Diversity and Diplomacy: Why an Inclusive State Department Would Strengthen U.S. Foreign Policy
Statement by Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley
House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
June 17, 2020
Thank you Chairman Castro and Ranking Member Zeldin for today’s focus on what it will take to develop a truly diverse workforce, so that we will be able to devise and carry out the most effective foreign policies for our nation. The Department has lost too many of us because of bias, quiet discrimination and indifference.
The GAO report (https://www.gao.gov/reports/GAO-20-237/) doesn’t try to explain causality, but the numbers speak for themselves. Our problems begin at the beginning, with recruiting. Our rigorous testing process brings us smart, educated, and intelligent FSOs, but it has also welcomed racists, sexists and those indifferent to both. And this moment in America has shown us just how dangerous a culture of indifference can be.
A solid start to changing that culture is to require the board of examiners, the gate- keepers, to be significantly diverse. A friend of mine was recently pulled from being an assessor to take a more prestigious job, but left the assessment team with no African Americans. That lack of diversity among gatekeepers can have a huge impact on whether a minority candidate is judged ready to represent America. Success could rest on whether a candidate was asked to speak about Tom Wolfe, or Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Once in, the skills the foreign and civil service care about are clear. In both we are judged on our success in Leadership, Management and Substantive Knowledge. Rated highly on these in the foreign service and the next promotion is yours! Fail to meet the standards and you will be low ranked and removed. Now Department leadership also says diversity and inclusion are important, but no one is judged on their ability to help underrepresented officers improve their performance or secure important assignments. No one gets promoted because they burnished the quality of decision making by expanding the diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds brought to the table. No one is held back because their Bureau, Embassy, office or, section lacks inclusion.
As this report makes clear, I constantly walked into meetings at State and knew instantly that everyone who should have been there wasn’t. The homogeneity of race and gender around the table is the lived experience of those GAO charts. Where the Department needs help is with holding themselves accountable.
Without accountability for those who select, assign and promote employees, it will continue to be easy and acceptable to overlook, leave out, and avoid hiring both women and minority officers.
To finally get this right in the foreign and civil service, every promotion, job prospect, and assignment must depend, in part, on the ability to ensure inclusion and development of under-represented talent.
Just as I knew my ability to communicate in Arabic would help my supervisor advocate for my next promotion, today’s diplomats must know their mentoring of under-represented officers, for example, will strengthen their case for promotion. If you want the workforce to care, make it clear that embracing inclusion counts.
Unfortunately, shaping the Department’s D and I [Diversity & Inclusion] performance sits in many places, including the Director General’s office and individual bureaus. An empowered Director General could make a difference. But responsibility for increasing diversity is so diffuse that everyone gets to throw up their hands and say, “not me!” No one senior official has the responsibility or authority to FOCUS on this foundational issue. Or, to hold others to account.
The Department has implemented several programs to help level the playing field for underrepresented minorities, but they often falter under the burden of being “affirmative action”. My class of 52 had 2 blacks and 13 women. I remember attending a happy hour as a new FSO, and overhearing a group of guys derisively speculating on which woman had used the Mustang program to get in because they couldn’t pass the test.
No one wants to undermine the professional foreign service by eliminating a healthy ladder to senior positions for any FSO, but there is no incentive for Department-wide, bureau-wide, or individual effort to improve representation. Favors are paid. Favorites are rewarded. The process is opaque. The saying in the civil service is that “women get the training, men get the jobs”. Hurdles for experienced and capable civil servants to transfer to the foreign service are unnecessarily high.
Many individual officers place inclusion as a priority. I benefited from these officers. I was lucky that they saw something in me that pushed them to sponsor me for jobs and promotions. But the “building” often works against such efforts. When I interviewed to be a DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] for a black woman Ambassador, I was thrilled. There are always so few and she was dynamic! I was certain that my great interview would get me the job. But she told me she didn’t feel safe having an all black front office; that she felt compelled to select a white male to protect herself. I thanked her for her honesty; l meant it, but when I got home, I cried. I felt betrayed by a culture that crushed the courage of even those who knew how important such courage was!
There is a presumption in the Department, that all white officers took the written exam and are therefore worthy of being an FSO, and that all black and Hispanic officers likely did not. It is a damaging assumption and burdens Pickering and Rangel Fellows, who belong to the only category of Fellows that MUST take the written exam.
We all know that increasing diversity of all kinds among national security professionals improves policy outcomes. I and my success aren’t unique. I’m not special. But too many like me haven’t had the same support. We have to institutionalize and expand the successful efforts of individuals because the Department can get this right. The talent is there, the ability is there and the time is now.
We have the opportunity— when all of America is saying ENOUGH! Let’s get on with this— make employees at all levels know they MUST set aside their individual biases for the good of the organization. And if they can’t, they will not prosper at State. Let’s not have to come back here to have this discussion again. We are America. We can do this!
Specific recommendations for legislative support and action.
1) Ensure that of the four Assessors examining new candidates, at least two come from underrepresented communities. Add one additional year for time in class, for every two years spent as an examiner.
2) We need Inclusion Promotion added to necessary skills.
3) Move the position of Chief Diversity Officer to the Deputy Secretary’s office as a direct report and empower them with authority and staff to collect and share data on diversity in assignments and promotions and to add verbiage to the EERs of officers with authority to make assignments. Ensure they can partner with the DG and Bureaus to lay out benchmarks and goalposts to allow for accountability.
4) Reform the mid-career conversion program to allow talented civil servants to more easily use their expertise in support of the foreign service.
5) Ensure the Department increases accurate understanding of how all the fellowships work. That additional information about Pickering and Rangels alone should improve the standing of the fellows in the Department.
6) Change the name of the EEO award to the Diversity and Inclusion award.
7) Require an annual review and report out of progress and bureau specific and by grade.
8) Bureau Front Offices should be required to vet their shortlists for COM and DAS positions against EEO case logs.
Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a 30-year diplomat now retired, was the longest-serving U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Malta. Earlier in her career, she served in Baghdad, Jakarta and Cairo before taking on the position of Special Assistant for the Middle East and Africa to the Secretary of State. Her Middle East assignments include election monitoring in the Gaza Strip and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the first woman to lead a diplomatic mission there.