Women diplomats in Hong Kong have broken through the glass ceiling

With ten out of 60 consuls general in Hong Kong now women, some say they empathise better than men and are superior mediators

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 4:14am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 7:43am

Hong Kong's diplomatic corps has undergone a gender shift that may warrant a tweak to Theodore Roosevelt's enduring quote on the key to good diplomacy. Perhaps it should now read: "Speak softly and carry a big handbag; you will go far."

As the city's role as a centre for international deal-making develops with China's growing economic might, women are becoming increasingly prominent in the traditionally maledominated world.

In line with global trends, 10 out of the 60 consuls general in the city today are women, and they are convinced the change is irreversible.

For Rita Hammerli-Weshcke, Switzerland's top diplomat in Hong Kong, women "bring another sense" to diplomacy.

"We bring empathy more than others which probably makes cultural exchanges easier," she said.

Every few months, she organises a lunch where the invitation is exclusive: you must be a woman and a consul general: "It's an exchange where we can share our experiences and it's more relaxed than seeing each other at official events."

Austrian consul general Claudia Reinprecht - the city's newest woman diplomat - supports the idea of an informal women-only network.

In Austria, the 50/50 gender split in the diplomatic service drops for women in the higher ranks.

"The reason is family and the difficulty in reconciling work and family life. It is difficult for a male diplomat to find a partner willing to stop working, but for females, it is more difficult because there will be very few men who will forget about their career and be an adjunct to a woman," said Reinprecht.

For Italy's consul general, Alessandra Schiavo, women are more subtle at the diplomatic table. "Women are more capable of finding ways to help people compromise. I'm not saying men can't do this but normally a woman can mediate more easily."

Finland's consul general, Annikki Arponen, was a sinologist before moving into diplomacy in the mid-1980s, a trend that has sped up in the past decade.

"Almost all the new diplomats are women in the past 10 years and if we are to select the best candidates for positions, they are all women, so we have to keep a quota for men," Arponen said.

The Mexican consul general, Alicia Buenrostro-Massieu, is a career diplomat who had resigned herself to life as a single woman, but just weeks after arriving in Hong Kong in 2011, she met the man who last month became her husband.

"Women are more visible at the beginning, but then comes marriage and children, so they have to put their career aside a little bit and it's harder for them to get to the top positions when they return."

Hong Kong's other woman consuls general are Phumelele Gwala (South Africa), Caroline Wilson (Britain), Kamilah Hanifah (Brunei), Talida Goean (Romania) and Nguyen Thi Nah (Vietnam).