Do women make a difference as foreign policy actors?

Sylvia Bashevkin, Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto

Sylvia Bashevkin, Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto

Sylvia Bashevkin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. She visited Bristol University’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) last week as the Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor.

Scholars in the UK and elsewhere have spent lots of time studying women’s contributions to legislative politics. Whether they focus on attention to child care and anti-violence policy or the better tone of debate that often follows from electing more women, researchers generally conclude that larger numbers do matter.

One angle that deserves closer attention involves women’s clout in the political executive. The growing concentration of power in the hands of prime ministers and senior members of cabinet means legislators are less and less influential. Even when backbenchers had more power than they now command, the political executive’s ability to shape decisions in areas such as international relations far exceeded that of parliament. For one thing, foreign ministers and the prime ministers who appoint them have long enjoyed access to all kinds of confidential intelligence reports and military briefings that never reach average MPs – let alone members of the general public.

Asking how women operate in top jobs in global politics opens a fascinating window on ties between public officials and social movements.  One key finding about legislators is that female MPs from the progressive side of the political spectrum often champion feminist issue agendas after they’re elected. What about female cabinet ministers? Do appointees in the foreign policy field work to direct their country’s international aid spending, for example, toward women in the global South?

Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, 1997 - 2003. © Faizan Bhat

Clare Short, UK Secretary of State for International Development, 1997 – 2003. © Faizan Bhat

Thanks to support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, I’ve been able to pursue this question in a systematic way. What I find is:

  • Firstly, over time, we see more women holding senior foreign policy positions in Western industrialized countries, including the UK.
  • Secondly, countries with relatively high numbers of women in international relations cabinet posts (such as Sweden, Norway and the US) also tend to be among the most generous toward pro-equality foreign aid initiatives.
  • Thirdly, and conversely, countries such as France and Italy with historically low levels of women in senior foreign policy jobs have been more modest in their support for equality programmes in the global South.

For countries like the UK in the middle of the distribution, which party is in power seems to make a major difference. The arrival of New Labour in 1997 brought not only more female MPs and cabinet ministers, but also a decisive change in how foreign aid was targeted. In both 2001 and 2006, per capita pro-equality spending in Britain surpassed that of Sweden as well as the US and was second only to Norway. In short, the presence of more progressive women at the foreign policy table had a measurable effect on the directions of British overseas aid. The fact that a similar pattern occurred in other places such as Finland suggests left-of-centre women in wealthier countries can make a difference to how development funds are distributed.

A final question my study posed was, “Who talks about equality issues?” The quick answer is that, on average, female appointees to top diplomatic jobs such as foreign minister or UN ambassador spoke much more than their male counterparts. I focused on Finland, Sweden and the US, three countries that named multiple women to these posts for considerable periods of time since 1976, and compared about a dozen women with their male counterparts. These numbers are small because the numbers in the real world are small – and even tinier in other nations. The trend is striking nevertheless: women were far more likely to use extensive pro-equality rhetoric than men, and progressive appointees from social movement backgrounds were at the high end of the distribution.

Responses to these findings can vary widely but the key takeaway is clear. Females in senior international relations jobs in wealthier countries potentially affect much more than the look of a government’s front bench. They can make a difference to how the foreign aid budget is shaped, and to what gets talked about by senior decision-makers. In so doing, they are able to affect the lives of women and girls in faraway places.