International Day for Women in Diplomacy: A Conversation with Ambassador Pamela L. Spratlen

June 24, 2024
Ambassador Pamela L. Spratlen smiles into the camera. She is sitting in a brightly lit office in front of a window and a plant. She is wearing glasses and a bright pink shirt.

Ambassador Pamela L. Spratlen is the chair of Eurasia Foundation’s board of trustees and former US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Ahead of the International Day for Women in Diplomacy, June 24, Eurasia Foundation interviewed Ambassador Spratlen about women’s role in advancing diplomacy both formally and informally.

Why is it important to have women in diplomacy?

“Well, first of all, let me say a word about what diplomacy is. I think diplomacy is the art and the practice of trying to figure out how we are all going to get along together in this world, at the individual level, at the community level, and, most importantly for diplomacy formally, at the national level. Because the conflicts of the world affect everyone, women need to be part of the solution. Over time, really starting with World War Two and its aftermath, women started to come into diplomacy. I would note the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was the first statement that everybody in this world has rights, and the same rights. A woman was part of that. Women were part of that. So that’s what diplomacy is, and a good example of a woman who was in diplomacy.

“Since that time, I think the role of women has only grown in diplomacy. Not fast enough, but we need women in diplomacy. The number one reason is to make sure that everybody is represented and that we include a broader array of questions. For millennia, diplomacy was about sending runners to organize trade or to engage in treaties after a war, and that was the business of men for the most part. Of course, there were women heads of state, like queens and empresses and so on. But in general, it was the purview of men. Now, given the complex questions of the world, we need everybody’s voice and women need to be part of that. And we hope men will be supportive of women in diplomacy.

“For the United States, of course, we’re very fortunate to have had three Secretaries of State who were women: Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton. I think they have all been wonderful examples of people who have helped move women forward. I also think there are more and more senior level officials who are women. And that’s also very, very important. Hillary Clinton, well before she was secretary of state, went to the UN Conference on Women in 1995. When she said that human rights were women’s rights and women’s rights were human rights, that was a game changer. It really did signal that we want to put women on the map.

“Then, in the year 2000, UN Resolution 1325 said that women need to be at the center of all issues of peace and security, including being representatives of delegations. Now women are heads of state, women are ambassadors. There are many, many more women in positions of leadership and diplomacy. But we still have a very long way to go. We have over 200 countries in the world. Very few have had women heads of state. Not so many are ambassadors. That’s changing. But the United States still hasn’t had a female head of state. Maybe someday.

“So, why do we need women in diplomacy? We need women in diplomacy because we need the voices of everyone. We need girls to see, in terms of representation, that they can be a part of the world, and that the kinds of questions that are going to get asked, the kinds of questions that are going to be addressed, begin to change when women are included in the equation.”

In your role as Ambassador, how have you seen women across the world contributing to diplomacy through informal roles, particularly in civil society?

“I think one of the things that Eurasia Foundation can be very proud of is its role in promoting the participation of citizens in a government or in their societies to try to make things better. And I, as a person who served for 30 years in the State Department, had the opportunity to see people changing their societies every day. That was true in all of the countries that I served in. And I served in some countries where the role of civil society is still very much in development. But there are certain issues that lend themselves particularly well to the involvement of civil society—issues like [the inclusion of] people with disabilities, issues of improving the situation with respect to trafficking in persons.

“Those are the issues that I think are ones where women have been particularly prominent, where I’ve seen them. There have been women who have been active in civil society as journalists, people who have been active in basic human rights. I’ve had the opportunity to watch women develop in civil society all over, and it makes a huge difference. I was very heartened to serve in the Kyrgyz Republic at a time when civil society was extremely well developed, and it shows that the roots are definitely there for civil society development in Central Asia more generally. But women have been involved in helping count votes, the observation of elections by people from inside the country. So there are many, many areas in which I’ve had the opportunity to see women showing their courage, showing their smarts, showing their political savvy as they try to make things better in their societies.”

How can Eurasia Foundation help to center more women in international decision making?

