State Department Struggling on Diversity, New Report Finds

The most comprehensive study to date shows that State has in some ways become less diverse than it was in 2002.

The U.S. Department of State
The U.S. State Department is seen in Washington on Nov. 29, 2010. Nicholas Kamm via AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. State Department’s efforts to increase diversity in its ranks have fallen short and in some cases resulted in an actual decline in the percentage of women and ethnic and racial minorities employed there, according to a new study from a U.S. federal watchdog.

This week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent federal watchdog, will release a comprehensive study on diversity at the State Department in a first-of-its-kind analysis that will publicize data on the department’s efforts to recruit and retain a diverse talent pool. 

With several exceptions, the State Department is falling short in many categories, despite recent public statements from senior department officials to the contrary, according to a draft copy of the study reviewed by Foreign Policy. The study will likely ramp up pressure on the State Department from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who originally requested the GAO study, to invest more in retaining a diverse workforce.

The study appears to contradict statements from senior State Department officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, along with his predecessors, touted the importance of recruiting a pool of talent for the State Department that extends beyond white men, who have dominated the institution for most of its existence. In an email to employees in November 2019, he said the department was “building an increasingly diverse team,” saying diverse candidates applying for the two fellowships aimed at recruiting racial and ethnic minorities—the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship and the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship—had doubled from 844 to more than 1,600 applicants.

In September 2018, then-Policy Planning Director Kiron Skinner said in an interview that “given some the trends in the U.S. against diversity—especially racial diversity—the State Department is doing much better.” Skinner, one of the most senior-ranking African American women in the Trump administration, was removed from her post in August 2019.

Senior State Department officials have repeatedly said in public that they are prioritizing diversity at the department and that it is a work in progress. The State Department has several long-standing initiatives to do so, including a diplomat-in-residence program in which ambassadors serve as recruiters at universities, and an emphasis on recruiting from historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving universities.

But some critics say those initiatives are falling short, particularly on the matter of retaining employees from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds once they’re hired. 

“You don’t need a GAO report to tell you that. Anyone who has sat in a meeting with [the] State Department can tell you that,” said Francisco Bencosme, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer for the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Bob Menendez. “But now the data exists to show that and hopefully push for progress internally.”

Among the findings of the GAO report: Between fiscal years 2002 and 2018, the proportion of racial or ethnic minorities working at the State Department full time did increase but only by 4 percent—from 28 to 32 percent—below the overall average of the overall federal workforce. 

The proportion of racial or ethnic minorities in the foreign service increased from 17 to 24 percent during that time period but decreased from 44 to 43 percent in the civil service, the study found. Additionally, racial or ethnic minority men and women in the civil service “had statistically significantly lower odds of promotion” than white men, according to the study.

The proportion of women working at the State Department slightly decreased during that time period, from 44 to 43 percent of State’s overall full-time workforce. Women’s promotion rates compared with their male counterparts were lower in the civil service and higher in the foreign service.

The proportion of African Americans working at the State Department fell from 17 to 15 percent between the 2002 and 2018 time period of the study—though the overall number of employees increased from 16,570 to 22,806. The proportion of African Americans in the foreign service increased only from 6 to 7 percent between fiscal years 2002 and 2018. The proportion of African American women at State overall decreased from 13 to 9 percent and within the foreign service increased from 2 to 3 percent.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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