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Author: Annabel Hendry

From parallel to dual careers: Diplomatic spouses


This paper provides a brief summary of the main issues relevant to the contemporary role of diplomatic spouses and its future in the contemporary European context. It outlines some of the measures being introduced by Foreign Services to respond to the changing role and position of spouses.


In this paper I provide a brief summary of the main issues relevant to the contemporary role of diplomatic spouses and its future in the contemporary European context. Later, I outline some of the measures being introduced by Foreign Services to respond to the changing role and position of spouses. By doing this I hope to stimulate comparative discussion and maybe even to prompt some fresh solutions to the dilemmas – they are needed.

In the recent past (and in some countries, even now) diplomatic spouses have been expected to follow their partners around the world, and until recently many accepted the role of supporting their spouses and their Services on an unpaid basis. As a result the vast majority of spouses, the overwhelming majority of whom were wives, were unable to follow their own careers and instead became incorporated into their partners’ work and way of life; often identifying with his work and progress. Many did not even consider the possibility of following their own careers, but rather saw their own career as being a kind of “parallel” one alongside their partners, vicariously “taking on” the latters’ rank and status and feeling a high level of consciousness of the sets of rights and duties which followed from this.(1)  It is still quite common to hear older wives refer to “our career” when discussing that of their husband.

Over the last two decades the situation has altered both as a result of changes in the surrounding economic and social climate and as a result of shifts in the nature of diplomacy itself. In the European context, spouses are today becoming far more ambiguously placed in relation to the overall structures and operations of their Foreign Services, and for their part often feel increasingly ambivalent about their position, their role, and the impact of diplomacy as a way of life upon their own life chances. Therefore, following from the general shifts in the overall social climate relevant to diplomacy, there are two closely related specific sets of questions which need to be addressed.

First, there are those which concern the way in which the duties and privileges flow across the conjugal link. What kinds of role should and will be played, if any, by those who marry diplomats?

Second, there are the questions which follow from the need for Services to take into account the constraints that diplomacy as a way of life imposes on officers’ families if they are going to be able to maintain a healthy level of recruitment and retention of staff in the future. I shall return to these questions later.

General Social Shifts Relevant To Diplomatic Spouses

Shifts in overall career patterns and the tendency towards dual career families:

Volumes have been written within the growing literature on the theory of management on the lines that vertically directed careers for life are a thing of the past and that the future lies in “portfolio careers” (e.g., Handy 1995; Grigg, 1997). Reading these texts you often end up with the impression of societies made up of modern Renaissance men and women, leading lives of utopian variety and flexibility. All this ought to be very good news for diplomatic spouses. Yet, unfortunately, in many ways this message filters through in rather negative ways to those within Diplomatic Services and often becomes translated into the experience of the transformation from a secure job for life into insecurity, uncertainty, and anxiety as to how to live up to concepts such as performance pay.

This growing insecurity exacerbates the urgency that is often felt for both partners in a marriage to keep up their careers. Yet, this can be difficult to achieve. For spouses, who frequently still suffer repeated rejections when they apply for jobs on the grounds that they have shifted around and changed jobs too often, the vision of a portfolio career utopia can seem a long way off. This was borne out in a recent Swiss survey (Schaller, 1995); against 60% of the respondents who worked before their first posting, only 16% worked on their return and only 22% were able to pursue their chosen professions. Concern over career prospects was also reflected in a study undertaken by the Austrians in 1992 (Wille-Romer, 1992); 75% of the respondents who had completed professional training were not exercising their professions.

In the meantime two main general trends are emerging. The first is towards dual career couples, with each partner having equal earning potential: in the case of the UK, 70% of couples have dual incomes (Family Resources Survey, Department of Social Security). A direct reflection of this is the second trend towards more women entering diplomatic services and of a resulting increase in the ratio of male to female spouses in our Associations (the overall percentage of males in all the EU Associations taken together is now 15%, rising to 37% in the case of Denmark; 25.5% in the case of the Netherlands, and 13% in that of the United Kingdom). The consequence of both these tendencies is that spouses, more than ever before, want not just jobs, but to pursue their careers.

