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State Dept. Out to Tackle Diversity Failings With New Appointment

Career diplomat Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley will be tasked with reversing the department’s record of big promises and little results.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Then-U.S. Ambassador to Malta Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley
As U.S. ambassador to Malta in 2012, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley addresses participants at a gay pride parade in Sliema, outside Valletta, Malta. Darrin Zammit Lupi/REUTERS

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has tapped a former senior career diplomat to spearhead efforts to tackle the State Department’s long-standing challenges on diversity and inclusion.

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, who previously served as the department’s deputy coordinator for counterterrorism and as U.S. ambassador to Malta, will rejoin the department as chief diversity and inclusion officer, a newly established post that reports directly to the secretary of state. Blinken created the position following calls from the diplomatic and national security community to address the department’s decadeslong failure to grapple with issues of diversity and inclusion.

Abercrombie-Winstanley has joined a growing chorus of former diplomats calling for urgent and systemic changes to how the State Department recruits and functions, particularly in the wake of a nationwide reckoning on racial injustice following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

Blinken has vowed to make diversity and inclusion a top priority during his tenure at the State Department. “I will consider it a mark of my success or not during my tenure as secretary whether we’ve been able to put in place a much more sustainable foundation for advancing true diversity at the State Department, to make sure that we have a foreign service and foreign-policy workforce that looks like the country that it represents,” he told lawmakers during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on March 10.

A half-dozen U.S. diplomats, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak with the press, said they welcomed the new administration’s pledges, but some were skeptical the Biden administration can really move the dial, after years of lofty promises and mixed results from previous administrations.

How the U.S. government is failing women in foreign policy: The Her Power Index by FP Analytics links data analysis with insight from former and current foreign-policy staffers to illuminate the under-representation of women across U.S. foreign policy agencies over the last decade.

How the U.S. government is failing women in foreign policy: The Her Power Index by FP Analytics links data analysis with insight from former and current foreign-policy staffers to illuminate the under-representation of women across U.S. foreign policy agencies over the last decade.

One official pointed out that it is easy to establish new committees and task forces, but it’s harder to get actual results and “actually change culture” at the department. Many said they believed one of the department’s main challenges was in retaining employees after they were recruited to shed the department’s historic reputation of being “pale, male, and Yale.”

In 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also vowed to tackle diversity challenges at the State Department and announced a minority hiring initiative, including a requirement that at least one minority candidate be considered for all ambassador posts. His pledge achieved little results, as by some metrics efforts to diversify the State Department regressed further during the Trump administration.

In 1986, for example, the United States had six Black ambassadors out of a total of 150 ambassador posts. In 2020, the United States had three African American ambassadors and four Hispanic career diplomats serving as ambassadors out of 189 ambassador posts, according to the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Jalina Porter, the principal deputy State Department spokesperson, told Foreign Policy the Biden administration recognizes historical shortcomings at the State Department and is committed to a course-correction. She noted this will be the first administration that has a “dedicated principal whose entire focus will be to help address past failures.”

“President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Secretary Blinken have made clear that our national security is strengthened when we adequately represent the American people,” she said.

Porter, who confirmed the new appointment, added that Abercrombie-Winstanley “knows the challenges that lie ahead and is committed to ensuring we approach our goals realistically so that they are also sustainable.”

Abercrombie-Winstanley served in the State Department for three decades, including at posts in Asia and across the Middle East. She became the first woman to lead a U.S. diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia as the U.S. consul general in Jeddah. After leaving the department, she became an outspoken advocate for transforming the State Department’s culture to address its track record on diversity, including testifying before Congress on the matters and her personal experiences as a Black career foreign service officer.

Blinken announced in February he would release a “strategic plan” to address the diplomatic corps’ laggard record on diversity and inclusion. He also announced he would establish a diversity and inclusion “leadership council” at the department to monitor its progress, and he said he would require each regional bureau to designate a deputy assistant secretary to focus on the issue.

“[O]ur diversity gives us a significant competitive advantage on the world stage. This is something that the president, the vice president, and I firmly believe,” he said in his announcement.

The State Department’s challenge, officials say, is long-standing and goes well beyond the retrocession seen under President Donald Trump. The State Department lags behind many other federal agencies in its ability to recruit and retain a diverse workforce, according to a sweeping government watchdog report released last year. The Government Accountability Office report found that the department made marginal progress in some areas and regressed in other areas. The percentage of African Americans in the foreign service increased from only 6 to 7 percent between fiscal years 2002 and 2018, for example, while the percentage of African American women in the department’s overall workforce dropped from 13 to 9 percent during those years. The report also found that minority workers at the department were 16 to 42 percent less likely to get promotions than their white colleagues.

A surge in violence against Asian Americans, including a mass shooting in Georgia that left eight people dead last month, has also sparked conversations about the State Department’s discrimination against its Asian American employees. Asian American diplomats said they have faced security clearance discrimination and assignment restrictions based on their ethnicity, as Politico reported.

Rep. Andy Kim, a New Jersey Democrat who used to work at the State Department, recounted his experience in a Twitter thread on March 20. “I once received a letter banning me from working on Korea issues just because of my last name. I was stunned,” he tweeted.

Blinken addressed the matter in the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in March. “I am very concerned about these reports. I’ve spoken to Asian American colleagues in the Department about them and suffice to say this is something that I’m looking into,” he said.

Blinken sent a message to State Department employees after the mass shooting in Georgia condemning the “alarming rise” in harassment and targeting of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “It falls to each of us to root out racism, xenophobia, and all other forms of systemic discrimination in our communities and institutions,” he wrote.

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