Lived Experiences

Sources: Getty Images, Vicki Huddleston

The women we interviewed made decisions that have altered the arc of US foreign policy. Ambassador Patterson was one of the leaders of the US foreign policy towards the Arab Spring in Egypt. Ms. Paula Doyle coordinated the Intelligence Community’s response to Edward Snowden’s theft and defection to Russia. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield and Ambassador White helped Liberia rebuild after its civil war. The list goes on—including thousands of tiny decisions that would go on to have massive importance for the history of world politics. The women did not go into this career for acclaim over making these extraordinary decisions, but rather for the sense that every action they took had weight.

It’s not a career without its challenges, though. The women we spoke to have been taken hostage, hijacked, and had their personal residences wiretapped. Aside from these security concerns, which can impact Officers regardless of their gender, there are particular challenges that arise for women. For example, women in powerful leadership positions can face enmity and ire from their male colleagues and subordinates. Upon arriving at the War College in 1991 for a course, Ambassador Liberi discovered that she, the only woman on the team, outranked all of the military men in her group. In accordance with military hierarchy, she was named the group’s leader, a fact that many of male colonels explicitly took issue with (listen to the audio clip below).

You don’t go into the State Department for glory or fame…[but] you know that you are always working on something that’s critically important. And sometimes when you are working on the ‘least important’ country you are actually doing some the most important work because you don’t know where the next problem is coming from.

Ambassador Barbara Bodine
“I had one marine colonel come up to me, very explicitly, and say to me, ‘You’re now ruining my chances for being on track to be General Officer for as fast as I would have liked to have been. Who are you to take this opportunity away from me?”
Ambassador Liberi

Whilst men might believe that women are robbing them of promotions, history has shown the opposite is more likely. It is not uncommon for women to be looked over for promotions in favor of less qualified male colleagues. In her interview, Ambassador Ries describes her “long, slow rise” in the Foreign Service. She was discriminated against for a promotion and, although she didn’t seek legal recourse herself, she would later received a settlement as part of the Palmer suit against the State Department. Ambassador White spent years with her name on the list of people A.I.D wanted to promote to an ambassadorship but was repeatedly passed over in favor of men. Eventually, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton would come to visit Liberia and witness White in action, later remarking: ‘This is what I want to see, this kind of intellect between top-notch professionals’. White was subsequently nominated for an Ambassadorship (listen to the audio clip below).

“Every year USAID puts up 4-5 names of people that they think would be great ambassadors. My name had been on that list for 7 or 8 years. Normally, the list goes over to State and they pick one name, normally a man, and throw the rest in the trash” (play audio for full story).
Ambassador White

The frequency with which qualified women are passed over for promotions demonstrates the importance of affirmative action systems. They do not give women a leg up, but rather ensure that women are recognized for their achievements, which might otherwise go overlooked. Ambassador Raphel noted that in the 1980s the State Department decided that in order to keep up with the growing pressure to put women in senior positions, it would require every Bureau to have a female Deputy Assistant Secretary. This “affirmative action” effort did indeed recognize capable women, but as Ambassador Raphel observed: “If the State Department had just had an ordinary merit system, these women would have been in those jobs at least five years ago.” 

“If they had just had an ordinary merit system, these women would have been in those jobs at least five years ago.”
Ambassador Raphel

The challenges women faced for acknowledgement of their leadership capabilities are likely the result of the fact that the highest tiers of the government have, for a long time, been the domain of men. This systematic bias leads women, particularly women of color, to feel they must perform “ten times better” than their male counterparts. Whilst white men are presumed to be capable, women have to fight for similar recognition and repeat this battle every time they enter a new work environment. As Ambassador Pamela Spratlen explains, If you are not in the mainstream of what a leader looks like in your time, you have to think about that, and you have to put a lot of thought into the confidence of people so that they will trust you and work with you.

This double standard is exhausting, leading many of our interviewees to instead embrace their own ways of projecting authority. For example, some women leveraged the weight of being ‘the Ambassador from the United States’ to gain respect and recognition and superimposed this identity over their identities as women. To project her authority, Ambassador Brazeal tried a difference method — adopting the practice of carrying a ‘Chief Stick’ from the Kenyan culture (listen to the audio clip below).

When I walked in the room I never walked in the room as a woman, I walked in the room as the American representative.

