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By Amanda McCarthy
In 2020, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined the demographic composition of the Department of State’s workforce. GAO’s report, which reviewed fiscal years 2002 through 2018, found that racial or ethnic minorities in the Department’s Civil Service were up to 29 percent less likely to be promoted than white peers with similar qualifications. The report also noted that representation of racial or ethnic minorities and women was lowest at management and executive levels. While the Department has implemented several plans, activities, and initiatives to improve diversity and representation throughout the ranks of its workforce, they have failed to make the desired improvements. The Department is still faced with longstanding diversity issues rooted much deeper than any one institution or administration.
In response to GAO’s latest report, the Department launched a series of barrier analyses to identify policies, practices, or procedures that might be preventing equal opportunities for all employees. Secretary of State Antony Blinken appointed Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley as the Department’s first-ever chief diversity and inclusion officer (CDIO) in April and in June established the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to support her work.
Reporting directly to the secretary, the CDIO will lead the Department’s efforts to become more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible (DEIA). She will align and advance DEIA efforts across the Department—transparently and in a way that holds senior leaders accountable for improving DEIA in the Department. Additionally, the CDIO will finalize and then oversee implementing the Department’s five-year Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan that establishes a clear demographic baseline against which future progress will be measured.
A 30-year veteran of the Department, Abercrombie-Winstanley returned from retirement to fill the CDIO role. During a recent interview with State Magazine, she spoke candidly about the challenges that the Department faces in overcoming systemic barriers and how the workforce must take responsibility to implement a needed culture change.
“The Department aims to reflect America,” she said. “We come in all shapes and sizes, religious, socioeconomic, racial, color, ability, disability, etc., background. And we all need to be here. We understand that our foreign policy is going to be better carried out by a wider range of perspectives, backgrounds, and lived experiences. And that means all of America. We’re just trying to make sure that everyone within the organization feels equally supported, equally valued, and has the opportunity to bring their very best and reach their potential.”
See more from the interview below.
STATE MAGAZINE: What is the Department doing to promote a diverse and inclusive workforce that better reflects American society?
AMBASSADOR GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Well, we’re doing a number of things, and as we have done for some time. But as you know, the secretary appointed me in early April—April 12—and he did it as a signaler that we were going to go to the next level in this organization. And that is, a number of bureaus and offices, embassies, consulates around the world have already undertaken some important work. But he wanted to make sure that there was a point of contact—one office, one entity, that is responsible for pulling together and amplifying all the work that we’ve done and taking it to the next level to get this done. We are an exceptional organization of people, and we can get this done.
STATE MAGAZINE: How does the Department implement a culture change that addresses norms, behaviors, and biases?
AMBASSADOR GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: We are in an organization that deals with negotiations, that deals with human relationships, that embraces the other. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we travel. That’s why we welcome others to our own nation. Our culture has been one, as we all know, we are a highly competitive set of people. We all think very highly of ourselves. Whatever we get, we deserve. And we also understand intellectually that we will be better if we are mutually supportive of each other, that this isn’t a barrel of crabs. So that culture change, I think, will build on our natural inclination, but build the culture so that we understand that we’re looking out for each other, that our jobs as leaders, whether we’re entering, whether we’re mid-level or senior level, that it is part of our job to take care of everyone, to ensure that people feel included, to ensure that we’re not discriminating. This is everybody’s job. And as soon as people understand the culture change, and we’ve been talking about it, but we mean it now, and we’re making sure people understand that. And when you do, do the right thing. Not just don’t do the wrong thing, do the right thing to help colleagues and ensure that the system works.
STATE MAGAZINE: How does the Department incentivize and reward progress, recognize and remedy shortcomings?
AMBASSADOR GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: A notice went out informing employee affinity groups, those who are working on voluntary diversity and inclusion councils around the world, that this work is going to go into your EER, into your employee evaluation—how we consider whether you are ready for leadership, or greater leadership, or another leadership position. So that’s one way to incentivize. As the private sector knows very well, if you value it, you count it. You reward it. So it’s part of that accountability piece that I’m so, so glad to be talking about at every opportunity. If you’re doing the right thing, make sure that you get it into your employee evaluation reports whether it’s Civil Service or Foreign Service, so that it is documented in a real world, hard, black and white way what you have done to support and enable diversity and inclusion in this organization. It’s good for all of us. That’s one way. The second way, the secretary took a very bold step. He appointed the chief diversity and inclusion officer to the D committee, the committee that it selects ambassadors, to the DCM and principal officers committee that selects number two, the deputy chief of mission and the principal officers, the head person at consulates, also to the Employee Resources Board that selects the candidates heading into senior positions and the senior executive service. But the point of adding me to all of these committees is to ensure that all of us are thinking about and acting upon what the department does, and that is, we recruit for diversity. We hire for excellence.
STATE MAGAZINE: What partnerships or collaborations within the Department are crucial to your team successfully accomplishing its mission?
