Reporting on activists who work with the United Nations and other global institutions on issues related to the women, peace and security agenda is crucial, but it can be, admittedly, dry. So we decided to look at the diplomats and others working at the UN who are advancing women’s rights in what is still a male-heavy universe. We asked Karen Pierce, Britain’s permanent representative to the UN, to dish.
Pierce curls up on the sofa in her office, near the UN in New York, pulling a Union Jack-themed pillow across her lap and tucking one foot under her blue and pink windowpane dress. It would be easy to overlook how high up the ladder Dame Pierce stands — she was appointed to the Order of St. Michael and St. George last year for her foreign-policy service — if not for the panorama out her window. Pierce was just named one of the 25 most influential women in Britain, by British Vogue.
Pierce is also the first woman to serve as Britain’s permanent representative to the UN in New York and the only woman to serve as permanent representative for Britain in both Geneva and New York. (Read more on her positions within the Security Council here.) Today she is the highest-ranking woman on the Security Council and the sole woman among the Council’s five permanent ambassadors (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States). Only one other woman, Joanna Wronecka of Poland, currently holds an elected seat at the table.
Pierce defies stereotypes, especially at the UN, where gray is the prevailing wardrobe color. She has been known to sport a faux boa while standing down the Russian ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, at a Council meeting and expresses a preference for stilettos over sneakers — unless she’s racing for a helicopter, as she was known to do in Afghanistan, in a dress, heels and body armor.
The first person in her family to attend university, Pierce went on to acquire graduate degrees from Cambridge and the London School of Economics. Throughout her career, Pierce has garnered wide experiences, often in hot spots; she served as the deputy head of the Eastern Adriatic Department (the Balkans) in the late 1990s, as the British special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan from June 2010 to June 2011 and as permanent representative to Afghanistan from May 2015 to February 2016.
Here is what she said about working as a female diplomat, including advice for women who are thinking about joining such ranks and how she manages her fellow Russian diplomats. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.
The video clips interspersed below, drawn from the UN, highlight Pierce’s work there. The first video took place at the UN’s recent annual women’s rights conference, and the second video shows her speaking to the media after a meeting in the Security Council. The podcast, below, by Kacie Candela, captures the essence of the interview. — LAURA E. KIRKPATRICK
PassBlue: Not long ago, The New York Times had a fun feature story about all the UN ambassadors who like to go running in Central Park. Your response to this trend was: “I will most certainly not be joining the group. I wear stilettos.”
Karen Pierce: Everyone always comes out with the right-on statement like, “It’s good to be healthy and run around the park.” I thought I’d take a different angle. When I was in Kabul, I occasionally had to jump in and out of helicopters, so I have taken the stilettos off.
Generally, I think if you’re an ambassador you do need to look the part, and if you’re in somewhere like Kabul, being able to dress in a way that makes you feel confident when you take the body armor off is very important. I would wear stilettos in Kabul and even, depending on the distance, walk places in them. My protection team once said, “We didn’t know it was possible to walk this slowly, ma’am.”
When I first went to Kabul, I took a whole bunch of old clothes with me, as I knew it would be very dusty and I would be wearing lots of body armor. But I soon realized I needed my current clothes, because the Afghan women were always smartly dressed and they had the most beautiful jewelry. Who knew you needed your diamonds in Kabul?
PassBlue: What are your favorite pair of shoes?
Pierce: Prada navy-blue patterned silk with pink sculptured flowers — most beautiful shoes in the history of the world.
PassBlue: You’ve said there’s a theatrical aspect to the Security Council, was that what inspired the boa?
Pierce: The boa! That’s a cheap thing I got off the Internet for about eight bucks. The Russians tried to pretend, during all the Salisbury debate [on the alleged chemical weapons attack by Russian agents in Britain] in the Security Council, that it was an exotic fur. But it was a fake.
For most of my professional life, I have been negotiating with Russians and Americans. I enjoy negotiating with Russians, but obviously more if we get the result we want. I think the Russians like worthy opponents — they appreciate the fact that someone can stand up to them, and they respect the fact that it’s an exchange between equals. [Vitaly] Churkin [Russia’s previous ambassador to the UN, now deceased] was a child actor and also a Russian ministry spokesperson. So Russians get that there is a bit of theater in the Council.
But it’s not all theater. It would not really do justice to the dignity of the Security Council if you went in there looking for a fight. However, if someone comes in looking for a fight, we will push back.