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
“In Kenya, the president would carry a chief stick, so I would always carry one too… women had never seen a woman with a chief stick… but, I always carried it because I was trying to talk to both women and men.” Ambassador Brazeal

Particularly true in higher levels of government, a woman’s appearance — her dress, hair, shoe preference — is disproportionately surveilled in comparison to that of her male counterpart’s. Male politicians can look ‘serious’ and ‘professional’ in Levi’s jeans and a button-down with the sleeves rolled up while women, on the other hand, are expected to locate the perfect balance between “appealing and powerful, strong but not overbearing, confident but not arrogant.” 

Generally, females are more susceptible to an evaluation of their looks than their male counterparts, who can more confidently expect to be judged by their merit and competency. A 1979 Washington Post article about Ambassador Sally Shelton-Colby reads: “one of the unspoken difficulties in seeing her as an ambassador may be her looks […] Always fashionably and flatteringly dressed, with shoulder-length brown hair, green eyes, and a slim figure, she does not look like the traditional pinstriped diplomat. She is probably the first ambassador to be 5 feet 3 inches tall and resemble Natalie Wood.”

The 1979 article alludes to an “occupational hazard” for career women– the reality that a woman’s image can sometimes supersede the substance of her contributions. Nevertheless, Ambassador Shelton-Colby said to us that she has “always felt that professionalism isn’t about whether or not you wear a suit and tie or a dress and heels. What counts is what comes out of your mouth.” Several of our interviewees, acutely aware of this double standard, explained how they leveraged the power of fashion, demonstrating professionalism whilst maintaining a sense of autonomy. “We play power games our own way…we just use stilettos instead of broadswords,” explains Ambassador Bodine. Increasingly so, women understand the role of fashion and the potential uses of its power. Women are less confined to the “traditional, pinstriped” image than their male counterparts. In 1979, this may have been considered an occupational hazard. Today, this means women have more freedom to pick and choose which image(s) they would like to project and to whom. Call it ‘sartorial diplomacy,’ if you like.

Ambassador Pamela Spratlen at 2017 embassy event (US Embassy Tashkent); Ambassador Anne W. Patterson in Pakistan with Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed (US Dept. of State); Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield with Secretary of State John Kerry (US Dept. of State).

For a long time, diplomatic affairs were conducted over drinks between men, a tradition women were often excluded from. Ambassador Bodine was once told that she couldn’t be a political officer because, as a woman, she would solicit unwanted speculation if she asked men out for drinks, a supposedly essential part of the job. Although initially disappointed by this statement, Ambassador Bodine quickly discovered the art of lunch. Ambassador Brazeal similarly embraced lunch as her diplomatic arena during her time in Japan — when it came time to order a shot of sake, she would often pour it out in a nearby flower pot. Even at lunch these women still had to contend with gendered assumptions, like the common practice in the restaurant industry of giving the man at the table the check. To circumvent this, Ambassador Schaffer made a habit of getting to the restaurant early to request that the maître d’ bring the check straight to her.

Gendered expectations infiltrated other parts of the women’s careers. Many were assumed to be secretaries. Ambassador Brazeal, however, leveraged this sexism to her advantage. While she was working at the State Department’s Economic Bureau, she was able to sneak into important meetings between Japanese officials and AID under the guise of a ‘notetaker’ (listen to audio clip below). Eventually, Ambassador Brazeal would become a secretary—the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific.

“I was in the Economic Bureau in the Office of Development and Finance and so we worked very closely with AID…I had a friend in AID so he would call me up and say ‘Oh, so and so is meeting with the Japanese’ and so I would pick up my steno pad and rush off to the guy’s office. He thought I was a notetaker, but I was from the State Department.” Ambassador Brazeal

Being underestimated would also come to serve Ambassador Huddleston well during her time working on Cuban-American relations. At a dinner party one night, Fidel Castro, knowing full well that she was the leader of the Washington office on Cuba, asked if she was “someone’s spouse.” When Ambassador Huddleston eventually assumed the role of Chief of the US Interests section (essentially, the US Ambassador to Cuba), she would come to find that Fidel’s assumptions about her gender were an advantage. Fidel Castro was pleased to have a woman in the job. He considered women less threatening and, thus, as Ambassador Huddleston reflects, she had an easier time maneuvering in Cuba.


“I ran into some sexism in the department, but where [being a woman] was such as great asset was when I was Chief of Mission… Fidel Castro preferred women (laughs) he found them less threatening. Fidel was always in competition with men, so being a woman made it easier for me to maneuver in Cuba.”
Ambassador Huddleston

“When I first got to Kuwait and was having to do my obligatory calls, I remember going in to see their Assistant Secretary for International Organizations. We ended up talking for an hour and 45 mins. My political officer said: ‘We’ve never gotten more than five sentences out of that man and you’ve gotten his entire life story.’”