The growing ratio of male to female spouses represents its own challenges. Although it is popular to say that male and female spouses present the same problems and face the same challenges, I think the question is more complex. At present male spouses, and indeed couples, are far less prepared for the male partner to compromise his career prospects in order to follow his spouse round the world. In some countries, this is reflected in rising numbers of unaccompanied married officers at posts (statistics for this are provided in the Appendix). Male spouses also tend to feel less obliged to participate in the activities traditionally associated with diplomatic spousehood.

Changes in marriage patterns and in the nature of the family and household:

The need to take account of the whole family and the way in which this social category has itself changed is one which is gaining increasing prominence in personnel policies, in both the private and public sectors.

During the 1997 Conference of the European Union Foreign Affairs Spouses Association (EUFASA), the Dutch pointed out how partners play a greater role than ever before in Personnel Department policies. Why this need?

First there is the reason of changing biographies: parents are living longer and needing care; children are remaining dependent for longer: one of the observations to emerge from the British Diplomatic Spouses Association’s (BDSA) AGM last year was that it is quite often once children have completed their education that they need the most support from parents, especially when jobs are scarce and the economic climate uncertain.

Second, there are the changing social structures that surround families. In the EUFASA Conference, the Dutch also pointed to the trend that nation states in Europe are demanding more and more that people fall back on their own resources for supporting themselves and others when they are not actually earning money; one consequence of this is that personal pensions are becoming more and more indispensable if one wishes to avoid a penurious old age.

Third, there are the choices which people make about how to live their lives. The resulting changes in family set-ups will inevitably force changes and greater flexibility in personnel policies, particularly when it comes to considering unmarried partners. Some countries do recognise unmarried partners as having the same rights as married ones when it comes to allowances (The Netherlands and Sweden accept both sexes, whilst the European Commission, Finland, Norway and France accept only heterosexual partners). It is also becoming increasing practice in the private sector to incorporate unmarried partners into packages providing for international assignments.

A further change, which might be a result of the relaxation of the rules in some Services which prohibited marriage to foreigners,(2)  is that there are increasing numbers of foreign born spouses within diplomatic services. In a questionnaire sent out by the BDSA this year,(3)  respondents were invited to suggest issues which they thought our Association should address in the future. Of those who made suggestions, the greatest proportion – 10% – mentioned the particular problems faced by foreign born spouses. In the case of the Austrian study, it was found that foreign-born spouses suffered particularly from lack of social recognition in Austria. Finally, of course, we must mention the seemingly ever-rising divorce rates.

Changes Within Diplomacy And Foreign Services Relevant To Spouses

Amongst the many changes which are taking place within diplomacy, the most relevant to spouses seem to be:

Multi-lateral diplomacy:

There are a number of ways in which this tendency within diplomacy affects the role of spouses. First is the muting of the importance placed upon the promotion of national identity characteristic of bilateral embassies, with all the symbolic and entertainment aspects of representation that go with this. Taking the example of the EU corps in Brussels, the whole promotion of the common European ideal tends, if anything, towards the suppression of national differences. This, plus the fact that officers work according to punishing schedules and tend to do business over lunches, means that spouses posted there find themselves free, if they wish, to participate only to a minimal extent in representational entertaining. In the case of the United Kingdom Permanent Representation there, it is popular to describe Brussels as “Whitehall with allowances.” Whilst some spouses welcome this, others feel excluded, diminished and isolated.

At another level, the case of the European Union has fostered a significant development in the form of EUFASA. This yearly conference began in 1988 and is currently in the final stages of achieving a legal status as an association in its own right, with an aim to promoting joint action on the part of all Associations of the member states and that of the European Commission.

The emphasis on producing “meaner and leaner” Services; increasing overlaps with the private sector; and increasing use of IT:

All the above trends represent a new rationality penetrating the way in which diplomacy is conducted, and a stripping down of superfluous expenses and unnecessary entertainment. This, again, of course affects spouses, insofar as it involves a reduction in some of the spheres of activity traditionally associated with their position and role at post.