“I think Eurasia Foundation, when it comes to women in decision making, already has some kudos to its credit. One that I was involved in last year, which was my first year serving as the chair of the board, was a program called the Fellowship for Women Changemakers. It was an opportunity for Eurasia Foundation, first of all, to honor its long serving chair, Sarah Carey, by giving the Sarah Carey Award to the Ambassador of Ukraine here in the United States, Ambassador Oksana Markarova. Ambassador Markarova is doing a superb job here in this country, and she opened the Ukraine House to this event. There were three additional honorees: one from Uzbekistan, one from Kazakhstan, and one from one from Ukraine. And all of these people are women. So it was an event that was sponsored by Eurasia Foundation, very much with women at the center. I think that kind of thing is a good example of how Eurasia Foundation can use its resources and its own history to make sure that women are at the center.

“I think another way is thinking about the way that the organization selects its projects. The question is, what kinds of rules, what kinds of procedures and standards are being used to make decisions about the selection of projects, about the kind of projects to pursue. Having the mindset that women’s issues are important at the beginning [of that process] is important, regardless of who is in the room. And I think that’s another way in which Eurasia Foundation has and can continue to put women at the center.

“This is really not the work only of Eurasia Foundation, of course. This is the work of societies as a whole, to make sure that we are giving proper attention to the needs and the roles and the capabilities of women in development and in diplomacy.”

As a committed advocate for women and people of color and diplomacy, what specific measures do you believe should be implemented to create a more inclusive and diverse diplomatic workforce? How can these measures help address both gender and racial disparities?

“First of all, there’s a process of education so that young girls know that this kind of career in both development and diplomacy is possible. All the programs that give people greater awareness of what their possibilities are are important. Eurasia Foundation is involved in some of those. I also think making sure that mass media is showcasing the role of women as diplomats—there’s actually a television program that has done that—is very helpful.

“It’s also things like having women on boards, having women as directors. Eurasia Foundation is, I think, privileged to have a superb CEO in Lisa Coll and to have been led by a woman for the last few years. That’s extremely important, and a great example not only for the women of this organization, but the NGO sector in general. Our board also has many women on it. And we take pains to think about how our board is composed, to be sure that the perspectives of women and various groups are included in that. We have a wonderful board that is diverse in many, many ways in terms of its professional achievements, in terms of the backgrounds of the individuals who are on the board. It’s something we think about as we select board members, just as I know Eurasia Foundation considers as it selects employees.

“But beyond Eurasia Foundation, I think the most important thing is for the State Department—since we’re talking about diplomacy—to continue some of the programs that they already have that tell young women that they this is something that they can do. And most of all, to make sure that women are in positions of leadership and authority in organizations where diplomacy is important. It is important that Samantha Power heads the US Agency for International Development. It is important that Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield is the US representative at the United Nations. We need to see more women in positions of leadership and authority, because that’s one of the best ways of showing that diplomacy is where women belong.”

What are your hopes for future generations of women in diplomacy?

“My hope for women in diplomacy is that the numbers continue to grow. Because while I can be optimistic about many things that are happening now, the reality is that women are still all too rare in positions of authority. There are not many women who are foreign ministers around the world. There are not many women who are diplomats around the world. The United States is not doing too badly when it comes to women as ambassadors. But we need to have many, many more women to represent their countries, to represent their ministries, to represent the policies that their countries are pursuing. It goes back to what I said before about the need for education, the need for public awareness, and most of all, the need for representation in every aspect of diplomacy, from the earliest parts of the pipeline when people are first beginning to the crucial mid-level, and then to the senior levels, where people are actually making decisions about policy and making decisions about who will represent the country. So that needs to continue, and I hope it will.

“I’m also optimistic about the role of particularly young women in diplomacy. With Greta Thunberg, I think we all think differently about climate change and what is happening in the world because of the example that she has set. And if we go back to the past and we think about the uprisings in Soweto in 1976, that was young people, including young women, who were at the forefront. I hope that, because activism really is so important in every society and helping it change, that we will continue to see many young women in the world of activism and also ultimately in the world of diplomacy. I think both are very, very important.”