For the aspiring professional female, the intense world of foreign affairs and international relations, mostly male-dominated professions, can seem intimidating. However, there are people motivated to change that. Throughout the past week, the Lumsden Leadership Summit organised various talks covering a range of disciplines, aimed at showcasing a collaboration of successful women from a diverse range of fields. Dr. Roxani Krystalli, our own professor at St Andrews, extensively researches topics such as Feminist peace and conflict, and facilitated the conference, which featured a range of women with a huge depth of experience. This included Anna Walters (currently based in Kenya with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office), Dr. Elisabeth Kendall (based in Oxford University and Yemen, as a Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies) and, Ellen Wong (Principal Officer of the U.S. Consulate General in Edinburgh). Whilst international relations may not be for everyone, the conference raised a multitude of issues and experiences which transcend the field and are applicable for any female wishing to succeed in a male-dominated field.
The common issue surrounding the tendency for women to underestimate their abilities was a clear theme recognised by all the contributors, who emphasized the need to overcome this sense of imposter syndrome. Whilst certainly not only affecting women, self-doubt and uncertainty are perhaps inherently female tendencies as feeling out of place in a man’s world. Dr. Krystalli highlights her fear of ‘walking too far off the map’ when selecting a career, recalling the sense of loneliness she felt in straying from the path of law and investment banking, instead opting to work in peacekeeping in Guatemala. However, she disregards this fear – the map is simply not fixed. The need for bravery is further backed up by Anna Walters, who notes the need to adopt a more fearless attitude when applying for certain career positions. This sense of encouragement in paving a new path is further illustrated by Ellen Wong, who notes the excitement and power in being among the first woman in a certain field. Ellen mentions an added sense of responsibility, in that ‘you are representing people who are not there’. Dr. Kendall, unfortunately, admits there is the need for a woman to be just ‘a bit better’ within the workplace. We must do more than men, to be regarded as their equal. Interestingly, Anna Walters added that gender may not always be a limitation. She urges us to ‘take advantage’ of it, demonstrating how as a female she was allowed increased access to hearing female Rohingya refugees’ stories, in Bangladesh, whilst men were barred, thereby sharing some similarities with Dr. Kendall and her experiences in Yemen.
And the best part a job in international relations brings? All women’s answers illustrated the dynamic and interesting nature their jobs provided, at times detailing with the weird and wonderful. There appeared to be a real sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, whether through seeing a greater inclusion of women, enforcing global standards, experiencing a fresh set of views within the scholarly world, or promoting cross-cultural relationships and alliances. You might think, what’s the point of talking about a jet-setting job as we sit at home? Indeed, whilst recognising we are all too painfully familiar of the bad and the boring the pandemic has brought on, the discussion panel set forth the positives it may bring. Dr. Kendall illustrated its effects in a new light, highlighting how moving online and engaging remotely in peace talks, has provided new opportunities and increased accessibility without travel as an issue. She notes the new ‘opportunity to include huge roomfuls of women and ask their views’ from marginalised communities.
In addition to providing greater accessibility, there is also a strong sense that the pandemic has improved out ability to develop and build a skill set that may be applied in future situations. Its unpredictable nature may improve flexibility skills – a key skill required, as Anna highlights in working for the Commonwealth, by having to move regularly for job postings, Dr. Krystalli further agreed with the idea that we can use this situation as a means of growth and development. She notes that whilst travel has barred certain opportunities, passion for a certain cause can be applied within a national, or local, context. It was interesting insight, reinforcing the huge variation of the female experience across the world. Too often, we associate the term ‘women’ as a generalisation that sums up all women, and all experiences – we fight for all womenkind. We should instead reject this simplification and consider women’s experiences as hugely varied, whilst recognising there are certain commonalities.
A conference dealing with important matters such as the difficulties of female representation, and challenges brought by our current unique situation, it still undeniably possessed an atmosphere of hope. The presence of four successful women, inspiring a new generation, is a strong testament to the opportunities possible – even if they seem hard to obtain.