Mission Thailand’s Charge d’Affaires Michael Heath (center right) hosts a dinner for Federal Women’s Program (FWP) members and Thai women parliamentarians at the chief of mission’s residence, March 2021. FWP members from multiple agencies and sections joined the dinner. Photo courtesy of Mission Thailand
By Zehra Naqvi
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic limited interpersonal connections, but it did not change the need for people to connect and to push for change in the workplace. U.S. Mission Thailand’s Federal Women’s Program (FWP) created a sense of community for its members by changing its programming, expanding its audience, and developing innovative ways to invest in their success.
Mission Thailand has more than 1,800 staff members working across 47 agencies/offices. Networking among women is particularly critical to investing in their long-term professional advancement. It’s no secret that throughout the Department of State, including Mission Thailand, women are still noticeably absent across senior leadership positions. In 2020, the Government Accountability Office issued a report which noted that underrepresentation of women in the senior ranks persists as a problem within the agency. FWP seeks to change this by creating a close-knit network of women investing in each other’s professional advancement. The Mission had fewer direct-hire women to join as FWP members, but it still had a proud and strong cohort determined to grow their network and effect change.
Although local restrictions kept Thailand in varying states of lockdown for most of the year, FWP was still able to pursue four goals: expand the network of women beyond the Department to all 47 agencies within Mission Thailand; launch a virtual speaker series to highlight the tremendous talent and share the expertise of women across the Mission; create new ways to network and invest in its members; and liaise with the Front Office to partner for change.
To include a broader range of women, FWP held monthly virtual programs, including one-hour speaker sessions generally scheduled on Fridays at lunch time. Because Mission Thailand is a large mission, with multiple buildings across multiple neighborhoods and different teleworking schedules in each office, virtual programming enabled more women across numerous agencies to participate in FWP’s programming.
FWP’s virtual speaker series included interagency panels on “Women in Law Enforcement” and another on “Preparing for the Next Health Crisis.” The speaker series highlighted women working at the Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, the International Law Enforcement Academy of Bangkok, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences, and USAID. One particularly successful group discussion was on “Overcoming Obstacles to Professional Success,” facilitated by the embassy spokesperson and the Asia marketing director for the U.S. Agency for Government Media. Break out rooms and small group conversations shared practical tips on performance reviews, networking, professional achievement, and mentorship.
FWP sought creative ways to support its members’ professional advancement. Recognizing that professional women benefit from high quality portrait photos suitable for speaker bios and professional networking opportunities, FWP collaborated with the management section to organize a free headshot photo initiative for members. FWP opened up the opportunity to men and women across other Mission groups, including the first and second tour officers group and eligible family members, among others.
The Front Office partnered with FWP to address members’ concerns in different ways. FWP held quarterly meetings with the Front Office to ensure a clear line of communication for issues of concern to FWP members, and worked together to encourage wide dissemination of networking opportunities, participation in representational events, and the use of hiring best practices in the bidding process. The Mission now broadcasts contact building opportunities more widely across its network and started a virtual sign-up sheet for FWP members interested in participating in representational events. One popular networking opportunity was an in-person dinner to meet with Thai women parliamentarians. The chargé d’affaires hosted the event and his opening remarks focused on the need to increase gender diversity in politics and foreign affairs. The Front Office also threw its support behind FWP’s anonymous end-of-tour survey, which aims to better understand women’s experiences at the Mission and to identify obstacles in recruiting members.
Integrating more broadly into Mission efforts, FWP collaborated with the Mission’s Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee (DISC). On International Women’s Day, DISC and FWP organized a virtual roundtable on diversity and inclusion. The chargé d’affaires, co-chair for DISC, regional human resources officer, locally employed staff committee chairperson, and a USAID representative updated the Mission community on equity and inclusion initiatives, diversity survey results, gender statistics across the Mission, best practices for hiring, and EEO resources. FWP and DISC then collaborated on a cable detailing the Mission’s wide-ranging equity and inclusion initiatives.
FWP took an active role in the Mission’s webinar for potential bidders highlighting Mission Thailand’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. DISC and FWP met with Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield during her visit to Thailand in August 2021. The discussion highlighted the progress the Department has been making as an institution on equity and inclusion but also emphasized the importance of sustaining pressure and creating accountability on that front.
Mission Thailand’s FWP embraced its role to push for diversity, equity, and inclusion across not only the Department, but other government agencies as well. FWP managed to bring women together at a time when the pandemic was keeping everyone apart and the group’s members now better understand each other’s work and expertise. While expanding members’ professional networks, the group served as a channel for members to share concerns with Mission leadership, shine a light on inequities and disparities, and partner on efforts to address them. FWP’s success in establishing a close-knit network pushing for sustained change demonstrates the impact such groups can have within a mission. There is always more to be done, the key is to always keep pushing forward. As American tennis player Arthur Ashe famously stated, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
Zehra Naqvi is a public diplomacy officer and served as the Federal Women’s Program coordinator for Mission Thailand from 2020–2021.