How do you solve a problem like the Middle East? Try involving more women says one British diplomat.

Jane Marriott has found herself in the middle of rocket fire in Iraq and somewhere near the top of an al-Qaeda hit list. The straight-talking Doncaster diplomat talks to Sarah Freeman.

Jane Marriott, from Doncater, who is one of a handful of leading British female diplomats.

Jane Marriott doesn’t like relying on easy stereotypes. It’s understandable. As one of a handful of young, female diplomats, she is used to people glancing over her shoulder whenever she enters a room. She knows they are looking expectantly for the ‘real’ ambassador, the white, middle-aged man in a suit. She also knows that when a British colonel once described her role as “sitting in the back of wagon looking pretty” he wasn’t entirely joking.

Still in the business of diplomacy, Marriott is game enough to admit that particularly in the Middle East being female does have its advantages.

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“It’s not about fluttering your eyelashes,” says Marriott, who was British Ambassador to Yemen before returning to London to become director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Middle East and North Africa department. “But there is definitely still a novelty factor being a woman. Plus there is a great advantage to be had when people underestimate you.

“Men certainly tend to speak more freely and once they realise that the world hasn’t ended by being that little bit more open, they tend to keep on going. I think being a straight talking Yorkshire woman helps. I’m not there to fluff anyone’s ego. I’m there to get information and the best way to do that is by building relationships.”

The FCO is currently on a bit of a mission to throw off its reputation for being populated by overgrown public school boys. It’s an uphill struggle. Women were barred from the diplomatic corps until 1946 and it wasn’t until 1973 that they were allowed to be married. The reasons given were many and varied. Some felt Muslim countries simply wouldn’t negotiate with women. Others said that it would take a man to deal with the drunken British sailors who were apparently a scourge of foreign ports. Marriott says the while the organisation was still very “posh” and a little “intimidating” when she joined the demographic is changing. With younger women rising through the ranks, 40 of its 200 missions are now headed by females and Marriott, who has become a bit of a face for its new image, ticks a few other boxes too.

While she did later study for an MA at Cambridge, she was educated at a state school in Doncaster, didn’t get on a plane until she was 23 and before she ended up in the Foreign Office had applied for a job setting questions on a quiz show broadcast on UK Gold.

“It was my mum who told me about the Civil Service fast track scheme,” she says. “I think she hoped I would end up with a nice cosy job for life with a decent pension at the end.” The reality has proved a little different. “Initially I was given a role in Equal Opportunities. Well, where else would you put a woman? I tolerated it for a year and then threw my toys out of the pram.”

Realising its new recruit was not about to be fobbed off, Marriott was sent to Washington in 2008 the year Barack Obama was elected president. It was the first in a series of postings which have taken her to some of the world’s most dangerous and politically unstable countries. It has meant that she has found herself in the middle of rocket attacks in Iraq, somewhere near the top of an al-Qaeda hit list and out in Tehran she was holed up for eight hours when protestors stormed the British embassy in Tehran, angered by sanctions over the country’s nuclear programme.

“Yep, it’s not quite the cosy job my mother thought it would be. Tehran was pretty hairy, but you do your job. Once we moved everyone to safety I began negotiating with the authorities and eventually the demonstrators were moved on. I guess those are the moments when you realise just how quickly situations can turn.”

Marriott says she tries to avoid being a role model for women in the Middle East, although her decision not to wear a hijab while working in Yemen did give the green light for others to do the same. Rather, she prefers to champion other women whose influence is often overlooked and provide a voice for those whose opinions are routinely ignored.

“I get to go to women-only gatherings, so I see and hear from the entire population rather than just half of it,” she says. “What’s interesting is when you get a group of men to discuss what a country needs they will talk about power structures, they will talk about money and there is often an awful lot of posturing.

“In Yemen when women were asked what changes they wanted to see, they talked about creating employment, they talked about ensuring their children were educated. I also met a couple of female powerbrokers out in the Middle East, who are simply amazing. They have no personal agenda. Their only aim is to stop their country going to hell in a handcart. You can’t help but feel that might be a better way forward.”

Having promised her partner that she wouldn’t accept another foreign posting for at least a couple of years, Marriott is now living in London, but admits the job is difficult to juggle with family life.

“When I first went out to Iran, the ambassador used to go home at 4pm while I would be in the office for at least another few hours. When he left and I was promoted I realised why. Every night he was representing Britain at some official function, often til nearly midnight and those few hours in late afternoon were the only time he got to himself.

“In a job like this there are always compromises. I remember waking up one Christmas day in Iraq snuggled up in a freight container in a heavily guarded compound, thinking ‘I’m a wanted woman, what on earth I am doing here?’ I guess the answer is that while working in areas like this is challenging dangerous and demanding, it’s also addictive.”

Ultimately, Marriott would like to be the British ambassador to Washington, one of a number of plum roles, along with Paris and Berlin which have never been held by a woman. However, for now there are other priorities.

“The work we do can seem very far removed from the lives of ordinary British people, but it’s not. There are migrants living in Yorkshire right now who fled countries like Libya and Syria because they didn’t see a future there. And unless we can achieve political stability, unless we can provide a foundation on which they can build a successful economy then they will keep on coming.

“In the next few weeks we will soon have a unity government established in Libya, but it will be a few more years until it has full control of law and order. The steps you take towards peace can often seem small, agonisingly so, but this job teaches you that things done quickly tend to have the stability of quicksand.

“When I was at university, like so many people I was fresh-faced and determined to change the world. I might be a little older and a little more pragmatic, but that honestly is still my ambition.”