Sita W. Dewi
“Jokowi” Widodo appointed career diplomat Retno LP Marsudi as the foreign minister in his Cabinet, a thick glass ceiling was broken.
Retno is the first woman to assume the post, the country’s highest diplomatic position and one that had long been held by men. This does not mean, however, that all women diplomats in Indonesia have smooth sailing ahead.
Working women generally face similar challenges in balancing family and work. For women diplomats, however, the obstacles they face are often greater, given the nature of their work.
Despite a massive campaign for gender equality, a more conservative segment of Indonesian society still finds it odd for a husband to put his career on hold to “follow” his wife abroad, a situation that every woman diplomat must face at some point in their career.
As holders of diplomatic passports, dependents of diplomats are not allowed to be involved in commercial activities in a foreign country during diplomatic missions. Their options are limited to social work or stay-at-home dad duties. Such an arrangement is often considered unacceptable by traditional standards, which regard the man as the head of the household and breadwinner.
“When I was first posted [overseas], it wasn’t easy to convince my family that a woman was carrying out what was considered unconventional work. But I am lucky that I eventually gained my husband’s and my family’s support,” Retno told The Jakarta Post at her office in Jakarta
Retno said she was lucky that her husband, her long-time college sweetheart, was an architect who could work for Indonesian clients remotely from abroad.
Based on personal experience, she noted that there were preconditions to enforcing the principle of gender equality.
“Gender mainstreaming can only happen when three aspects are met. They include supportive family, environment and policies,” she said. “Family support is key. I can’t imagine not having my husband’s and family’s support.”
Astari Daenuwy, a doctoral student at Australian National University researching the role of women in diplomacy, said Indonesia’s appointment of a woman as foreign minister reflected a global trend called “feminization of diplomacy”.
“In this male-dominated line of work, only a small number of women assume foreign minister posts globally. But as the world acknowledges the role of women in global diplomacy and more women join the diplomatic corps, having a female foreign minister is increasingly becoming an acceptable norm,” Astari, a career diplomat herself, said.
Retaining women diplomats is another challenge. While 50 percent of Foreign Ministry recruits each year are women, the number of female employees at the ministry currently stands at 35.1 percent. Around 30 percent of women hold top-level management positions, a relatively high figure compared to other government institutions. Out of 132 heads of foreign missions, 16 or a little over 10 percent are women.
“We have many women at the director’s level, but not [at a higher] echelon. The challenge is that they come and go. Most of them leave Jakarta to assume an ambassador post,” Retno said, adding that the ministry imposed a bidding system to fill its top-level management positions to ensure that all diplomats were given an equal opportunity to be promoted regardless of their gender.
Despite support for gender equality at the workplace, women diplomats face a layer of challenges to survive and rise to the top. Married women must bear the burden of the traditional expectation of being responsible for nurturing their family, while those who are single must break conservative presumptions about a woman’s limits.
Indonesian Consul General in Melbourne Spica A. Tutuhatunewa told the Post in an email interview that, “Women diplomats sometimes feel that they have to prove themselves, that women are [also] capable of working long hours and traveling more often [than they are supposed to].”
Indonesian Consul General in Perth Dewi Tobing said that foreign diplomatic missions realized the issues women diplomats faced with families and ensured that they had the support they needed.
“We know women are expected to take care of their husband and children so [the Foreign Ministry] ensures that they can have a helper and, using an IT system, we make sure that we can work efficiently so women can balance work and family,” she said.