THE BLOG
10/07/2014 12:59 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

Women Leaders in Foreign Policy: When Federica Mogherini Found Her Voice

Women are still a minority at the helm of Foreign Policy and International Relations. In the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, only two members out of 18 are women, while in the House of Representative they are five out of 46. In the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, there were 20 women out of 73 in the 2009-14 legislature and they are today 13 out of 71.

Likewise, women are a minority in international senior positions. In the European Commission, between 1957 and nowadays, the ratio is even lower: 10 to 1. At the Pentagon, only 16 percent of senior positions are filled by women and only 29 percent of the chiefs of mission at the State Department and of senior foreign positions at USAID are held by women. In other words, at the leadership level, women in foreign policy and international relations still have a long way to go, as if the glass ceiling were too thick to break.

If according to Anne Marie Slaughter women still cannot have it all, this is even more so for women engaged in foreign policy and international relations, where the alien environment adds to normal difficulties. Frequent travel, the constant need to cope with different cultures, the need for eventual children and partners to adapt, are all variables that add to normal difficulties in keeping a life-work balance and succeed professionally. As customs change across cultures and countries, so do misogyny, laws protecting against harassment and the perception of what is appropriate and what is not for women, even -- or rather especially - for women leaders. Women need to adapt their behavior and dress code more than men have to; they have to have a better control of the way they speak and of the hidden messages their body language may send. What is considered appropriate in one country might in fact be completely unappropriated (or misunderstood) in another. This is even true across countries that share the same Western democratic values, such as for instance the US and the different European countries, mind you the rest of the world or in multicultural contexts.

Few women at the helm of foreign policy also mean limited role models to look at for emerging women leaders. In such prospective, it is interesting to look at the confirmation hearing of the European Union High Representative-designate, Federica Mogherini.

On the occasion of her visit to DC last May, I praised her no-nonsense approach to foreign policy. However, having been nominated to the European Commission for pure domestic reasons, she seemed the accidental nominee, the classic person who found herself at the right place and the right time. Deemed as a weak candidacy by many observers and initially opposed by a number of European partners -- Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had a hard time imposing her.

However, at her confirmation hearing, she clearly showed she was far more than the accidental nominee. One of Europe's most keen observers -- Carnegie Europe's Director Jan Techau -- assessed her as "very convincing [...] She was relaxed and focused, clearly at home in this policy field. She sounded thoughtful without delivering too much in terms of tangible policy substance" and tweeted: "Mogherini clearly has what it takes: maximum verbal flexibility without too many edges that might hurt anyone". The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee greeted her with an applause at the end of the hearing, a compliment not paid to other Commissioner-nominees.

Hence, it was not only what she said, rather how she said it and how she performed -- as in "performing on stage" -- that made the difference.

Several studies show how female voices are perceived as less authoritative. Low voices, "masculine" voices, are an asset to those seeking leadership roles. We prefer low voices because, we assume, voices say something far beyond the words they convey: we even perceive men with lower-pitched voices to be more attractive, competent and trustworthy than their less burly-voiced peers.

Mogherini managed in the difficult task of speaking in a low tone, with a calm and confident voice, yet without mannerism. She skilfully displayed technical knowledge of her dossiers, without however getting pedantic Hillary-style. She threw sprinkles of charm at the MEPs, yet without seeming girlish and she even dared to joke at "German flexibility" when the Committee's Chairman Elmar Brok enforced the rules on speaking time.

In other words, she managed to appear authoritative but not aggressive, a very challenging task for women leaders. As Marianne Cooper wrote in the Harvard Business Review: the ones who are applauded for delivering results at work are then reprimanded for being too aggressive, out for herself, difficult, and abrasive. Psychologists agree that while outspoken men are described as persistent and perceptive, outspoken women tend to be classified as a "pain".

For those who know Mogherini well, it was easy to notice how she carefully constructed her look to help her in the task. A laced top prettified the dark (pant) suit. Carefully manicured hands, with dark red nail polish. She had slightly heavier and more carefully applied makeup than usual. It all concurred to make her look attractive and "womanly" enough to please the eyes, but not to scare; to look mature, but not dull.

She does not consider herself a feminist -- in a address at the Brookings Institute she affirmed she was "not that kind of woman," though she privately admits how she owes everything to her husband -- but she mentioned women issues among the EU foreign policy's relevant themes, thus also pleasing that part of the audience and indirectly further stressing her case.

In other terms, Federica Mogherini proved successful in reaching the ultimate goal for women leaders: she found her voice. Though this will not be enough to guarantee her success, it is a great start. Emerging women leaders in foreign policy and international relations may have found a fresh, interesting, role model to look at.