Updated: Apr 8
This piece was originally published in Ms. Magazine.
Lee Yun-hyang was the lone woman at the table during the 2018 Singapore summit between the U.S. and North Korea. This scenario is likely to repeat itself tonight: U.S. men on one side of the table and North Korean men on the other, poised to decide what could be the fate of humanity without the substantive representation of more than half of the world’s population.
Let’s take a few steps back: In late 2017, I was sitting at my desk in Washington, D.C., casually discussing with my colleagues whether our office would be swallowed in the fireball if North Korea dropped a nuclear bomb on the White House—something that, at the time, seemed like a distinct possibility.
Our conversation followed a tit-for-tat showdown between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Kim clapped back: “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” he declared. “With fire.”
This instance occurred with the safety of 7,000 miles of land and ocean between the two parties. Could you imagine this happening in real time? There could surely be a bit lost in translation. What does dotard even mean? [Editor’s Note: According to Google’s Dictionary tool, “an old person, especially one who has become physically weak or whose mental faculties have declined.”]
Lee was in Singapore last year as a translator, but her role was not just administrative. She was tasked with using precision and tact to accurately convey the comments of two exceptionally hyperbolic leaders—and one faulty interpretation could mean the difference between starting a nuclear war and both sides amicably retreating to their respective countries. Lee is incredibly qualified for this task: She has a Ph.D. from the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting at the University of Geneva and is the Division Chief of the Department of Interpretation at the State Department.
Despite the fact that I work at a women’s nonprofit that focuses on nuclear disarmament and demilitarization, I failed to immediately see the value in Lee’s role. Even though she chose a career path where she may not be venerated, she should be lifted up—but even her critical presence didn’t change the reality that the negotiation table was still lacking in diversity and in women in decision-making roles.
Lee’s situation isn’t unique. Women are often relegated to seats behind the table or out of the room during high-level meetings. During the U.S. and China trade talks on February 21st, there were only two women, both interpreters, at the table among at least 20 men. Even worse, women made up only four percent of signatories, 2.4 percent of chief mediators, 3.7 percent of witnesses and nine percent of negotiators in 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011.
The implications of these gendered disparities are huge—and they’re felt around the world. When women are meaningfully involved in peace processes, agreements are 35 percent more likely to last after 15 years. When women are excluded, we all inevitably feel the consequences, as does our global society.
The U.S. is unique in that we have myriad cultures, perspectives, languages represented as citizens, which provide a strategic advantage in the intelligence and national security fields. Under 25 years of previous administrations, there seemed to be recognition of the benefits of diversity and inclusion; the proportion of women ambassadors trended upward.
But then the Trump administration came along with a buzzsaw.
For someone who prides himself as being the paragon of business savvy, you’d think that President Trump would utilize the exceptionally diverse set of talent available in his own country. That wasn’t the case. Instead, women and non-white senior foreign diplomats were assigned administrative work, forced out or retired once Trump took office, leaving the country’s reputation overseas in the hands of a Senior Foreign Service that is 88.8 percent white and over two-thirds male.
President Trump has another chance to substantively include women at his second meeting with Kim Jong Un tonight—not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the smart thing to do. But I’m not holding my breath.