AMBASSADOR GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: The partnerships within the building are crucial, are key with every single bureau. I’ve started off with OCR, the Office of Civil Rights, and Global Talent Management, of course. But I have also been meeting with the ombudsperson and with each and every bureau. I have been communicating with diversity and inclusion councils within bureaus and at post and consulates and in embassies. I am meeting with the employee affinity groups. I have met with and will be working with the senior advisors that are within bureaus for diversity and inclusion. And as you know, those officers, Civil and Foreign Service, have diversity and inclusion work, sometimes as their full-time job, sometimes as their part-time job. But we will be providing them guidance, counsel, and support as they work within the bureaus and in partnership with our office. As you know, the secretary has announced a leadership council for diversity and inclusion that will be held at the senior level, the deputy assistant secretary level. And I will be working with those representatives too. Because this is something that we all are responsible for. And so we’ll be working together.
STATE MAGAZINE: How does the Department plan to expand upon its Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan moving forward?
AMBASSADOR GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: You know, really important work has already been done. Whether increased participation in conscious or unconscious bias training for instance, having difficult conversations, talking about cultural issues, or indeed, the political nature of what is going on with regard to race relations, and social justice in America. It’s all taking place within our organization, so that we can talk about it with foreign audiences. One senior official said to me when I first came aboard, she said, “Gina, we’ve done the easy stuff. Nothing but the hard stuff is left.” And so this is where we are taking all of that we’ve done, that we’ve done so far, and adding it to that hard work. Where the secretary says, he wants not to be having this conversation again. In my view it means measurable change. What are we looking at with regard to who we are, and why we are the way we are? The GAO report reported on senior level positions. The percentage that are held by European Americans, in this organization, if you’ll recall, was 87 percent. Now as I said, we’re all very brilliant, but 87 percent is an anomaly. There’s something wrong there. Let me be clear, there’s something wrong there. That means that there are a set of people within our organization that are being blocked from rising to their full potential. We have to identify where the choke points are, and we have to identify what the barriers are that contribute to that, and move them aside, ameliorate them. So measurable notes of effectiveness will be added to this report. And we are asking the secretary, our office is asking, our organization should ask, that we be held accountable for making that change.
STATE MAGAZINE: How do we ensure that the voices of people who have often been marginalized and underrepresented are afforded equal weight and respect?
AMBASSADOR GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: We have to change the culture. We have to teach ourselves to do what we have to do when we’re dealing with foreign interlocutors. If you’re in a negotiation, you can’t afford to ignore people at the table or in the room because they’re not the ones seated at the center. You’ve got to make sure you’re hearing all voices, to ensure a lasting agreement is reached. And we have to do that internally too. So some of the skills we have, we just have to turn them on ourselves. Part of the challenge, of course, is that those of us who are different, if we can hide it, we do hide it. Because we’re nervous about being the other, we’re nervous about being counted, being fully respected and welcomed. But we also can understand that people may be reluctant to identify because it might keep them from getting a job, or an assignment, or a position, or program, or a level of responsibility. We are going to mirror what we expect of the organization. Another important thing we have to ensure that we respect and honor and work to do better at, are people who are dealing with mental challenges. It’s something I believe we’ll all have greater understanding of, because so many more of us have had to deal with challenges of one sort or another. But we have to do better as an organization. And so one of the things that is really, I think, incredibly useful in my office, is that each and every one of us comes with lived experiences in this beloved organization that have not gone right. And so if we’ve got to advocate for each other, we can do it. If we have to explain, to argue, to fight, whatever it is. Whether it’s in the building, whether it’s with leadership, whether it’s on the hill, or the American people, we can all speak from our personal experiences of things that have worked well and haven’t worked well, and provide recommendations to fix it.
STATE MAGAZINE: What are your goals while serving as the Department’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer?
AMBASSADOR GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: My short term goals are to put in place things at two levels. We are going to be working, and it’s going to be hard, to make those systemic changes that are so important to our organization, the culture, the system, how we look at things, our willingness to take a hard look at the data disaggregated, so we know exactly where we are and with which group. And the point of that is not to pit one group against the other, but to ensure they’re not those choke points. So that is my immediate goal. And we’re setting up our plan for, I think, one year, two years, four years, five years, for looking at the change. And we’re saying to you, to everyone, hold us accountable, look at the numbers. And the three groups that lead, every group is a priority, but the three groups that the GAO report pointed out were Hispanics, Blacks, and women in this organization. When you have 30-whatever percent of women in positions, and we’re 51 percent of the population, there’s some things that we can change. So that kind of low hanging fruit, and we’ve had some really good suggestions already, can be sent into firstname.lastname@example.org. Another thing that we want to do is a warmline, as opposed to a hotline, for people who are thinking that they may need to leave the Department. We don’t want an exit interview, although those are important. We want to get to you before you’re leaving. We need to know what those challenges are. So people need to reach out to us. And then my long term goal is to not need this position in 15 years. Yeah.