The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even after Albright, foreign policy leaders are still mostly men

Our research explores what happens when women reach high positions

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former secretary of state Madeleine Albright in 2012. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
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Trailblazing diplomat Madeleine Albright died last week. Albright is well known as the first woman to serve as the U.S. secretary of state. She shattered that glass ceiling in 1997, and in the past 25 years, many more countries have appointed women to serve in this role.

Yet, according to our data, in 2022 women make up only 20 percent of foreign affairs ministers around the globe. The lack of female leaders in this role has consequences for policy, public opinion and women’s broader access to power.

Shattering the glass ceiling

The secretary of state — or foreign affairs minister in other countries — oversees foreign policy and diplomatic relations. This is typically a high-profile executive branch position. In the United States, for example, the secretary of state helps shape U.S. overseas policy and is the first Cabinet member in the presidential line of succession.

WhenAlbright became secretary of state in January 1997, this position was male-dominated, not only in the United States but around the world. Only 39 other women (from 33 countries) had served as foreign affairs ministers. And women had rarely held the position in the most powerful nations. Among Group of Seven countries, for example, only Italy and Canada had previously appointed women to lead the foreign affairs ministry.

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Since Albright’s nomination, many more women have come to power — 206 women, in fact, have followed in her footsteps over the past 25 years. An additional 85 countries have had at least one woman in the post. With the recent appointment of Annalena Baerbock in Germany, each of the G-7 states has had at least one female foreign affairs minister.

But women remain underrepresented

Despite this progress, women are still underrepresented in the foreign affairs ministry. Worldwide, 80 percent of current foreign affairs ministers are men, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. And almost 80 countries, including China and Russia, have never had a woman in the post.

More generally, women make up just 22 percent of cabinet ministers worldwide. And they are especially unlikely to hold the most prestigious and powerful inner-cabinet portfolios.

Like with the foreign affairs ministry, women often remain excluded from the finance portfolio (treasury secretary). Our study of the defense portfolio also found that between 1991 and 2012, only 55 women were appointed as defense ministers in 41 different countries. Despite major gains for women in President Biden’s 2021 Cabinet, in the United States no woman has ever been secretary of defense.

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When do women get high-profile cabinet appointments?

Given the male-dominated status quo, how do women like Albright access positions like secretary of state? Our research shows that women’s presence in elected political positions matters. Two things happen when there are more women in the legislature: There’s a larger pool of women who are considered qualified for cabinet positions, and people expect that women should be included in executive branch posts.

But it’s not just women’s representation in politics that matters. Indeed, when Albright came to power, women held only 11 percent of seats in Congress. Our National Science Foundation-funded research shows that a country’s position in the international community also plays a role. Women are most likely to gain access to the defense portfolio, for example, when the position is focused on promulgating peace and restoring human rights.

Albright’s appointment reflects these broader trends, as she came to power in the aftermath of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union — a period when the United States faced fewer security threats and was instead focused on confronting human rights abuses across the globe. Even though Albright shattered the glass ceiling, the circumstances surrounding her appointment reinforce gendered patterns of women’s access to security posts.

Yes, women’s presence matters​​

There’s some evidence that men and women behave differently in the post, though researchers remain conflicted about these policy effects. Some scholars find that female leaders are associated with gender-focused aid and “pro-feminist [policy] rhetoric.” But others show that female defense and foreign affairs ministers increase military expenditures, escalate conflict behavior and decrease foreign aid spending. And amid international crises, female leaders signal more credible threats. But this may also mean they have a harder time backing down.

There’s more consistent evidence when it comes to policies related to women’s well-being. Having a female foreign affairs minister is associated with more gender-egalitarian tariff policies, for instance. Our work also shows that female defense ministers are more likely to enact gender-egalitarian military restructuring.

Consistent with these broader trends, women’s welfare was a central focus of Albright’s agenda. As she put it: “I decided that I would make women’s issues central to American foreign policy. And not just because I’m a feminist, but I could say that I know that when women are politically and economically empowered in societies, the situation is better. And it’s in America’s national interest.”

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Beyond the policy implications, the public seems to respond favorably to women’s presence in cabinets. For instance, our study of 58 countries demonstrates that women’s appointments as foreign affairs ministers and other inner cabinet leadership roles are associated with more confidence in, and satisfaction with, the government. More generally, having more women in the cabinet bolsters women’s civic engagement and increases men’s support for female political leaders.

Even in the absence of policy or public opinion effects, Albright paved the way for Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton to serve as secretary of state in subsequent administrations. Our work also suggests that Albright’s presence likely laid the foundation for women’s appointments to other high-profile and security-oriented cabinet posts at home and abroad.

Ultimately, although no single person can upend men’s dominance of politics, our research illustrates that high-profile appointments like Albright’s are critical for changing the face — and substance — of politics and diplomacy around the world.

Tiffany D. Barnes is professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. Follow her on Twitter at @tiffanydbarnes.

Bomi K. Lee is an NSF-funded postdoctoral scholar at the University of Kentucky. Follow her on Twitter at @bomiklee.

Diana Z. O’Brien is the Albert Thomas Associate Professor of Political Science at Rice University. Follow her on Twitter at @dianazobrien.

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