The overall decline in the notion of “public duty”:

This is a subtle and complicated topic, and details can not be entered into here. The question of the public service ethos question was raised in the recent conference on “Diplomacy – A Profession in Peril?” last year. One theme was the way in which many foreign services are importing private sector practices into their management policies and contracting out certain activities to the private sector. Yet, several speakers also expressed anxiety over putting at risk such qualities as loyalty, long term commitment and experience which are central to the continuing effectiveness of foreign services. In fact, in some Services, including the British, there are signs that loyalty and long term commitment are currently on the decline. Younger officers do not view entry into the Service as necessarily a career for life – particularly if this should involve a sacrifice of their spouses’ careers.

Shifts in personnel policies:

An important point to stress in the European context is at that, while spouses are rejecting “traditional” patterns of incorporation into Foreign Service life, it is becomingly increasingly true that the questions which preoccupy those in Personnel Management within our Services concerning recruitment and retention of staff are intimately bound up with precisely those matters which involve discussion of spouses, partners and families. There is a nice irony here, of course. Spouses may be beginning to feel like withdrawing, sometimes because of lack of recognition and/or consideration from their Services, at the same time as they are being newly appealed to and asked for their opinions.

Changing Attitudes Of Spouses

In many of the spouses’ associations in Europe there is on-going debate as to where the lines should be drawn between choice and duty and between voluntary versus paid work. It needs stressing that there is still a wide spectrum of opinion, and in the case of the British Service, this can be illustrated through two quotes.

The first is from a speech given by the Chairman during a seminar which the BDSA held with the Administration on Role, Recognition and Recompense for Spouses in 1995 where she said “It is a case of the role is dead, long live the role! We face a difficult contradiction. We do not want this role and yet we perform it. We even say that we choose to do it and then, of course, as we do it, it comes to be expected.”

The second is from a reply to one of the questionnaires in our survey. In answer to the question of which measures she felt could be taken to improve her contentment with her role as a spouse of a Foreign Service officer, a woman aged 31 and married to a Second Secretary replied “the whole problem as I see it is that I don’t see this as my role; my role is too connected with my own sense of identity, i.e. my life, career and children. The fact that my husband happens to be a diplomat is his business and I go abroad not because of his job or because of any transferred sense of role as his wife but simply because I choose to spend my life with him and not with the DS.” It could be added that her view was not by any means the most extreme; one spouse, to the question “which duties as a diplomatic spouse do you think deserve pay or recompense?” replied “just being married to a diplomat!”

Amidst all these different views, two trends can be detected. First, spouses feel uncertain about their role and its future and morale is often low. This clearly emerged from the comments made by the spouses who responded both to the BDSA survey this year and to the one undertaken by the Austrians, that morale is generally low. The study undertaken by the Austrians revealed that morale tended to be far lower amongst junior officers and their spouses. Although in the British case this does not seem to be the case, there was the impression, shared by the Austrians, that more effort needs to be made to involve and reflect the views of younger spouses and those married to junior officers. The responses to the BDSA survey revealed a tremendous division of opinion over whether the supporting role of the spouse will continue into the 21st century: 53% believed it would; 41% thought not and 6% did not know.

Second, although at present, in most European countries, the majority of spouses do continue to accompany their spouses to post and to “opt in” whilst at post, there is a growing sense that greater recognition and some form of remuneration is due, particularly in the case of the work undertaken by Heads of Mission spouses. In the BDSA survey, the overwhelming majority – 81.5% – believed that spouses should be recompensed for duties associated with the role. Those who replied negatively frequently gave the time-honoured reason for this: that it would remove the element of choice. The respondents to the Swiss survey also raised the question of remuneration, even though this was not directly asked. In the Austrian case, 60% of the respondents expressed disappointment at the lack of recognition they received from their Ministry – this was particularly true of those over 50 and those married to more senior officers.

