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On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the Australian Ambassador to Italy, Margaret Twomey, opened the doors of her Residence in Rome for a ‘fireside chat’ co-hosted with the New Zealand Embassy, with students of LUISS, Sapienza, Roma3 and SIOI.

The Australian Ambassador was not the only eloquent and brilliant diplomat sharing her story at the event. Emma Boland, an Australian Foreign Ministry lawyer working remotely from Rome while her husband is on posting, Second Secretary, Ambassador Lyndal Walker, the Chargé d’Affaires at the New Zealand Embassy in Rome, were also present, together with a fundamental voice coming from Italy, Counselor Serena Lippi, President of the Association of Italian female diplomats (DID) and Diplomatic Adviser to the Minister of Education.

The evening was a sincere and free talk on women’s struggles in the diplomatic sector, highlighting issues, challenges, and life-turning points of four women who are extremely different one from the other, but all united in fighting the still-present gap between genders.

Ambassador Twomey opened the ‘chat’ by telling us about her life and how her decisions, along with setbacks and rejections, had guided her to arrive where she is now, starting from her small town in the Australian countryside. She knew she wanted to become a diplomat at a young age – but speaking up about her dreams and ambitions became a subject of criticism, sometime verging on bullying, among her peers. However, she did not give up and moved to Melbourne to continue her studies. 

Her passion for the Russian language and literature, which was also part of her bachelor’s degree, was an underlining theme throughout her life. She started as a strategic analyst in the Australian Ministry of Defense and, notwithstanding failure at her first attempt at entry, eventually joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She told us how she felt that all the pieces were coming together during her first assignment in Yugoslavia (1990-1992): as she arrived and walked down the streets of Belgrade, she never felt more confident and more convinced about her future. She stressed the importance of setting goals, and not letting anyone talk you out of them: perseverance is the key to success.

This perseverance, not getting let down by adversities, was fundamental throughout her whole career, especially in Fiji and East Timor where she had to face both democratic downturns and environmental disasters. In Russia, ongoing gender disparities still made it hard to operate as a female representative of a government.

There she learned, and shared with us, that we should always battle for justice, not simply ‘be compliant’ with the set standards, but proudly fulfill the role we have been assigned to and this means also never accepting harassment or harsh inequalities… but rather giving empathy its deserved and ‘sacred’ space.

Chargé d’affaires Lyndal Walker spoke of her career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) in New Zealand. During her university studies she decided to take a gap year and it was during this time she applied to MFAT for an administrative role – attracted by the job advertisement that said interested candidates must be prepared to travel, work, and live overseas! Lyndal’s first posting was in Rome in 1986.  Throughout her career Lyndal made the most of different opportunities in the corporate, policy and consular work streams of MFAT.  

No job has been the same, each experience is different and requires different skills and knowledge. After 5 postings (Rome, Niue, Singapore, Bangkok, Washington DC) Lyndal worked in the Netherlands as New Zealand’s Ambassador where she served for 4.5 years.  Her career highlights have been working in crisis management and serving as an ambassador.  

As a career woman working offshore, Lyndal noted that work/life balance was important as well as factoring in family considerations when accepting a role offshore. While becoming a successful woman diplomat, Lyndal placed high value on the importance of being your authentic self, not to buy into competitive behavior, to ensure your voice is heard, to be treated as an equal and to never underestimate the power of networking and professional contacts. As a woman diplomat you need to back yourself. 

“Kua tawhiti kē to haerenga mai, kia kore e haere tonu. He nui rawa o mahi, kia kore e mahi tonu.”

You have come too far not to go further; you have done too much not to do more.”

Ms. Boland, at an earlier stage in her already varied career, gave us another perspective. She started in a commercial firm in the legal sector, and she ended up serving as Foreign Policy Officer in the UN & Human Rights Division – something, as she told, she would have never expected. She stressed that we should not be afraid of changing our path or our plans for the future, and to ask to be treated and respected for our choices, as she did when she accepted to come and work remotely from Rome, being transparent about her pregnancy and her decision to be both a mum and a career foreign service officer.

