On May 30, 2023, the Irish Ambassador to China, Her Excellency Dr. Ann Derwin, visited Yenching Academy of Peking University and delivered a talk to Yenching Scholars on “Women in Diplomacy.” Amb. Derwin was accompanied by a delegation from the Irish Embassy in China, including Sarah Finn, a member of the first cohort of Yenching Scholars enrolled in Fall 2015. This event was organized as part of the Yenching Academy Ambassador Speaker Series, designed to give Yenching Scholars a platform to discuss with diplomats and hone their interests in diplomacy and foreign affairs.
Matthew Kelly (2022 Cohort, Ireland) hosted the session. He briefly introduced Amb. Derwin’s illustrious career, noting her standing as a trailblazer and the impacts of her achievements on aspiring young diplomats, especially women, who dare to dream big, break through barriers and prejudices women face in diplomacy, and believe in the power of diplomacy to shape a better and equitable world.
Amb. Derwin began her speech by expressing appreciation for being invited to talk at Yenching Academy. She noted her interest in education, epitomized by many university visits and opportunities to inspire the younger generation. Her Excellency summarized the history of women in the workplace in Ireland since the last century, mentioning three notable events: the 1916 Proclamation that granted equal rights and opportunities to all citizens; the establishment of the marriage bar in the 1930s that prevented women in the civil service from working after marriage and the issue of unequal pay; and abolishment of the marriage bar following Ireland’s admission into the European Economic Community in 1973. “Ireland’s entry into the EU brought the most radical transformation in women’s rights. In one of her speeches on securing this transformation, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, Ireland’s first female Ombudsman and Information Commissioner, highlighted what remains to be done today to address many other issues, including gender-based violence,” Amb. Derwin noted.
Her Excellency talked about Irish women in diplomacy, describing the groundbreaking career of Anne Anderson, Ireland’s female ambassador to the EU, France, the UN, and the US. “Women first entered the diplomatic maps (or foreign services) in 1947, and Maire McEntee was the first female diplomat recruited, and Ireland’s first female ambassador was Josephine McNeill, who was appointed as ambassador to the Netherlands in 1950.” In addition, Amb. Derwin spotlighted the advances in women’s representation in Ireland, noting the difference between the minute number of female heads of division in Ireland in 1983 and the rate in 2023, which stands at almost half. Amb. Derwin also discussed Ireland’s role in supporting several UN peacekeeping missions across the globe, emphasizing women’s efforts in bringing about change in conflict and post-conflict societies. She also talked about some popular perspectives of men and women in public service. The belief, Her Excellency explained, “is that men tend to prioritize stability and infrastructures – roads, bridges, and transportation. In contrast, women prioritize social issues like child care, schools, and hospitals. So, there remains the current gap in the system in terms of social division, with the question of how to deal with the gaps.”
Amb. Derwin concluded by discussing her experiences as a woman in the Irish civil service, tracing her career trajectory from her first entry into the service, work in veterinary medicine and the agro-food sector, and multidisciplinary education background. She also gave three messages to Yenching Scholars to guide them as they consider their career paths and be able to make brave decisions to forge ahead in life: a commitment to lifelong learning, identifying and taking opportunities, and broadening one’s expertise.
Yenching Scholars raised several questions. One question concerned how the ambassador’s diverse educational background has helped her achieve her career goals. Amb. Derwin lauded the multidisciplinary nature of the Yenching Academy program and noted that her multidisciplinary background helped improve her problem-solving approaches, understanding of the structure of power and decision-making in society, and working with diverse groups that offer fresh perspectives since she has gathered diverse experiences from various fields. Another question delved into the ambassador’s thoughts on the best ways to engage in diplomatic discourses in our ever-polarized world. Her Excellency explained that diplomacy is about empathy – understanding the other side, showing mutual respect, and thinking about common grounds, shared values, and interests. Although it could be daunting sometimes, the best way forward is to discover where you have common aspirations and collaborate to solve the pressing issues.
Prof. Dong Qiang, Dean of Yenching Academy, thanked Amb. Derwin for accepting the Academy’s invitation and her speech. He expressed his admiration for Ireland, especially regarding culture, literature, and translation, noting the popularity of the works of Irish literary giants, including William Yeats and Oscar Wilde, in China. Prof. Dong also noted his firm conviction in the role of women in advancing a better world and appreciated the increasing placement and work of women ambassadors in China. He also discussed the efforts of notable Chinese women in diplomacy and other fields who push for improved ties and a better understanding of China abroad, including Madam Fu Ying, the second female vice-foreign minister. Prof. Dong extended a warm invitation to Amb. Derwin and her delegation to revisit the Academy sometime in the future.
The event ended with the exchange of gifts between the Irish Ambassador and the Dean of Yenching Academy on behalf of their respective institutions. Everyone attendee gathered for a group photograph in front of the iconic door of the Jingyuan Courtyard 4.