Written by Harvey Dryer

It is rare that diplomatic events are looked upon with a gendered lens (Aggestam & Towns, 2018). As such, very few analyses of the Brexit negotiations have taken a gendered approach. However, looking at Brexit negotiations through a gendered lens may reveal new insights about how this diplomatic process has unfolded. A gendered approach may, in some aspects, help explain why there have been such high tensions between the two negotiating teams and why greater levels of feminisation in the Brexit process may have led to different results. In this article I will examine the link between gender and diplomacy and how feminising diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU) could have stabilised the negotiating process.

Femininity and masculinity have many definitions and can be understood differently depending on the discipline observing these gender identities. In the realm of foreign policy and international relations, femininity and masculinity are reduced down to general traits (Mazei, Zerres, & Hüffmeier, 2019). Masculinity can include desires for hegemony and dominance, an emphasis on physical power and supremacy, a desire to be the hero and the emasculation of others (Edmond, 2018; pp. 3-19). Femininity brings different qualities, such as greater emotional intelligence or greater levels of empathy (Towns, 2020), which go a long way towards rapport building: Clare Booth Luce even went so far as to say that “diplomacy is a feminine art” (Peterson, 2020). These traits can often influence diplomatic strategies used. As such, it is fundamental to understand the role of gender in diplomatic success because strategies determine the success or failure of foreign policies. Gender becomes a factor in understanding foriegn policy outcomes. 

Diplomacy is dominated by ‘man.’ An often-quoted study from UN Women (2012) reveals that women only constitute 9 percent of all negotiators, 2.5 percent of all chief mediators, and 4 percent of signatories. Not only do men hold the most authoritative roles in diplomacy, the nature of diplomacy itself has overlapped with ‘man,’ meaning that diplomatic characteristics often intertwine with masculine traits (Enloe, 1990). Brexit negotiations, and the various headlines relating to these negotiations, have been dominated by male figures, such as Michel Barnier, David Frost, Michael Gove, and Maroš Šefčovič. Masculinity may have played a role in some risks taken by both Britain and the EU in the negotiation process. As such, it may have played a detrimental role in achieving a deal. Two risks are worthy of note (Brunsden & Payne, 2020): the decision to not extend the transition period deadline and the passing of the Internal Market Bill. The former restricted the time frame to reach a settlement between both parties: the brinkmanship would theoretically move negotiations forward by putting the EU under pressure. The latter, although not directly caused by the negotiating teams, alienated the EU by undermining the Withdrawal Agreement (Clapham, 2020). As such, it ignored existing restraints that had already been imposed on negotiations. Arguably, masculine tendencies have influenced the strategic manoeuvres, because at the forefront of these actions has been a desire to control and dominate the shape of negotiations. This has led to hostile and tense relations, and both these acts have put the prospects of achieving a deal on a knife-edge. The risky maneuvers of the UK have compromised the future propensity of strong diplomatic relations between the EU and the UK. 

A feminised Brexit negotiation would not directly contrast a masculine negotiation. Simply because masculinised negotiations may lead to greater risks being taken, this does not necessarily mean that a feminised negotiation would entail fewer or no risks occurring. Gender intersects with other categories such as class, race, and religion, which cannot be understood as diametrically opposing characteristics (Towns, 2020). However, taking into account generalisations about femininity in diplomacy, a feminised Brexit negotiation process may have looked less hostile. Diplomatic strategies that limit potential rapport-building would be few and far between. As such, relations would not have been driven to a “slide war” (Boffey, 2020). Reduced levels of conflict may have created the conditions in which a Brexit negotiation process would have experienced less risk.

Not only has masculinity influenced strategies utilised in the Brexit process, it has a firm grip on British foriegn policy. Even though the UK is a supporter of gender equality, it falls short of defining itself by a feminist agenda both at home and abroad (“Chatham House”, 2017). Relative comparison to Sweden shows that Britain barely centres decisions around gender or puts gender at the forefront of policy. Whilst Sweden has committed itself to a feminine foreign policy agenda, Britain falls short of recognising the impact gender has in this realm. Without shining a light on the pertinent gender inequalities present in diplomacy, masculinity will be able to maintain its stranglehold (Edmond, 2018). 

It is worth noting that there are precious few publications that suggest a link between the aforementioned risks and gender. Much analysis has been normative and value focused. However, the general ties between masculinity and Brexit, especially within the negotiation processes, should warrant a gendered analysis. The logic of “diplomacy first, gender next” (Neumann, 2008) doesn’t acknowledge the extant link between gender and diplomacy. There are, of course, several driving forces that constitute an explanation for the occurrence of the two aforementioned risks, but any elucidation that doesn’t at least query the role of masculinity lacks explanatory power.

Even though representation of women in diplomacy is growing, such an occurrence cannot justify the stranglehold masculinity has on diplomacy. Not only does looking at the physical makeup not tell us about the division of labour (women may hold more positions in the diplomatic arena but these might not be influential roles), it doesn’t guarantee more feminised diplomacy. The Deputy Chief Brexit Negotiator for the EU is Sabine Weyand, but simply analysing the physical makeup of a political unit tells us little about the effects of integration (Childs & Webb, 2011). Feminisation should be measured not just through numbers or the filling of quotas, but through the implementation of women’s attitudes, interests and perspectives on diplomatic strategies and goals (Childs & Webb, 2011). Not only does this have to occur within diplomatic institutions, but this must also occur within domestic and international politics too.

To summarise, feminising diplomacy has little to do with crude political calculation or correctness: it is about political effectiveness. This does not mean that masculine diplomacy is undesirable, but in the context of Brexit negotiations, feminisation might have led to less hostility, alienation, and risk. As such, the conditions for achieving a deal may have been greater. Although this assertion rests on generalisations about gender, it seems difficult to not acknowledge the role gender plays in diplomacy. 


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