Asia Society Celebrates Women in Diplomacy

Five women ambassadors on taking the lead in their male-dominated field.

by Patricia Chong


There is a sprinkling of men in the audience. This is a fact that doesn’t escape former Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Albert as she takes the podium. “Good,” she says. “We’re getting somewhere.” We’re at the first of Asia Society Philippines’s events for Women’s Month, all of them highlighting the presence of women in typically male-oriented industries. Today, there’s not one, but four people who also have the title “Her Excellency” at Manila Lounge, and they’re all here to talk about being women in diplomacy.


L-R: Ambassador Delia Albert, Her Excellency Kok Li Peng, Her Excellency Aruni Ranaraja, Her Excellency Andrea Reichlin


Moderated by journalist Ana P. Santos, the talks began with presentations by the ambassadors present. Albert, the first woman career diplomat to become Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Asia spoke of her career and her initiatives towards women empowerment. This included her overturning the Department of Foreign Affair’s policy of forbidding women from marrying foreigners while allowing men to do so, as well as her setting the heavily-contested agenda geared towards the role of civil society in cross-conflict peace building during her turn as the first female Chair of the UN Security Council in 2004.


“We shouldn’t contest each other’s abilities. That’s really just a race to the bottom.”


Ambassadors Esra Cankorur of Turkey and Aruni Ranaraja of Sri Lanka presented highlights of their respective country’s efforts in bridging the gender gap, such as instilling policies of positive discrimination and establishing free universal healthcare and education. Ambassadors Andrea Reichlin of Switzerland and Kok Li Peng of Singapore followed by talking about their own countries’ performances in the index, and the need to encourage more economic participation in women and to focus more on the increasingly pertinent issues of identity and diversity.



The ambassadors shared more of their experiences in their careers as diplomats. Ranaraja jokes that because she is the first female ambassador for Sri Lanka in the Philippines since the embassy’s establishment in the 60s, her driver had called her “Sir” by accident. Albert recounts opening negotiations for oil with a country where men wouldn’t shake the hands of a woman. The majority of the staff in the embassies of Turkey, Sri Lanka, and Singapore are women.


“We all have our own strengths, weaknesses, and ways of viewing things,” added Peng. “We shouldn’t contest each others abilities. That’s really just a race to the bottom.”


To celebrate the rest of Women’s month, Asia Society Philippines will also be hosting Kulinarya Dinner Series: Margarita Forés on March 15. On March 21, a networking/mixer event, Asia Society Conversations: Leading Women, will be held at Acceler8, 111 Paseo de Roxas. The mixer will be led by women from non-traditional industries (technology, automotives, finance, and aviation).