introduced a program to facilitate the employment of people of Roma origin in government agencies, among them the foreign affairs service. Today less than 10 of the original 100 participating youth remain within the Hungarian state apparatus, which has undertaken multifold restructurings since. This example emphasizes how policy tools can only bring long term solutions if political will is consistently present and the initiation supported and monitored, which in this case, ceased after the 2010 change of the government.

The international and civil organizations of national and international ranks are campaigning for a change in norms. However, instead of separating and isolating so-called women’s issues, gender equality should be present in all policy making and a change in norms should spread into the work culture and issues important for women. This concerns everything from diplomatic recruitment to diplomatic policies that affect women. Nevertheless, a change in norms is only fruitful when accompanied by a change in habits on an individual level.

When I was the Hungarian government’s CEDAW candidate in 2006, the frequently posited question during introductory interviews was whether I had a husband or child, as if my suitability to represent women’s equal opportunities was dependent upon my familial status. It was not. Nor was it in the case of the four “first” female ambassadors either.

In order to change underrepresentation of women in diplomacy, mentor programs offer support. 8 Those who participate in these programs can consult more experienced colleagues from their fields. Because informal mentoring has always been part of the process of selecting a successor and because informal selection favors young men who have established networks, it is not by mistake that women gain from such a formalized program. These mentoring programs render inequalities visible and also represent an institutional commitment to the systematic battle against structural disadvantages. The question concerning mentor programs is how they can achieve successful institutional change and not merely, albeit laudably, cultivate the skills (negotiation skills, communication training, etc.) of particular individuals.

Against biological determinism and a strange understanding of ’merits’

The latest comparative analysis of the Visegrad countries’ diplomatic core reveals that little has changed in women’s representation in diplomatic leadership since the time of the first four female ambassadors: key positions are mainly filled by men. The rhetoric which emphasizes women’s “complementary” role causes more harm than good, and does not represent real structural change.

Abgar, Chodakauskaite, Schwimmer and Kollontai were leaders in international diplomacy because of who they were as people and because of the social transformations of their era. Today in many countries the norms and values attached to women’s participation in diplomacy have undertaken such a transformation. At the same time, the anti-gender movement, which questions whether the differences between the men and women’s situations are social, evoking an argument of biological determinism, has emerged in opposition to the human rights framework. 9 Abgar, Schwimmer, Chodakauskaite and Kollontai’s successors therefore have twice as difficult a role. The changes that have begun in the Visegrad countries, although they will not transform diplomatic institutions fundamentally, may be fruitful in the long run. All this in the midst of the challenges of a new counter-movement, which once again attempts to perpetuate structural inequality by asseverating “merits.”

The full data visualisation is available here. In case you would like to receive the full data set for either country or the whole V4, send us an email at rebecca(at)visegradrevue.eu

The article is part of the project “Learning about causes and effects of gender (im)balance in Central Europe” funded by the European Union flag_yellow_high
The content series was created by the V4Revue, not by the funder.


  1. Women, Diplomacy and International Politics since 1500 (Women’s and Gender History) eds. Glenda Sluga, Carolyn James. (Routledge 2015)
  2. Hilary Charlesworth, “Feminist Methods in International Law”. The American Journal of International Law. (1999). 93 (2): 379-394.
  3. Tibor Gant, “Against all Odds: Vira B. Whitehouse and Rosika Schwimmer in Switzerland in 1918,” American Studies International. Vol. XL: 34-51. (2002)
  4. V4Revue, “(Wo)(men) in V4 diplomatic services“, accessed 7 November, 2015
  5. Embassy Magazin 38. http://www.embassymagazine.com/barometer/bar_issues/emb38_bar.html Accessed 7 November, 2015
  6. Ian Manners, Andrea Pető, “The European Union and the value of gender equality” in Ian Manners, Sonja Lucarelli eds. Values and Principles in European Union Foreign Policy. (Routledge, London, New York, 2006.) 97-113.
  7. “Maguk közt jót mulatnak rajtunk” – Balázs Péter a magyar kormány diplomáciájáról és a menekültválságról”, Magyar Narancs 24 September, 2015 http://magyarnarancs.hu/belpol/maguk-kozt-jot-mulatnak-rajtunk-9657 accessed 7 November, 2015
  8. Andrea Pető, “Mentoring in Science: a Difficult Experiment” in Women Up! Political, Business and Academic Perspectives on Women’s Representation. A Transatlantic Gender Dialogue. ed. Judit Tanczos (FEPS, Brussels, 2013) 129-137.
  9. See more in Gender as Symbolic Glue. The Position and Role of Conservative and Far Right Parties in the Anti-Gender Mobilisation in Europe. eds. Eszter Kovats, Maari Poim, (FEPS, FES, Brussels, 2015) On-line: http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/budapest/11382.pdf accessed on 7 November, 2015
Andrea Pető

Andrea Pető

is a Professor at the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University and Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She serves on the board of several journals in the field of women's history (Gender and History, Clio) and Contemporary European History. President of the gender and women’s history section of the Hungarian Historical Association and the Feminist Section of the Hungarian Sociological Association. She was awarded by President of the Hungarian Republic with the Officer’s Cross Order of Merit of The Republic of Hungary in 2005 and Bolyai Prize by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 2006.