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2007 Press Releases

Women Ambassadors Discuss Life in the Foreign Service in Panel Discussion Marking Women’s History Month

Group of people sitting.

Four women Ambassadors, representing the United States, Iceland, Sweden, and Canada, described the challenges they faced as women in the diplomatic service to an audience of 50 students and faculty at the University of Iceland March 29. 

The panel discussion was sponsored by the University’s Institute of International Affairs to mark Women’s History Month.

U.S. Ambassador Carol van Voorst recounted how, 20 years ago, she was asked by the State Department to talk to university women to encourage them to enter the Foreign Service. “When I had finished, they had all decided to go to work on Wall Street. Twenty years passed until the Department asked me to participate in a similar event,” she said.

She said that until the mid 1970s women had to quit their jobs when they married because it was assumed that women could not manage both a full-time job and a household.  It required a court ruling in a women’s class action suit charging the State Department with discrimination to significantly improve the position of women in the Foreign Service.   She noted that in the last decade two women, Secretary Albright and Secretary Rice, have led the Department of State.  Ambassador van Voorst said that currently 34 percent of diplomats are women, and predicted that women will play an ever important role in the Foreign Service as more and more enter and greater numbers reach senior positions. 

Ambassador van Voorst said that working in the diplomatic corps can be a difficult career for a woman with a family, especially if this includes teenage children or a working spouse, because of the regular assignments to different countries.  She noted that a growing number of overseas assignments are unaccompanied, which present another challenge for families.  

Swedish Ambassador Madeleine Stroja-Wilkens said that when she first applied for the job in the diplomatic service there were 1000 applicants and 16 were selected, of which only two were women.   She said there should be more women in the diplomatic services since they are good leaders and negotiators, less hierarchical than men, and more practical.

Iceland is the first Ambassadorial assignment for Anna Blauveldt from Canada.  She worked for 33 years in Canada’s Federal Government before her posting to Iceland.. In Canada there are 131 ambassadors, 33 are women or 25%.

Ambassador Sigriður Snævarrr began working in Iceland’s diplomatic corps in 1978 and became the first woman Ambassador for Iceland at the age of 26 when she was assigned to the Soviet Union.  She said her experience has been that things just don’t just happen in life, but that they are the result of hard work. She said it was very difficult for her, at that age, to be an Ambassador in a communist country.