Women Lead the Way in Ambassador Series Launch

“Women of the world today live in a period of disruption and reckoning.” And as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright remarked, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

These were the opening remarks of Asia Society Philippines Executive Director, Suyin Liu Lee, referring to the global movements geared towards women empowerment such as #TimesUp, #HeForShe, and #MeToo. Often, these movements began with a brave individual – a single voice that was courageous enough to break the mold, inspiring others to follow suit.

It was a perfect foreshadowing for the five exceptional women who graced the Ambassador Series: Women in Diplomacy on March 13 – Ambassador Kok Li Peng (Singapore), Ambassador Aruni Ranaraja (Sri Lanka), Ambassador Andrea Reichlin (Switzerland), Ambassador Esra Cankorur (Turkey), and former Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Delia Albert. Together, the Ambassadors were shining examples of women of women empowerment, disruptors in the field of Foreign Service, which, by tradition, sees more male than female representation.

Held in partnership with Manila House, The Ambassador Series: Women in Diplomacy was Asia Society Philippines’ inaugural event for the slew of Women’s Month celebrations. In the first installment of the series, the all-female panel discussed how diplomacy plays a pivotal role in Women’s Rights.

The event began with a keynote address by Ambassador Albert, who shared her experiences as a woman in Foreign Service. After years of serving as a career diplomat, Ambassador Albert went on to break even more gender norms when she became Chairwoman of the United Nations Security Council in 2003, an impressive feat done through hard work and determination.

“People asked me, what was it like to be a woman and Chair of the UN Security Council? I tell them that it’s no big deal,” quipped Ambassador Albert.


On Women’s Rights in Their Country

Individual presentations by the Ambassadors included advancements made on women’s rights, bridging the gender gap, and women empowerment. According to them, while plenty of action has been taken to improve these issues, the need to progress is still very high.


“The cultivation of Human Rights begins with family,” said Ambassador Cankorur, positing how improvements could be made. “Proper education is needed to minimize prejudice.”


“What attitudes and can we adopt [towards each other] in today’s circumstances?” asked Ambassador Kok Li Peng.


Ambassador Reichlin of Switzerland, whose country ranked significantly high in terms of Gender Equality according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap, highlighted the steps her country was making to further progress by introducing the Women’s Human Rights App. The app, a product of the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs, acted as a tool that grants the public access to relevant documents to the rights of women.


Despite these advancements, the Ambassador noted that progress moving too slow—and even reversing.


“It will take another 68 years for gender equality to be realized,” said Ambassador Reichlin. “We have to take action.”



On Being Women in Diplomacy


Ana P. Santos gracefully presided over the panel discussion that followed, allowing for more insight on the Ambassadors’ personal experiences. Like many other predominantly-male industries, women in the field of diplomacy have experiences that are unique from their male counterparts.


Ambassador Ranaraja, being the first female Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the Philippines, shared how her embassy had to grow accustomed to having a female representative.


“I was called ‘Sir’ by my personnel,” said Ambassador Ranaraja. “I had to change the attitude of the embassy. I told them, ‘we have to work as a team!’”


Ambassador Albert shifted the discussion to the topic of gender neutrality – rather than gender equality – for a society that is inclusive of both men and women.


She posited that the field of diplomacy is “gender-blind”, since credit is given based on merit and not gender.


Following suit, Ambassador Cankorur, whose embassy consists mainly of women, asserted that “all careers should be regardless of gender.” According to Ambassador Cankorur, if people are hardworking and determined, they can get the job done, whether male or female. As the field of diplomacy is a “career of idealism”, dedication for the country should be the main basis for success.

Singapore’s Kok Li Peng added to this, saying that she wanted “as much diversity on her team” as possible, and that gender shouldn’t be seen as an inhibitor of potential.


“If we contest what each of us is capable of doing, it will only be a race to the bottom,” Ambassador Li Peng said.


Beacons for Change


May-i Fabros, Foreign Service Officer IV with the Department of Foreign Affairs, wrapped up the event with a reflection on how the characteristics of women that were traditionally seen as burdens – such as the stereotype of multitasking – can actually act as strengths that allow women to be dynamic, multi-faceted individuals.


“Maybe women do make better diplomats,” said Fabros.


Santos then thanked the ambassadors for acting as inspirations – noting that, because of them, young women are encouraged to break societal norms by relying on their abilities, and not letting their gender inhibit them.


“Because of these women, it probably never occurred to the girls of today to think of a time where the term ‘Her Excellency’ didn’t exist,” Santos concluded.



Text by Andrea Trinidad