U-WIRE EXCLUSIVE: Foreign Service recruits workers, particularly women, minorities

Posted 11:30 p.m. March 12

by Carolyn Polinsky
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

Ambassador Ruth Davis, the director of the State Department’s Foreign Service, is calling upon women to enter a field that she says dates back to the days of the Queen of Sheba: Diplomacy.

March 15 marks the final day for Americans to sign up for the Foreign Service Exam and Davis would like to see at least 50 percent of those involved in the agency representing the America government abroad to be women.

“I think our diplomacy is better when we have the benefits of a broad range of people,” Davis told U-WIRE in an interview.

She is actively recruiting more Americans to serve in foreign countries, particularly minorities and women. She is hoping that the “old boys network” of foreign service officers will be broken and is excited that of the 30,000 people who have already signed up for the Foreign Service Exam, 11,000 are female.

Davis, who has worked in the Foreign Service for more than 30 years, first became interested in the idea of diplomatic relations after hearing Biblical stories as a child.

“I thought the Queen of Sheba was pretty nifty,” said Davis, because nine centuries before Christianity was around, the ruler had established a trade policy between Israel and Sheba by negotiating with the King of Solomon.

The number of women in the Foreign Service has gradually increased since the office was established in 1924. Historically, Davis said, women were not encouraged to join and were led to believe they might be mistreated in foreign countries.

However, Davis said “the weight of the U.S. government” makes it easier to for women to go to countries where females might not have the same rights that they would in America. A number of women have served in “hard posts” like Pakistan, Columbia and the Cote D’Ivoire.

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright “shattered the glass ceiling” for women in diplomacy and showed that women should be taken seriously as officers, Davis added.

Davis expects only half of those who sign up for the Foreign Service exam, which will be held on April 12, to actually take the test. The first phase of the exam covers general knowledge on current affairs, geography, history, American policy and government. It takes a half-day to complete and is open to Americans who will be between the ages of 21 and 59 when they are called upon to serve. The second part of the test is an oral exam that takes a day to complete.

Those who pass both parts of the test must go through security and medical procedures before being placed on the list of eligible hires and are then put on a register for special training classes and a junior officer position.

Diplomats work in one of the 186 countries where America maintains relations and 163 of those posts are embassies. They are involved in political and economic analysis and in completing duties regarding the environment, international drug laws and treaties. Davis said it is an exciting career that is also a public service.

“Short of being a multi-millionaire, there’s nothing I would have done but be a Foreign Service officer,” she said.

Davis said she got interested in the Foreign Service as she studied in France and heard African students discussing post-colonialism and nation-building in their home countries. She thought it would be “extraordinarily exciting to see countries in process of developing” and entered the field in 1969, serving in Zaire. She has since worked in a variety of countries including Japan, Kenya, and Italy.

One of the highlights of her career was working in Benin, and helping to increase education policies, particularly for females.

“I took that opportunity to help girls,” Davis said. “I feel very proud to know that because I was ambassador, there will be women in the future the United States helped to educate.”

After entering the Foreign Service, officers theoretically should be available for worldwide duty, said Davis. However, they “try to be accommodating as possible” and discuss special needs such as placing officers with children in countries where they can attend schools. New officers bid on the areas they wish to serve in, and can have up to fifteen top choices. The beginning salary ranges from $40,000 to $60,000 a year.

Currently there are approximately 10,000 members of the Foreign Service. The largest number of placements are in Cairo, London, Paris and Tokyo. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number of people wishing to become diplomats increased.

“People started to feel the urge to help citizens, give to their country and put diplomacy out there. American diplomats are America’s first line of defense,” said Davis.

Foreign Service officers are initially junior officers who can gain tenure after five years and are expected to learn a foreign language. They can then become mid-level, senior and finally career ambassadors, of which there are 40 including Davis. Presidents appoint ambassadors and generally 70 percent come from within the ranks of the Foreign Service and 30 percent are outside nominees.

While Davis has served at a variety of posts, she said her “favorite was wherever I was at the moment.”

She is looking forward to more females becoming diplomats and said that even though one-third of Foreign Service officers are women, “we still have a very long way to go.”

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