PassBlue: Your life’s work is in diplomacy, where women are scrutinized for being either too stylish or not stylish enough. How did you work this out?
Pierce: I did political military affairs for a lot of my career, so I am not unfamiliar with being in the midst of lots of men. Military men have a particular sense of order and appreciate it if you look smart, it shows you respect the occasion.
PassBlue: Is there a part of you that thinks, I’m the first woman to be the UK’s permanent representative in New York and in Geneva, why are we discussing style?
Pierce: No, there’s a part of me that loves to talk about style. I do wonder if it’s not an older woman/younger woman thing, because I can think of plenty of younger colleagues who actually would be a bit cross with that approach.
The key is getting the balance right, because if you come across only as superficial and interested in how you look, no one’s going to take what you say about any diplomatic issue seriously; you’re not doing justice to the cause of promoting women to senior positions.
PassBlue: Is there an expectation that successful women not look too successful? Consider that articles about Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, almost always include language about her scarves and how expensive they are.
Pierce: That’s the thing, isn’t it? There’s a demand. One thing I learned about journalism when I was in the foreign ministry press office: people like to have something, a specific characteristic to latch on to, something personal that hooks the reader. I think, when the person is a woman, most of the time it’s going to be your shoes, your hair, your handbag, and that’s not particularly fair. I don’t imagine anyone sets out to put the focus on the accessories, it’s just the way things are at the moment, and it will probably take a long time to change.
PassBlue: When did you forge your sense of style?
Pierce: I wasn’t interested in clothes or makeup at all until I got to Cambridge. There, I discovered this wonderful vintage store, on the hill as you cycle out to where my college, Girton, was. I found the most fantastic Balenciaga 1930s boned, dark-aqua-blue dress. It was falling apart and cost me only the equivalent of $15. It was the most fabulous dress. I wore it on all conceivable occasions until it finally fell completely apart.
PassBlue: Did you ever have an icon who influenced your style?
Pierce: Debbie Harry.
PassBlue: Changing gears to the brutalities of the world, how would you improve the UN Security Council?
Pierce: You can never have enough women there.
PassBlue: What’s your advice to women on how to set an identity in starting out in diplomacy?
Pierce: Setting an identity is hard. You want to be the sort of person other people want to work with. And that might be because you’re very kind, or because you make good speeches, or do great policy. Always try and be someone other people find inspiring in some way or another. But that said, you should always be a good listener and always help people where you can. If you can help, you should.
The other thing I always suggest to women is that whatever’s said to you, however awful it seems, don’t treat it as if it was intended. Because if you treat everything inappropriate as if it was intended, you often don’t have somewhere to go next, you get upset, you get defensive, you get vulnerable. If you can laugh it off, or you can say something confident back, then that’s the best way to handle the situation.
It won’t always be possible, and sometimes what’s said will be seem so egregious at the time, but even then, don’t take it personally. I was once told I curtsied like a scullery maid. How to make any response to that? I was terribly hurt, and since this was when the Prince and Princess of Wales came to Tokyo [Pierce’s first post abroad], I thought, Oh my, I’m going to be sacked. Of course, I wasn’t because no one really notices. It was just someone being nasty.
There will be times when you just have to call out bad behavior, and as you get more senior, you should call it out more on behalf of other people.
The same goes for inadvertent behavior. I was at a meeting on climate change in Whitehall [the seat of the British government]. A group of mainly quite senior people were gathered around a huge table. There was a younger woman who wanted to speak. She just couldn’t catch the chairman’s eye, so I gave him her name and he still didn’t call on her. In the end I stepped in, and she got a chance to speak. I think she sent me a nice thank you note afterwards.
If you’re the senior person in the room, if you get to the top of the ladder, you look behind for someone lower down and you help them up it.
Life is not so bad if you’re a female American or British diplomat; there is still not parity, but there’s a trajectory. If you come from a Middle Eastern country, life is rather different. I would say the Western establishment, though imperfectly executed, is at least trying. Some of these women come from environments that aren’t really trying, where no one really cares, so it’s quite good to be able to organize things that everyone can do together.
For example, Afghanistan is in a difficult position. The first lady, Rula Ghani, is aware and vocal about the need for women to be teachers, nurses and ministers, rather than Ph.D.s in literature. But it’s a difficult message to get across because she wants the girls to be aspiring and ambitious. However, she is quite right, in the rural areas they have a terrible shortage of community services.
Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.