Jakarta Globe | Insight
Retno Marsudi, Indonesia's first female foreign minister. (JG Photo / Yudha Baskoro)

Indonesia’s Women Diplomats in Action

Jakarta. The world we live in has always been dynamic, but it is definitely worth noting that many recent breakthroughs can be traced to an increase in women’s empowerment and their rise to prominent positions across different fields, including ones that have traditionally been male-dominated.

The same is true on the foreign policy stage, where discussions and negotiations among officials from different parts of the world have historically been led by men, even when the issues at stake affect many women – who are often considered more vulnerable in areas of conflict or regions lagging in development.

In 2014, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi became Indonesia’s first female foreign minister, previously serving as ambassador to the Netherlands.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo also appointed several women to join his cabinet, including Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti.

The importance of women’s voices and representation has become increasingly clear to many institutions, which has led to increased efforts to include more women in professional capacities.

Indonesia’s ambassador to Hungary, Wening Esthyprobo Fatadari, told the Jakarta Globe in a recent interview that the world is now “more open” towards women.

Wening began her career as a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1987. She said that she has witnessed many changes over the years, noting that there is a stark difference between then and now in terms of women’s role in diplomacy.

In decades prior, Wening said women had to put in twice the effort compared their male colleagues.

“I experienced things in my generation, where we had to double our struggle to be heard, to be seen, to be acknowledged,” Wening said, adding that she sees positive changes with younger generations.

Indonesia’s ambassador to Hungary, Wening Esthyprobo Fatandari, left. (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Siti Nugraha Mauludiah, Indonesia’s consul-general in Shanghai, China, also noted the massive change in women’s participation over the years since she first began her career with the Foreign Ministry in 1991.

“When I joined the [foreign] service, only 17 percent in my batch were women. Now, the new recruits are predominantly female. We were told that the new batch of diplomats are made up of 60 percent women,” Siti said.

Women made up 30 percent of all diplomats in Indonesia in 2017.

Siti said that throughout her career at the ministry, she achieved success due to her abilities and does not feel that her progress was hampered in any degree due to her gender.

“I never thought me being a woman put me in a difficult position here … [If] I didn’t get some position for instance, I didn’t feel it’s because I’m a woman, it’s because I’m not suitable or that I didn’t fulfill the requirements for that position,” Siti said.

Indonesia’s new consul-general in Melbourne, Australia, Spica A. Tutuhatunewa, also said there is not much of a difference in the treatment that men and women receive at the ministry.

“However, many women diplomats are extremely hard working,” said Spica, who began her career as a diplomat in 1997.

Though women’s participation in high-level positions at the ministry remains low, Siti believes that it is only a matter of time until that changes.

“I know we need some affirmative action to represent more women, but I’m against a policy that forces under-qualified women to gain positions [of power], because that jeopardizes the whole system,” the consul-general added.

Siti Nugraha Mauludiah, center, Indonesia’s consul general in Shanghai, China. (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Spica said that more youth, regardless of gender, should apply to work at the Foreign Ministry.

“Whichever gender you are, or whichever ethnicity you are, that’s a non-issue at the ministry … You are valued by your competence and skills, your willingness to work in a team. That’s how you’re valued,” Spica told the Globe.

According to Siti, the ministry has become more “gender-sensitive” over the years.

“I’m happy that now lady diplomats are being acknowledged due to their abilities, not because of their gender: their capabilities are being measured equally with men,” Wening said.

Challenges Faced by Women Diplomats

Women diplomats still face familiar challenges, however, including when it comes to balancing their careers and their families.

“Family factors may be an obstacle, as the job is very demanding,” Spica said.

Indonesia’s new consul-general in Melbourne, Australia, Spica A. Tutuhatunewa. (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

In the past, the Foreign Affairs Ministry prohibited diplomatic couples from being posted overseas at the same time, in turn forcing many women to give up their posts while their husbands continued to work.

“But now it’s totally different, diplomat couples can get posted at the same time [though] of course not at the same post,” said Siti.

She added that the new policy also takes proximity into account, and the ministry typically posts couples at separate but geographically close missions abroad.

Early in her career, Siti said she was not taken seriously in multilateral settings because she was perceived as too young by her colleagues.

“They always think in their mind that someone in a high position should be older and a man … so when I came as a young woman, I had to carry my business card so they would take me seriously when they saw my position,” Siti said.

In her experience working on gender issues at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Secretariat, Siti also noted the difference between male colleagues from Western countries compared to those from Eastern countries.

“[Colleagues from] Eastern countries are more skeptical about my ability than my colleagues from Western countries,” added Siti, who was posted in Italy from 2005-2009 to fulfill various positions, including as Indonesia’s representative to UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“To be seen, you have to double your efforts compared to men. Because when promotions get handed out, they typically get handed to men first,” Wening said.

Another challenge she noted was having to tend to personal matters on her own. In comparison, she said, many male diplomats ordinarily have their wives help them to prepare things.

“You should respect lady ambassadors, because they do it by themselves,” said Wening, awarded as an “Honorary Hungarian” in 2017 for her efforts to boost Indonesia-Hungary bilateral relations.

Women Diplomats in Action

There are specific qualities that a woman can offer in the world of foreign policy, according to the three diplomats who spoke to the Globe.

Spica, who was the director for the Junior Diplomatic School, Center of Education and Training at the ministry before moving to Melbourne, said that women’s nurturing qualities are often very useful in diplomatic settings.

“In very heated negotiations, the diplomatic approach adopted by women can often tone them down,” Spica said.

Spica, the former deputy director for transnational organized crime at the ministry, added that women are also more meticulous, detail-oriented and are better managers than their male counterparts; several qualities that are useful in foreign policy work.

Separately, Siti said that throughout her career, she has met and worked with tough working women.

“I’m not saying men are not tough, but some [women] are tougher. It’s in our blood,” Siti said, adding that the ability to multitask comes naturally for many working mothers, for example.

She is also optimistic about the future of women at the Foreign Ministry, and said that the younger male generation is more gender-sensitive.

“So I’m not worried about women in Kemlu … The new recruits are more gender-sensitive [and] receptive, I guess because most of them have wives who are used to working,” Siti told the Globe, referring to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

As official representatives, the task of introducing Indonesia to the world can be achieved through more creative means by women diplomats, according to Wening, who has actively promoted Indonesian cultural riches overseas during her tenure at the ministry.

“Women can dress themselves to represent their country, compared to men … as a lady ambassador, I have a plus [where I can] show off the richness of my country,” Wening said, referring to the variety of attires and accessories that women can adorn to showcase Indonesian culture, history and creativity.