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The State Department Has a Diversity Problem

Despite decades of attempts to make the Foreign Service look more like the real America, it’s still pretty much white, male, and Yale.

John Kerry, U.S. secretary of state, right, and Susan Rice, U.S. national security advisor, listen during a joint news conference with U.S. President Barack Obama and Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, not pictured, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, April 28, 2015. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe goes before the U.S. Congress on Wednesday to present Japan as a stalwart ally that's willing to play a bigger military role in Asia, a message likely to be embraced in Washington and greeted with suspicion in Seoul and Beijing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
John Kerry, U.S. secretary of state, right, and Susan Rice, U.S. national security advisor, listen during a joint news conference with U.S. President Barack Obama and Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, not pictured, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, April 28, 2015. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe goes before the U.S. Congress on Wednesday to present Japan as a stalwart ally that's willing to play a bigger military role in Asia, a message likely to be embraced in Washington and greeted with suspicion in Seoul and Beijing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When Naomi Walcott joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 2005, she was “delighted” to find a new class of officers that was diverse “in every possible meaning of the word: age, religion, ethnic and educational background.” To a lesser extent, she also found a diverse group at her first overseas post in Honduras. But when Walcott, a Japanese-American, arrived at the embassy in Tokyo in 2008, she was shocked to find a predominantly white male U.S. staff. “I was one of very few female officers,” she said. “I went through a bit of an existential crisis of wondering if this job was really for me, and whether there was a place for me in this organization.”

After over a decade into what the State Department says has been a dedicated effort to make the Foreign Service “look more like America,” it has found itself on the defensive in recent days, following criticism by Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, about the lack of diversity among America’s diplomats and the rest of the foreign policy workforce. “In the halls of power, in the faces of our national security leaders, America is still not truly reflected,” Rice said in a commencement address at Florida International University in Miami on May 11, borrowing former Sen. Bob Graham’s description of the career services as “white, male, and Yale.” Diverse backgrounds produce leaders able to “come up with more creative insights, proffer alternative solutions, and thus make better decisions,” she said.

Although Walcott’s informal survey among colleagues at other posts — as well as at the embassy in Togo, where she went after Tokyo — revealed a less depressing picture than in Japan, official statistics depict a Foreign Service that is far from diverse. The latest figures provided by the State Department show that nearly 82 percent of career diplomats are white and almost 60 percent are male. According to the 2010 census, 72 percent of Americans are white and 49 percent are men.

As Rice’s remarks reverberated across Washington, a new congressional requirement that the State Department regularly report diversity statistics came to light. The little-noticed text was buried in the agency’s 2016 authorization bill, which the Senate passed on April 28. The first report will be due 180 days after the bill becomes law, pending a House vote, and every four years after that. The department will have to describe its efforts “to promote equal opportunity and inclusion for all American employees in direct hire and personal service contractors status, particularly employees of the Foreign Service, to include equal opportunity for all races, ethnicities, ages, genders, and service-disabled veterans, with a focus on traditionally underrepresented minority groups.”

Over the years, the State Department has sporadically released partial diversity statistics about its employees but has resisted regularly publishing them, and making promotion data public, in particular — with a rare recent exception. The new law will make all that mandatory. It will require the department “to improve demographic data availability and analysis regarding recruitment, hiring, promotion, training, length in service” and any assignment restrictions. Several current and former Foreign Service officers welcomed the legislation. “This is an important step forward,” said Patricia Kushlis, a retired officer who has followed the issue in depth for years. “There are still problems and barriers in the Foreign Service that should have been eliminated years ago, which adversely affect the careers of women and minorities.”

The agency began talking seriously about the need for a diplomatic service that truly represents the American people during Colin Powell’s tenure as secretary of state, and particularly after 9/11. But in the years since, the argument for more diversity has grown beyond representation to include a national security dimension. The challenges to U.S. foreign policy, such as terrorism, human and drug trafficking, cyber crime, and public health crises can no longer be resolved by working only with other governments, dozens of diplomats told me. If they want to be truly influential in the age of globalization, instant communication, and social media, they added, they must engage much more directly with the citizens of their host countries than they have in the past. Such engagement with “real people” abroad is more effective when done by “real” Americans, rather than an out-of-touch elite, they said.

“Diplomacy is not only about government to government anymore, but also human to human,” Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and a Foreign Service officer since 1984, said in an interview. “What we try to do, and get other countries to do, is empower people. American diplomacy is increasingly done from the bottom up. We recognize that, with the craving for democracy and freedom of expression, with the internet and social media, countries are changing as much from the bottom up as they are from the top down. So we need to know those people and be connected to them.”

Every secretary of state since Powell has committed publicly to diversity. It has been a decade since a white man occupied the post of director-general of the Foreign Service, a position traditionally given to career diplomats, which doubles as director of human resources for the entire State Department, including the Civil Service and political appointees. One of those senior officers, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is now assistant secretary of state for African affairs. At the midlevel, there are diplomats like Robyn McCutcheon, a transgender officer and former president of GLIFAA, the Foreign Service’s LGBT organization. Then there is Clayton Bond. Black and gay, he belongs to a very small minority, but his mere presence in the diplomatic ranks is a victory of sorts. Back when his now-spouse, Ted Osius, currently the ambassador to Vietnam, became a Foreign Service officer in 1989, those found out to be gay were often expelled from the service.

