The Reformer

From a cork-walled office at the U.S. State Department, diversity chief Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley reveals her plan to vanquish the oldest boys club.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A drawing of Gina Abercrombie Winstanley, the State Department's chief diversity officer.
A drawing of Gina Abercrombie Winstanley, the State Department's chief diversity officer.
Oriana Fenwick for Foreign Policy

The first thing you notice walking into Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley’s office is the cork that lines the walls.

It’s a stylish touch—something you can’t really say about most of the fluorescent-lit U.S. State Department. But it also serves an important purpose: soundproofing to ensure conversations of a sensitive, heated, or personal nature stay inside.

Abercrombie-Winstanley has many such conversations as the State Department’s chief diversity and inclusion officer (CDIO), a new role that the Biden administration created to fix the U.S. diplomatic corps’ long-running and dismal record on diversity.

The first thing you notice walking into Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley’s office is the cork that lines the walls.

It’s a stylish touch—something you can’t really say about most of the fluorescent-lit U.S. State Department. But it also serves an important purpose: soundproofing to ensure conversations of a sensitive, heated, or personal nature stay inside.

Abercrombie-Winstanley has many such conversations as the State Department’s chief diversity and inclusion officer (CDIO), a new role that the Biden administration created to fix the U.S. diplomatic corps’ long-running and dismal record on diversity.

She’s the first to admit it’s an uphill battle. “This work is heavy and hard,” she told Foreign Policy during an hourlong interview in her office recently, in which she vacillated between unbridled optimism, frustration, and cheerful resignation.

The stats are pretty bad—even by the already lackluster standards of the U.S. national security world, which is still trying to shed its status as the fiefdom for the United States’ “pale, male, and Yale” crowd. Here’s one example: An internal survey reported by the Wall Street Journal this month of some 8,600 State Department employees found that 44 percent experienced discrimination, harassment, or bullying. Another example shows how long-standing the problem is: In fiscal year 2002, the proportion of African American women working at the State Department was 13 percent. When the Trump administration was in office in 2018, that number fell to 9 percent.

Abercrombie-Winstanley is one of the disproportionately few African American women who ascended the senior ranks of the foreign service. Her 30-year career in diplomacy has included posts in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Washington. Now, after lots of failed starts at diversifying its ranks, Abercrombie-Winstanley is the Biden administration’s attempt to throw a big wrench into the State Department machine. She certainly isn’t toeing the line with diplomatic speak.

“We suck at things that we shouldn’t suck at,” she said.

What makes Abercrombie-Winstanley’s initiative different from past efforts Foreign Policy has covered is that she has two types of currency that actually count in a government bureaucracy: funding and access to the top boss. Her office consists of about a dozen staff members, and she has bimonthly standing meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

On the other hand, she faces a 233-year-old institution with the types of calcified structures and culture that seems reluctant if not incapable of sweeping change. Plus, her remit is limited, with no purview over political appointees in the department, for example, and she faces a skeptical diplomatic corps.

In a battle between Abercrombie-Winstanley and the beast of bureaucracy, who will win?


Former ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley reacts after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that she would be the State Department's chief diversity officer
Former ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley reacts after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that she would be the State Department's chief diversity officer

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, former U.S. ambassador to Malta, reacts after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that she would be the State Departments chief diversity officer in Washington on April 12, 2021. MANDEL NGAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

When she retired in 2017, Abercrombie-Winstanley held the rank of senior foreign service officer. But as foreign-policy wonks began jockeying for senior posts in the Biden administration, she largely stayed out of it. Until, that is, the prospect of a brand new CDIO post at State came up. “This is the only thing I would’ve come back for,” she told Foreign Policy with a big grin.

In a sign of how seriously her role is being taken from above, Abercrombie-Winstanley’s office is on the State Department’s seventh floor. It’s the top floor, close to the secretary, and an office close to his signifies importance. (In the last administration, Abercrombie-Winstanley’s office was occupied by the special envoy for North Korea, which was one of the Trump administration’s highest foreign-policy priorities.)

Abercrombie-Winstanley’s demeanor is one of infectious optimism. Her office exudes that, too, and is adorned with colorful photography and bright paintings. These include a modern minimalist piece titled “Don’t Feel Guilty About the Way You Are” by Stephen Metcalf and photos of Abercrombie-Winstanley with some of Foggy Bottom’s biggest legends, like former U.S. Secretaries of State Lawrence Eagleburger—the gruff, chain-smoking diplomat who was the only career foreign service officer to become secretary of state—and Madeleine Albright.

If Abercrombie-Winstanley is a product of the bureaucracy she now fights, it also makes her one of the biggest evangelists for change due to her own experiences enduring racism and sexual harassment. When I asked if she’d ever faced either, she didn’t pause on the reply: “Yes, of course.”

In the latter years of her career, Abercrombie-Winstanley was meeting with another State Department official (she didn’t say whom) to advocate for a coveted chief of mission job in the Middle East. For career diplomats, these “chief of mission” or ambassador posts are some of the most sought-after positions.

Abercrombie-Winstanley recounted that the person she was speaking to rubbed the side of his face, a gesture referring to skin color, “and told me I should go to the AF Bureau”—State Department speak for Africa—“because we had more in common there.”

The exchange was the only time in her 30-year career she reported someone for the racism or sexual harassment she faced. “Pissed me off,” she said, breaking eye contact briefly to stare off into the distance. Then she looked at me again. “And now, I’m back.”

