By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2010; A01
In the gated Oman Embassy off Massachusetts Avenue, Washington's first female ambassador from an Arab country, Hunaina Sultan Al-Mughairy, sat at her desk looking over a speech aimed at erasing misconceptions about her Muslim nation.
A few blocks away inside a stately Dupont Circle mansion, India's first female ambassador in more than 50 years, Meera Shankar, huddled with top aides after her prime minister's state visit with President Obama.
Nearby, in a century-old residence with its own ballroom, Latin America's only female ambassador in Washington, Colombia's Carolina Barco, dashed back from talking up free trade on Capitol Hill to showcase her country's culture and food.
There are 25 female ambassadors posted in Washington -- the highest number ever, according to the State Department.
"This is breaking precedent," said Selma "Lucky" Roosevelt, a former U.S. chief of protocol.
Women remain a distinct minority -- there are 182 accredited ambassadors in Washington -- but their rise from a cadre of five in the late 1990s to five times that is opening up what had been an elite's men club for more than a century.
A key reason is the increase in the number of top U.S. diplomats who are women, what some call the "Hillary effect."
"Hillary Clinton is so visible" as secretary of state, said Amelia Matos Sumbana, who just arrived as ambassador from Mozambique. "She makes it easier for presidents to pick a woman for Washington."
Three of the last four secretaries of state -- the office that receives foreign ambassadors -- have been women.
Madeleine Albright became the first female U.S. secretary of state in 1997. Condoleezza Rice served from 2005 to 2009.
Clinton, now in her second year, is especially well-known abroad because of her stint as first lady and her presidential run; she is seen by many as a globetrotting champion of women's rights.
"The pictures of U.S. diplomacy have been strongly dominated by photos of women recently," Shankar said. "That helps to broaden the acceptance of women in the field of diplomacy."
Claudia Fritsche, the ambassador from Liechtenstein, a principality that only gave women the right to vote in 1984, said the Albright-Rice-Clinton sequence has "a worldwide effect. . . . It's inspiring, motivating and certainly encouraging."
Albright said that when she spoke to foreign ministers around the world they told her governments had started thinking, "We need a Madeleine."
Some American diplomats said the appointment of a woman can be a visible way for a country to signal that is modernizing and in step with the United States.A woman's touch
For many countries, a Potomac posting is prized, landed only by seasoned diplomats and influential political players. More women now have those credentials, a reflection of women's advancement in many parts of the world.
Eleven of the 25 female envoys in Washington are from Africa. Four are from Caribbean nations. The others are from Bahrain, the Netherlands, Croatia, Kyrgyzstan, Singapore, Oman, Colombia, India, Liechtenstein and Nauru, an eight-square-mile Pacific island with only 14,000 people.
Heng Chee Chan, the Singaporean ambassador and the longest-serving female envoy in Washington, said it has been a "quantum leap" for women in diplomacy since she arrived here in 1996.
In the beginning, she said people just assumed she was a man. When a table was booked under "Ambassador Chan" and she arrived asking for it, she was told, 'Oh, he is not here yet.' "
Many said they are still often bypassed in receiving lines and the male standing beside them is greeted as "Mr. Ambassador."
"Even when I say I am ambassador, people assume I am the spouse," said Shankar, who has represented India in Washington for nearly a year.
More than half of new recruits for the U.S. Foreign Service and 30 percent of the chiefs of mission are now women, according to the State Department. That is a seismic shift from the days, as late as the 1970s, when women in the Foreign Service had to quit when they married, a rule that did not apply to men.
"It was outrageous," said Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association. "The idea was that a married woman could not be available for worldwide service. She would be having children and making a home."
That thinking is still alive in many parts of the world. But as the U.S. Foreign Service moves away from being "pale, male and Yale," the diplomatic ranks elsewhere are diversifying, too.
Johnson said the rise in female diplomats coincides with what she sees as a shift in investment away from diplomacy and toward defense. "Is the relative feminization of diplomacy indicative of its decline as a center of power and influence?" she wonders.
But she and others welcome the change and say it will have an impact.
Cathy Tinsley, executive director of Georgetown University's Women's Leadership Initiative, said gender diversity at the top of any organization leads to better decisions. When all the decision-makers have a similar background and mind-set, they can "amplify the error."
Barco, a mother of three who has served as Colombia's foreign minister, said capability and preparation -- not gender -- are what count. She held 630 meetings on Capitol Hill last year to lobby for a free trade agreement with the United States.
But several female ambassadors said they often bring a different perspective to discussions than their male counterparts and tend to focus more on certain issues such as poverty and lack of schooling for girls.
Shankar credited female leaders with turning the world's spotlight on the marginalization of Afghan women, and several U.S. diplomats said that since women have run the State Department, U.S. embassies have emphasized collecting information on rights abuses against women worldwide.
Several female ambassadors from developing countries said they are attentive to issues affecting families, such as health care and the lack of safe drinking water.
Albright said she guards against saying that women focus on "soft issues." "They are often the hardest issues: poverty, discrimination, education and health," she said.
Female envoys often pool their power to land meetings with busy U.S. senators or media personalities. A group recently met with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
"There is a female kinship," Liechtenstein's Fritsche said, in her chic Georgetown embassy with its crushed-glass floor and rooftop views of the Potomac.
No matter that Washington has often been described as a "boys' club," said Barco, being a woman does have its advantages. For one thing, you get noticed.
And Chan said because of male-female seating patterns, she often gets prime spots, including next to George W. Bush and Henry Kissinger.Leaving the hubby behind
While male ambassadors are usually accompanied by wives, female ambassadors are often here alone. Of eight interviewed, four are divorced and four said their husbands did not accompany them to Washington because of their own jobs.
Angele Niyuhire, 47, who arrived this fall as the new ambassador from Burundi, said her husband felt he could not leave his construction business. "It's considered normal if a woman goes with her husband but it's not seen as the same if a husband goes," she said.
So she moved to Bethesda with her two teenage daughters to run her small embassy out of a second-floor office on Wisconsin Avenue.
In Burundi, "a woman's traditional role is [to] take care of the house," Niyuhire said, but "if we women want to assume responsibility, we can't say, 'No, I am not going to take that job because my husband can't come.' "
Sumbana, a founding member of the Mozambique Red Cross and former member of the national parliament who arrived as ambassador a couple of months ago, said sometimes the men making appointments are overly concerned about what the husbands will do. "There is a tendency for men to think for women. They think, 'How can we post this woman? What would we do with her husband? How will the husband feel with his wife in a higher position?' "
Her husband stayed at his job in Mozambique.
Ambassadors' wives have historically played a huge role in entertaining -- a key part of an envoy's job -- so that duty falls to the female ambassadors. "We need a wife, too!" several remarked.
"It's a disadvantage that I am here by myself," said Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, the ambassador from Bahrain since 2008. Her husband and 17-year-old son live in Bahrain and her older son studies in London. "But that means I can work late and not feel guilty."
As Bahrain's first female ambassador to Washington and the first Jewish ambassador from an Arab country, Nonoo has become a well-known face back home. The former managing director of a computer company said being a woman helps erase misconceptions about women in her Persian Gulf country.
Nonoo and Al-Mughairy, Oman's ambassador, have both been questioned at forums about whether women in their countries are allowed to drive, a restriction in some parts of the Arab world but not in their nations.
"Oman has three cabinet members who are women," said Al-Mughairy, an economist. She recently wore a pink thob, a traditional dress, as she greeted hundreds of U.S. business and government officials who came to the Willard Hotel to celebrate her country's national day.
Being a female ambassador, Al-Mughairy said, "opens doors for me. People are curious to see me."