If on one side from Oceania, the examples were inspirational and could make us believe that change and progress are underway, the same is not true for Italy in which the ‘glass ceiling’ is still there and most of the time underestimated or misrecognized.

Self-awareness has been praised among the three previous speakers and so understanding and being conscious of the Italian situation is certainly an essential starting point to pursue such a path for the future.

The right to equal pay and professional opportunities is a constitutionally protected right for women in Italy (Articles 3 and 51), but the first women diplomats didn’t join the ranks until 1967: it took years and a Constitutional Court judgment in 1960 to get there. 

In 1985, a woman was appointed Italy’s Ambassador to represent our country; in 2002, a woman was entrusted with the leadership of the Directorate-General for Administration; and in 2005, Simbolotti Graziella and Brunetti Iolanda, two women were promoted to the official rank of Ambassador for the first time in history. 

The first ever female Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Zappia Mariangela, took office in 2014. As of 2015, the Republic’s President was advised by a female diplomat, D’Alessandro Emanuela whom he nominated. For the first time, in 2016, Belloni Elisabetta was appointed foreign ministry secretary general and Zappia Mariangela became the Prime Minister’s Diplomatic Advisor. 

Two historic ‘female’ appointments were made in Italy in 2018: the country’s first Ambassador to France, Castaldo Teresa, and its first Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Zappia Mariangela. In 2021, another symbolic milestone was made by installing Mariangela Zappia as the new head of the Italian Embassy in Washington. 

The competition for apical position for women is tougher, suffice it to say that just three women have ever served as Foreign Ministers in all Italian history: Susanna Agnelli (1995), Emma Bonino (2013), and Federica Mogherini (2014). 

Viewing those figures and milestones with Counselor Lippi made evident that Italy is somewhat ’20 years behind’ the inclusive environment of Australia or New Zealand, albeit having thriving women willing to pursue such a career. Indeed, in most diplomatic concourses, more women than men sign and submit nominations at the outset, but the gender ratio flips after the analysis of the first test, and the percentage of women drops steadily from there. 

She stressed the importance and urgency to dig further into why so many applicants don’t show up for interviews or submit their papers, and why women perform worse than males in practically every aspect of the selection process while being more brilliant than their male counterparts in terms of university’s studies and preparatory courses.

This is one of the reasons why Counselor Lippi and other colleagues founded the Association DID in 2001. They wanted to address, and they are still working on, the too-obvious disparities in how men and women are treated and can progress in the diplomatic career. In many cases the female component faced greater difficulties: it was harder for them to get higher positions, promotions, or to have their voices be truly heard. In Italy, there is a clear cultural divide, which is not just generational, that keep on perpetuating inequalities between male and women, but, as the Association DID demonstrates, the willingness to fight back and reach our rightful place is stronger than ever.

We talked thoroughly regarding inspirational figures, and mentors we should look up to as women, and I think as a soon-to-be “International Relations” master’s degree graduate who pursue a diplomatic career, meeting all four of them effectively impacted me.

On one hand, it made me see the harsh reality of things, which is prevalently an ulterior motive of drive and not a stopping point, and on the other, the wonderful job that we, as women, can do in solving an international crisis, creating development programs, handling terroristic attacks, promoting human rights… but also in being mothers, partners, passionate about literature, music, art and so on.

Change is tangible but at the same time far away, women’s reciprocal cooperating is the basis on which future revolutions can take place. Their stories and their drive were moving, they made choices, changed direction, and faced challenges, not aiming to be “as good as men” to thrive in this world, but to be as consistent and prepared as much “woman” as they could have been

It is precisely in hardship that possibilities and change flourish, because being a woman in this world is hard, but there is no better time than today to work for our empowerment together. There is no better moment to truly make our actions count, either bigger or smaller, because we would be one step closer to women’s empowerment that in the end is everybody’s empowerment.

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