To Really Lead on Global Gender Equality, the United States Needs Dedicated, Sustained Leadership

June 16, 2022

It’s been 512 days since President Biden took office, and 216 days since he announced the nomination of Geeta Rao Gupta to be the US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues. After a long wait, Rao Gupta’s nomination hearing is finally scheduled—for today.

The ambassador-at-large position was first established by President Obama during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. Soon after taking office, President Obama nominated Melanne Verveer for the new role. Verveeer had previously served as Secretary Clinton’s chief of staff during her time as First Lady. The Obama administration’s decision to establish the high-ranking post sent an important signal: it positioned the task of integrating gender equality into the formulation and conduct of United States foreign policy as meriting dedicated senior leadership.

The speed at which Melanne Verveer was nominated and confirmed helped reinforce the Obama administration’s commitment to promoting global gender equality. Ambassador Verveer was succeeded by Cathy Russell in 2013, and Kelley Eckels Currie in 2020. Notably, the position was vacant for most of President Trump’s term; Kelley Eckels Currie was not nominated until June 2019 and not confirmed by the Senate until December 2019. In the end, she served just over a year in the job.

With a speedy confirmation process from here on out, Rao Gupta would still have time to make her mark during President Biden’s current term. But a languishing vacancy translates to missed opportunity. On other fronts, the Biden administration has made unprecedented efforts to elevate global (and domestic) gender equality as a policy priority. On March 8, 2020, President Biden issued an executive order calling for the establishment of the first White House Gender Policy Council, a body more focused on influencing policy than its largely communications-oriented predecessor under the Obama administration, the White House Council on Women and Girls. The Gender Policy Council, led by Jennifer Klein, was tasked with drafting the United States’ first whole-of-government strategy on gender equality, and is in the process of working with federal agencies to develop accompanying implementation plans. And the Biden administration’s FY23 budget request included  $2.6 billion for foreign aid programs that address gender equality—a comparatively ambitious ask.

High-level diplomacy for global gender equality will be a vital component of the administration’s bold foreign assistance proposal. Tackling barriers to women’s empowerment, such as country legal frameworks, social norms, and gender-based violence, often requires a multi-faceted approach that extends beyond what traditional aid programs alone can accomplish. Previous Ambassadors-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues have helped drive concrete policy change, including the launch of the first-ever US Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls and the establishment of the Equal Futures Partnership. With more time in their posts—and less time in between tenures—future ambassadors, including Geeta Rao Gupta, could be even more impactful.

Evidence from around the world underscores the urgency of the global gender equality agenda, with the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering women-led businesses, limiting women’s employment opportunities, and increasing the gender gap in unpaid care work. Continued delays in filling a crucial post tasked with tackling these issues means a missed opportunity to ensure US foreign policy maximizes its impact for all people—including through programs and investments with strong bipartisan support. Such initiatives aim to narrow gender gaps in access to education, quality employment, financial services, and unpaid care work, or support women’s advancement in the workforce and political leadership. For the past three years, I’ve worked with a coalition of researchers and advocates focused on making US foreign policy increasingly feminist. We’ve called for dedicated leaders with in-depth gender expertise to drive this agenda across agencies and departments. The Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues is a central figure on this front—and Rao Gupta’s prompt confirmation will help ensure US foreign policy moves in the right direction.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.