The Glass Ceiling in the Russian Foreign Service

By Anastasia Karimova

Russia has only one female diplomat among 131 ambassadors. Women head only three out of 40 departments of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All of the eleven vice-ministers of foreign affairs are male. What is to be done to destroy the glass ceiling in Russian diplomacy?
High-ranking Russian diplomats tend to deny systematic discrimination, saying that women are allowed to pursue a diplomatic career but are simply “not interested in it.” Those diplomats do not usually mention that in the USSR women were banned from admission to the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). One could not become a Soviet or Russian career diplomat if he or she did not graduate from this institution. Most of the current high-ranking diplomats started their careers in the era of that gender-based restriction.

Thus, foreign service remains predominantly male, and the diplomatic culture itself is quite masculine and patriarchal. “The spouses of diplomats are expected to follow them during their long-term work abroad. If a female diplomat is married and should work at an embassy for several years, her spouse might follow her, but the staff of the embassy would perceive him as henpecked husband,” a Russian diplomat, who works in Central Africa said. He anonymously shared his observations with me on Facebook.

“When I was interning with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, my boss treated me in a very condescending way. He said that I should find a husband and become a diplomat’s wife instead of making my own career,” a recent MGIMO female alumna complained after finally deciding to pursue a career in the private sector.

The benefits of women’s participation in diplomacy are measurable. When women are included in a peace process, the resulting peace agreement is 20 percent more likely to last at least two years, the International Peace Institute reported in 2015. Women’s participation has an even greater impact in the longer term: a peace agreement is 35 percent more likely to last for fifteen years if women participate in its creation.

Finally, women’s presence in public diplomacy roles could improve the image of Russian diplomacy: it could show that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a modern and representative diplomatic institution.

This change might require some affirmative action from the government. Quotas for women could be helpful here, but they are not sufficient. They should go together with mentorship and educational programs for future female diplomats, as well as with the establishment of a strong office for diversity within the Russian foreign service that could advocate for female workers and protect them from discriminatory practices in the workplace.

Anastasia Karimova is Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate, class of 2018. She is focused on human security and international organizations. Before Fletcher, she was a journalist and civic activist in Russia. She runs her own page on gender, called Not Mars, Not Venus, which is currently the most popular pro-feminist page in the Russian segment of Facebook. She also writes op-eds on gender issues for Russian mass media, e.g. Cosmopolitan Russia.

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