Debates around this question are by no means new, and can be dated back a good twenty years. One of the problems which emerged during the turbulent debates of the late 70s in several Foreign Services was precisely that of what did wives owe their Services and vice versa? In the case of the British Service, the whole situation ended up with rather a head on clash – with a movement in the Diplomatic Service Wives Association saying that, quite simply, wives owed the Service nothing.

The British administration (along with others, including the US and the Australian) responded with the suave, but not very helpful, statement, that of course wives owed their Services nothing, but any contribution they might choose to make would be most welcome. Thus, the firm ground of obligation gave way to the more shifting one of choice – a shift which did not please all spouses, for it left some feeling undervalued. Twenty years on, in the case of the British Service, the position remains more or less the same. Today the official line is that “the spouse is not expected to do anything in support of the officer but that anything the spouse does on a voluntary basis is greatly appreciated by the Service.” To many, this position appears to be derogatory, condescending and untrue. Indeed, there is a certain disingenuousness to this position – as long as it can be said that it is the spouse’s choice to contribute; however great that contribution might be, it can then be freed of any contractual taint and the issue of pay can be ducked.

So, what might be the future for diplomatic spouses and how are Services taking into account the need to acknowledge the constraints that diplomacy as a way of life imposes on the families of officers?

Policies and Solutions

New types of incorporation?

Maybe part of the solution to the ambiguous situation regarding recognition is that spouses should be newly incorporated into Services but on a new and more professional footing than in the past. Under pressure, the British Service is inching forwards – at least spouses of Heads of Mission in some posts can claim for the hours put into residence management. It has to have been already established that the residence requires a manager/housekeeper. Heads of Mission spouses can then apply for this position, and be paid at the appropriate local levels of pay. What is interesting here is that this trend represents a new form of incorporation of spouses into Services as a resource, but on a very different, and more professional, footing than in the past. Another aspect of this professionalisation of the role is the introduction of new accounting procedures and the provision of IT packages to help in managing residences.

Spouse employment:

Here, there are no easy solutions, and there tends to be something of a contradiction involved: something which always emerges within attitude surveys, both amongst officers and spouses, is that travel abroad figures high on the list of reasons for remaining within the Service and as one of the advantages for remaining with a diplomatic way of life (travel abroad was cited as the most important reason for not leaving the British Service in the Staff Attitude Survey undertaken in connection with the 1996 Review of Overseas Allowances (Hornby, 1996); and as the most important advantage of marrying a diplomat in the 1998 BDSA survey). And yet, it is precisely all the movement involved that contains one of the major disadvantages – that is the blight on the career opportunities of the accompanying or “trailing” spouse.

It should be said that Diplomatic Services are not alone in facing this challenge – it is one which is well recognised within the private sector as one of the key questions to be tackled in organising international assignments. In a meeting the BDSA held with the company Employment Conditions Abroad, the ECA representative pointed out that all the major multinational companies are recognising that the issue of dual careers is becoming the primary factor affecting policies and practices governing expatriate postings, and recently a conference was held by the CBI on “Dual Careers and International Assignments.” And for all that the private sector is not altogether comparable with our situation, the fact that the question of dual career couples in the context of international assignments has been placed on the agenda more widely may well bode well for the future in general for spouses who wish to keep up their careers.

As for more specific and immediate solutions to the dilemmas associated with spouse employment and the lack of it, the issue that has been top of the list within several European Associations for a good many years is that of compensation for lost pension rights. The British Service has now gained the acceptance of the Secretary of State that compensation should be paid for the inability of spouses to build up pension rights. If it is carried forward, it will be paid as an additional allowance overseas for spouses who were under fifty on marriage and who have spent at least 3 years abroad accompanying an officer. Although the money will still have to be found to fund this scheme, and the approval is still needed of the Minister of the Office of Public Service for the new regulation, the fact that it has been agreed upon in principle represents a major step forwards (the Austrians have also obtained agreement in principle for compensation for lost pension rights).