Ambassador Barbara Bodine

Diplomacy, after all, is a people business. The female ambassadors we spoke with are exceptionally talented in leveraging their social and interpersonal skills to form diplomatic relationships and forge trust within the local community. Additionally, several female diplomats mentioned their distinct ability to more comfortably speak with local women in more conservative, host societies. Thus, they were able to access a significant layer in the fabric of that community, a dimension oft neglected by male colleagues.

 In the CIA, being a woman could also prove advantageous at times. The CIA often asks their operatives to perform difficult tasks with confidence and caution, as well as empathy and firmness. Ms. Paula Doyle found that men often had a difficult time showing empathy with their assets; questions like, “are you scared?” coming from a man risked sounding competitive or demeaning. Ms. Doyle said she could ask such questions without drawing ire;  these types of important questions gave assets opportunities, “to acknowledge their fears and concerns,” and allowed Ms. Doyle to bring her “humanness and empathy into these intensely consequential clandestine relationships.”

“When I traveled in South Asia, outside of the capital, I had opportunities to speak to the women and the men. American men didn’t have this opportunity… If what you want to do is understand the society in which you are working, you kind of want to get both sides of the story.”
Ambassador Schaffer

Historically, your chances at getting your foot in the door of the State Department as a woman were slim. Not too long ago, you would likely have been passed over for a promotion that you deserved. Today, it’s possible you will still be called ‘abrasive’ when you express ambition, dubbed ‘shrill’ when you raise your voice. The clothes you pick out in the morning might still be subject to a disproportionate amount of surveillance. The list goes on. Perhaps Ambassador Ries’ former boss put it best: ‘There are certain disadvantages to being a woman…so you should use the advantages.’

The ambassadors we interviewed offer compelling testimonials that women contribute important qualities and skills to the Foreign Service. Some have used stereotypes traditionally ascribed to women to their advantage, leveraging their ‘non-threatening’ roles in favor of strengthened, diplomatic relations. Others forged bonds with women within the local communities and gained access to another dimension of the host culture. That said, women should not be appointed to leadership positions in this field because they are social butterflies who are often socially trained to be more empathetic or better peace-makers. Women should be appointed to leadership positions because they deserve to represent their country just as much as men do.

“Sometimes, yes it’s because you’re being dismissed. But, you know you know which questions to ask, you know what you’re doing there. If they are going to treat me that way, even subconsciously, I’ll use it.” Ambassador Bodine on women being considered ‘non-threatening.’

Can women have it all?

Women in leadership positions often come across this question. Raising a family is not for every woman. However, for those who want to have children and also pursue a career in the Foreign Service, here are personal accounts from two former US Ambassadors:

Ambassador Teresita C. Schaffer and her late husband, Ambassador Howard B. Schaffer, were one of the very first tandems (couples that serve together) in the State Department. The first time when Amb. Schaffer went overseas with her husband, she was on leave without pay, taking care of two tiny kids. She explains that the ‘balancing act’ was relatively easier in posts like Delhi and Islamabad than it was in Washington because she had ample household help. Moving through different posts around the world may cause certain disruptions and Amb. Schaffer advises that “at every point when you’re moving, you, the couple, must figure out what your priorities are and be transparent about it.”

Ambassador Schaffer recalls notifying her boss that she would have to leave work early to attend a parent-teacher conference. Her boss, a woman, commented that ten years earlier, she would have gone to the meeting – but made up some other reason for being out of the office.

Beyond coordinating household arrangements in embassies abroad and scheduling parent teacher conferences, female ambassadors also have to consider the implications a life in the Foreign Service may have on their children. Ambassador Vicki Huddleston gave birth to her daughter in Sierra Leone. While extraordinary, her children’s early life experiences made it difficult for them to connect with their peers back home in the States and the adjustment was not easy. Upon reflection, Ambassador Huddleston shares that her children often wished they had more time with their mother, who was posted overseas during their high school and college years. She wishes that she would have been more attentive to them but also understands that her career was essential for her happiness: it “wouldn’t be good [for my kids] if their mother was unhappy, either.”

“I wish I had been more attuned to just how difficult that adjustment can be [for children upon returning back to the US].” Ambassador Huddleston

It was really demanding to feel like you could give your family what they needed at the same time as doing 150% at work.

Ambassador Marcie B. Ries