Blog Post

Solidarity, Inclusivity, and Women of Color: Taking Steps toward Diversifying Defense, Diplomacy, and Development

April 23, 2019

The German Marshall Fund of the United States’ (GMF) Second Annual Women of Color in Transatlantic Leadership Forum: Diversifying Defense, Diplomacy, and Development, held on October 4, 2018, brought together leaders from numerous sectors to discuss pressing foreign policy and national security challenges, cooperation in the transatlantic space and beyond, and provided attendees the opportunity to exchange best practices for leveraging international expertise in their careers. In addition to professionals with years of experience, the forum also featured a group of 18 young professionals who represent the next generation of diverse leadership.

Opening remarks from Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) set the stage with her reflections on current U.S. foreign policy and the critical role of Congress in repairing strained relationships between the U.S. and its partners across the globe. These thoughts were echoed by Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte, as she pointed out the loss of U.S. global influence which disrupts America’s ability to take the lead on many international challenges.

According to GMF President Dr. Karen Donfried, the answer to addressing these challenges lies in increasing international involvement. During her address on the state of transatlantic relations, Dr. Donfried stressed to the women the importance of their agency in a world where countries face issues of rising populist and nationalist sentiments. “Now more than ever,” Dr. Donfried urged, “transatlantic relations matter: they matter in terms of allies; they matter in the business world, in security, and in defense.” The presence of military, development, diplomatic, and private sector attendees reflected the vital cross-industry cooperation that Dr. Donfried referenced.

"Women of color, in particular, have an important role in bolstering social innovation by continuing to become experts in areas they are passionate about through writing, discussing, and publishing on these topics."

Speakers stressed that programs which were once considered innovative no longer reflected the adaptability necessary for creating sustainable policy. The speakers pointed out that truly effective development policy requires greater partnerships with the private sector, reliance on youth initiatives, and the utilization of digital resources. Women of color, in particular, have an important role in bolstering social innovation by continuing to become experts in areas they are passionate about through writing, discussing, and publishing on these topics. 

Themes of foreign partnership, global leadership, and career advancement were also at the forefront of discussion throughout the forum. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Air Force Lieutenant General Stayce Harris spoke on international leadership and the importance of female voices being prominently featured in crafting U.S. security and foreign policy. The senior Congressional staffers also in attendance added another dimension to the discussion. With backgrounds in foreign affairs, national security, and homeland security, these women represented a wide range of career possibilities that exist within international policymaking. Moreover, they highlighted how their political experience on Capitol Hill has allowed them to actively participate in the creation and implementation of legislation related to education policy, foreign investment, climate change, and diverse employment. In this field, advised the staffers, it is a matter of staying persistent and being open to different kinds of positions that can be connected back to foreign policy.  

Amidst notes of positivity and optimism was the underlying fact that the fight for greater representation of diverse communities in these fields is far from over. While the Obama Administration’s Memorandum “Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in the National Security Workforce” and Senate Bill 924: National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2017 were recognized as important efforts by the federal government to diversify the foreign policy space, several speakers and participants observed that women of color still struggle to secure a seat at the table. Women of color are not only underrepresented in senior positions, but also face institutional barriers and inequitable treatment. Given the sense of isolation and professional stagnation felt by speakers and participants alike, the forum filled an important void in Washington by providing women of color working in the international space with the resources and contacts to further pursue a global career while fostering a strong sense of community.

As Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, adversity is an “ideal of your character that contributes to your job, your work ethic;” it serves as a backbone to empowerment and leads to the acknowledgment of a more diverse perspective in the international space and beyond. These inter-generational women are strengthening cross-sectoral relationships and perspectives and paving the way for future women of color to access that seat at the table. While efforts to diversify the defense, diplomacy, and development sectors require constant attention and action from our nation’s leaders, this year’s forum served as a significant step in ensuring that diverse women in the foreign policy arena continue to be recognized for their accomplishments and supported by their peers.