Before our interview, Foreign Policy spoke to a dozen current and former officials about the new CDIO office and its role. Many told FP that Abercrombie-Winstanley, beyond the normal duties in her day job, has become something of a mentor or counselor to State Department employees, varying from lower-level career civil servants to political appointees who are struggling with racism or sexism in their jobs.

“Sometimes I’m just saying, yes, you’ve got to go to the EEO office,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said, referring to the department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that handles complaints of discrimination.

“I’m a sounding board for people often, but a sounding board is important because I will tell people, ‘Oh no … that’s crazy stuff. You know that should not be happening.’ I try not to curse too much.”

On other occasions, Abercrombie-Winstanley listens. “I’m a sounding board for people often, but a sounding board is important because I will tell people, ‘Oh no … that’s crazy stuff. You know that should not be happening.’” She paused for a second. “I try not to curse too much.”

Occasionally, there are hard truths to be doled out. “You have to make trouble sometimes,” she said, recalling how she told an employee, “You deserved better than that, but it’s incumbent upon you to demand it.”

“So, I’m also the office of tough love,” she added, laughing.

Abercrombie-Winstanley’s career in the State Department began when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Oman from 1980 to 1982. She got to talking to a foreign service officer over a Thanksgiving dinner—complete with a full turkey, a rare luxury for a Peace Corps volunteer in Oman—about life as a diplomat. In her subsequent career at the State Department, Abercrombie-Winstanley kept going back to the Middle East.

She said Cairo was her favorite posting. “People often thought I was Egyptian, so my Arabic got great practice while I was there.” Once, in the late 1980s, she even moonlighted as a coordinator for a Miss Egypt beauty pageant. 

A low point came in December 2004, when Abercrombie-Winstanley was serving as the U.S. consul general in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A group of al Qaeda terrorists armed with machine guns and explosives attacked the consulate that was under her command. The gunmen fought their way into the heavily armed compound and briefly took a group of staff members and visa applicants hostage before Saudi security forces stormed the building and stopped the attack. Four security guards and five locally employed staff members were killed as well as three of the attackers. Abercrombie-Winstanley received the State Department’s Superior Honor Award for “acts of courage” during the attack.

Although she wouldn’t elaborate on what she experienced during the attack, it clearly still haunts her. “We knew that we had vulnerabilities in hindsight,” she said of the consulate. “And if I had paid greater attention to other similar instances that have happened around the world, I think I would’ve had a much stronger voice beforehand.”

The biggest lesson she drew from the tragedy: “Knowing the system. Knowing the system and using your voice.”

Abercrombie-Winstanley has hinged her success as a CDIO on precisely that knowledge. To that end, the changes she’s implemented that she says she’s most proud of can come off as a little wonky, such as adding a new core “precept” on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility to the Foreign Service selection board, which evaluates tenures and promotions. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s jargon. From the inside, Abercrombie-Winstanley hopes it’s a game-changer: The new precept means that commitment to diversity will become one of the core requirements that promotion panels use to determine a diplomat’s eligibility for a promotion. As a result, Abercrombie-Winstanley said of diversity, “You are going to reward it, or you’re going to hold people accountable for not doing it.”

Other changes include offering paid internships to lower-income students, creating a so-called retention management team to analyze why people leave the department, and advertising senior postings within the department for open hiring processes. Incredibly, this wasn’t done before, which meant a coveted deputy assistant secretary of state position—a key post that puts you on track for future ambassadorships—could go to a friend of a friend or buddy of the right hiring manager without others in the department even knowing the job was available. As Abercrombie-Winstanley puts it: “How can it be merit-based if no one knew about the opening? How can you say it’s merit?”

“How can it be merit-based if no one knew about the opening? How can you say it’s merit?”

She’s also pushed to publicize data on the State Department’s diversity and inclusion record and send it to Congress. “When I first got here and I said, ‘Okay, well, we need to get the numbers,’ I was told I couldn’t have them,” she said. “We’re not hiding anymore.” Beforehand, the State Department gave Congress limited and incomplete data on its diversity record; it wasn’t until a congressionally mandated 2020 study on the State Department by the Government Accountability Office, an independent federal government watchdog agency, that Capitol Hill or the public had any extensive data on the matter.

Not everyone is happy. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and voted against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election, attacked the department’s diversity and inclusion programs at a July Senate hearing with Abercrombie-Winstanley. “Your mandate is to promote a concept on the left called equity, which I think is nothing more than brazen discrimination,” Cruz said at the hearing. “I believe, as a result of your work, they have a mandate to discriminate against people with disabilities, to discriminate against white men, to discriminate against straight white men.”

Another change that drew controversy was the administration’s plan to alter the nearly 100-year-old rigorous Foreign Service entrance exam by eliminating a pass/fail written exam that all applicants must take before advancing to the next round of hiring. The administration argues it poses a barrier to entry for underrepresented candidates and that there should be a more “holistic” approach to reviewing candidates’ applications. But the decision was quickly met with criticism. The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the union that represents U.S. diplomats, criticized the changes, saying it leaves hiring decisions at risk of being “excessively subjective and subject to partisan influence.” The AFSA also suggested the Biden administration made the decision without proper consultations with the union.

Abercrombie-Winstanley said she sees pushback as part of the job. “I had a meeting this morning with senior officials within the department, and someone observed that my job is to annoy people. Do I agree with that? … I don’t,” she said with a laugh. “I think they should do what I ask them to do. That’s what I think.”

She had another description for her job. “My deputy describes it as we’re the paid skunk at the picnic,” she said. “We are here to say we came to do something.”

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

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