Despite that limited progress, “much work remains to be done before diversity in the Foreign Service reflects national professional workforce demographics,” said Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association. She urged the State Department to not only retain minorities but to hire them, and suggested “requiring managers to foster diversity and inclusion as a prerequisite for promotion.”

The State Department’s director of recruitment, Woody Staeben, said that among new hires in the past five years, the number of white officers is down to about 70 percent. But it will take much longer for the overall figure to change, because the average Foreign Service career spans 27 years. “The trend line is in the right direction,” he said. “This is the good news. The bad news is, we are not where we want to be.”

At any given time, 16 Foreign Service officers serve as diplomats in residence at colleges and universities around the country, including traditionally black schools, whose main job is recruitment. At all major job fairs, “we are right there alongside Google and Amazon,” Staeben said. Two years ago, the department started offering paid internships, in addition to unpaid ones, as a new way of attracting quality students, particularly the underprivileged. It also has two programs known as the Pickering and Rangel Fellowships, which were created to identify promising undergraduate and graduate students who are offered a fast track to the Foreign Service, with the specific goal of giving opportunities to minority candidates. Nearly 20 percent of new hires in 2015 came from this pool, according to the State Department.

Still, given the diversity statistics — 5.4 percent of career diplomats are black, 6.9 percent are Asian, and 5.6 percent Hispanic — there are evidently obstacles to meaningful change. One is that, despite the recent push, the State Department is still relatively new to diversity recruitment. For decades, it didn’t think that much effort was necessary, because diplomacy was sufficiently prestigious to attract strong candidates — even if most were white and male. For more than five years now, over 20,000 applicants have competed for just a few hundred slots each year.

Another reason for the difficulties of minority recruitment is that, even though the department regularly places high in rankings of the best places to work in the federal government, “we find it hard to compete with the private sector,” Staeben said. Bond, who used to work in the recruitment office, said that high-caliber candidates often choose more traditional or better-paying professions like law and medicine. “Our challenge was to show them that our work is no less important and rewarding,” he said. Some applicants are turned off by the lengthy Foreign Service selection and entrance process, which can exceed two years. And candidates must pass difficult written and oral exams and score high enough to secure an employment offer, not to mention a rigorous background check.

One subset of minority applicants enjoying new appreciation are immigrants and their children, who, in the past, have been the subject of suspicion. In her speech, Rice called for recruiting more such native speakers of foreign languages. They “may pick up subtle nuances that might otherwise go unnoticed….Diplomats who can read cultural cues may better navigate the political and social currents of a foreign nation,” she said. “Think of young Haitians drawn to converse with a Foreign Service officer who has dreadlocks like their own.” There are hundreds of first- and second-generation Americans in the service, but the State Department doesn’t have a dedicated effort for recruiting them and considers them part of its broader diversity-recruitment activities. “It’s no coincidence [they] are attracted to public service, particularly the Foreign Service,” said Heather Higginbottom, deputy secretary of state for management and resources. “They are fiercely passionate about the values and ideals our country represents.”

One area in which the State Department has improved significantly in recent years is in the diversity of the professional background of both candidates and hires, making the Foreign Service much less elitist than it was several decades ago.

Jimmy Mauldin, an economic officer in New Delhi, was a freight-carrier labor and sales manager in Alabama who didn’t even know the Foreign Service existed before joining. “I have a [Southern] accent,” he said, “and I remember being all worked up about, am I going to stand out because I thought everybody came from the East Coast or the West Coast, and how is this boy from Alabama going to make it? But I’ve come a long way being where I’m now from the peanut fields of southern Alabama.”

Traci Goins, for whom diplomacy is a third career, previously worked as a registered nurse in South Carolina and a lawyer in Pennsylvania. “Every couple of years, you get to reinvent yourself and get new bosses and new co-workers,” she said of her latest profession. “How exciting is that!” Hans Wechsel was a restaurant manager in Montana and Oregon and did seasonal work as a tour guide at Yellowstone National Park before passing the Foreign Service exams. “What a great system for someone like me, where you can, based on merit and ability, get into a career like this,” he said.

Although statistics are not available, among the 1,000-plus career diplomats I have met personally are people from dozens of professions unrelated to foreign affairs, including medicine, law, science, arts and entertainment, corrections work, and the hospitality, food, and beverage industries. Ivy League graduates are now a minority in the service, the State Department said. But the gains in professional versatility cannot compensate for the slow progress in ethnic and gender diversity, which needs urgent attention, current and former diplomats said. Although some expressed understanding of the difficulty of the task and sympathy for the challenging work of their colleagues in human resources, others said the State Department is not doing enough.

As Rice pointed out in her speech, by failing to draw “fully on the strengths of our great nation” we’re shortchanging our diplomatic corps and dooming ourselves to a legacy of groupthink. “Without tapping into America’s full range of races, religions, ethnicities, language skills, and social and economic experiences we are leading in a complex world with one hand tied behind our back,” Rice said.

Creating a diverse Foreign Service, then, isn’t just some feel-good project. It’s the only way to ensure that the State Department is ready to challenge old modes of thinking and craft solutions that truly represent what today’s America has to offer.

Photo Credit: Bloomberg / Contributor

Nicholas Kralev is a former Financial Times and Washington Times correspondent and author of America's Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author. To contact Kralev or for more information about the book, go to