When it comes to making it easier for spouses actually to work and keep up their careers there are various policies now in place. One trend which is towards establishing databases upon which spouses can register for work – the BDSA established one in 1995, and has had some success (other European countries with employment databases include: Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden). A recent idea to emerge from Sweden is to establish an internet site, with each registered spouse having their own e-mail address to facilitate communication with potential employers. Other sources of help provided within the British Service include the provision of funds for re-training; the policy of employing spouses within missions; bilateral agreements; provision of language tuition and payment for passing language examinations. Also, greater provision is, in theory, being made for joint postings, for more flexible working practices, for Special Unpaid Leave and for Officers to spend up to ten years on a home posting, if for family or other reasons they feel this is necessary.

Family friendly policies and the need for administrations to wake up and smell the aroma of the coffee:

In conclusion, we need to return to the more general need for Diplomatic Services to stay in step with the changes in the societies within and between which they operate, if they are to recruit and retain staff. The need to take account of the whole family and the way in which this social category has itself changed is currently under review within the British Service.

The aim is to introduce greater flexibility in the policies and practices governing personnel policies, allowing within the overall structure of allowances etc. space for differences in circumstances, rather than each individual having to do battle with the Administration each time a need arises which does not fit strictly with the rules and regulations. However, for these and other changes in policy to work out in practice, there will need to be a change in the consciousness of those actually administering it towards a greater openness and flexibility of thought.

An illustration of this was provided by an American Community Liaison Officer. Commenting upon the impressive set of policies the Americans have in place for promoting spouse employment, the CLO pointed out that many management officers still had attitudes from the ark, – and that no amount of machinery could work unless they woke up and smelt the aroma of the coffee.

In the case of the British Service the bottom line was well expressed in one comment the BDSA received when spouses’ views were requested on the importance of family-friendly policies: “the Office must decide whether it wants a married service overseas. If yes, then it must persuade the Treasury that these days there is a fundamental difference between the Diplomatic Service and the Home Civil Service and that stems in large part from the mobility requirement and its effect upon spouse employment. Terms and conditions of service have to contain incentives to make spouses want to go overseas.”

All the shifts which have been described above indicate a more general direction: Foreign Services in Europe increasingly need to acknowledge the fact that the category of “diplomatic spouse” no longer remains a secure, nor always a particularly comfortable, hook upon which to hang identity. The notion of “serving one’s country” in the capacity of being a helpmeet is becoming out-dated. In the case of Europe, this trend is possibly exacerbated by the increasing importance of a pan-European ideology and identity following on the establishing of the European Union. This pan-European identity is in some countries displacing the previous key importance of national identity. However, it is also true that so long as Diplomatic Services continue to exist in something resembling their current form, and so long as people continue to marry and/or have partners, the spouse/partner “problem” will continue to raise challenges.


1. A penetrating examination of this consciousness was provided by Callan (1977).

2. This cause was suggested to me by Professor Dietrich Kappeler in discussion during this Conference.

3. The survey asked spouses to respond to a series of questions concerning their opinions and experiences of their role. It was undertaken in preparation for a working session during the 1998 EUFASA Conference on the “Role of The Diplomatic Spouse/Partner in The 21st Century.”


Callan, Hilary (1975). “The Premise of Dedication: Notes Towards an Ethnography of Diplomats’ Wives,” in S. Ardener (ed. ), Perceiving Women, London: Dent & Sons, 87-104.

Grigg, Joanna (1997). Portfolio Working, London: Kogan Page.

Handy, Charles (1995). The Age of Unreason. London: Random House, Arrow Business Books.

Primary Sources

Hornby, Sir Derek (1996). Review of Overseas Allowances: Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Wille-Romer, Gertrude (1992). Zur Situation der Ehefrauen, BMaA-Studie 1991/92, Teil B.

Schaller, Bridgette (1995). Resultats du Sondage “Qui Etes Vous?”

Appendix: Information on EU Spouse/Partner Associations

Membership and Composition of EU Associations

Eur. Commision1501482
United Kingdom273623731352
Overall Percentages100%85%15%

Percentages of Men And Women

Eur. Commision991
United Kingdom8713


Associations Containing Unmarried Partners

Eur. CommisionSomeUnknownUnknown
FinlandNot manyUnknownUnknown