The State Department has a systemic diversity problem

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Antony Blinken’s State Department is racing to address a 232-year-old problem: the overwhelming and entrenched whiteness of the nation’s oldest government agency.

The department’s 23,000 or so American staff may be the global face of America, but they don’t look like it. And the gap is growing, not shrinking, by many metrics.

Though 40 percent of the American population is from a racial or ethnic minority, “only 13 percent of the Department’s Senior Executive Service are people of color,” said Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a career diplomat. “It was more diverse in 1986 — literally — than it is now,” said Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents the department’s diplomats.

The State Department’s official historians say that minority staff made up 12.5 percent of employees at the end of the 1980s. According to Government Accountability Office figures from 2020, the ratio of African American employees has fallen since 2002. Black women make up 9 percent of staff, down from 13 percent, and just three percent of the Senior Foreign Service is Black. “We’ve disproportionately lost senior foreign service officials that are non-white and non-male,” Rubin said.

The problem is now in focus thanks America’s national racism reckoning and the promises of the Biden administration to run the most diverse American government ever.

Blinken is hitting stages around the world to announce that “diplomacy is back” and moved quickly to create a new departmental Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer role, the sort of problems described to POLITICO by 14 current and former diplomats — including the leaders of several organizations representing the department’s minority staff — are systemic. The roots stretch across both Republican and Democratic administrations and are resistant to quick fixes, said diplomats.

Tensions are growing: The State Department’s long-standing culture of conformity is butting up against the demands of younger staff — those with under 10 years experience make up around half the department’s employees — who expect the department to be more responsive to the values of the world around it.

Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) — a co-sponsor of the Diversity and Inclusion at the Department of State Act — calls the diversity gap “a generational crisis in American diplomacy.” He says the fixes must start before the recruitment stage, with paid internships, and extend to greater accountability for managers and anyone found harassing or discriminating against colleagues.

The department’s new leadership says it’s focused on the problem and in for the long haul. “Secretary Blinken has made it 100 percent clear that he is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion for our workforce. It’s going to be integrated across the department, and it’s going to help strengthen us, period,” said Jalina Porter, the State Department’s principal deputy spokesperson.

Porter emphasized that while the new administration is working to make structural changes to the department, it’s also trying to lead by example. Porter, who is Black, and her boss Ned Price, who is openly gay, are themselves breaking new ground in their public-facing roles. "Nine times of out 10, I am the only woman of color in the meeting,” Porter said. “I want to inspire people to look and think outside the box. I make it a point to show up authentically as myself, rather than fit into societal norms.”

‘They’re going in with Band-Aids’

Some diplomats remain skeptical. “They’re going in with Band-Aids when they need to address root causes,” said one former diplomat.

Think tanks and advocacy groups have lobbed reports at Blinken’s office with their suggestions. Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs said that across 40 workshops with diplomats in 2020, the State department’s “debilitating lack of inclusion and diversity” was the top concern shared.

A Truman Center for National Policy report drafted by dozens of mid-career diplomats proposes a data-led approach to improving diversity numbers: measuring under-representation and rigorously reporting efforts to address it.

Data may help define the problem, but there’s no getting away from the personal element: For members of minority groups to rise rapidly in large numbers — it will take either a hiring spree, or for more white men (who make up more than half the department’s senior staff) to miss out on recruitment or promotion.

Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who heads the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, President Joe Biden’s nominee for Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, who leads Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security, support the hiring spree option. They want to see a round of diverse mid-career hires to help balance the numbers.

The pair worked with senior Black diplomats, including the recently confirmed U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, to develop diversity recommendations for Blinken, including “an unambiguous commitment that by 2030, employees will resemble the country that they represent. Diversity should be a key consideration in all new appointments,” Verveer and Jenkins wrote to Blinken.

Achieving diplomatic diversity is also a financial and geopolitical numbers game.

America’s new U.N. ambassador, Thomas-Greenfield, said that a diverse staff “gives a sense of moral authority” to every ambassador.

But Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) warned the State Department’s recent high attrition rates are putting American interests at risk. “For the time ever, China has more diplomatic posts around the world than the US. They’re able to surge diplomats,” Murphy said.

High attrition rates are also expensive: the State Department Inspector General has estimated language training costs per diplomat range from $105,000 for Spanish to $480,000 for Chinese and Arabic.

The 2021 State Department Authorization Act, H.R. 1157, which won bipartisan support from the House Foreign Affairs Committee in February and is awaiting a floor vote, would require the department to publish two reports: a five-year strategic staffing plan and a report on the demographic data of job applicants and promoted workers.

‘Cracking a secret code’

Shaila Manyam, a former Foreign Service officer who left to join a private consulting firm, said that “to really change the State Department you need to change the culture, and change the H.R. process from the ground up.”

Several diplomats of color described to POLITICO their frustration at unwritten rules for getting ahead in the department.

“‘Suitability’ is still part of what’s considered for your security clearance,” said a representative of the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association, a staff representative group, adding ”there’s always the threat of: if you rock the boat, you might lose your clearance.”


But what makes a diplomat “suitable”?

One female diplomat who fears retaliation for speaking to media, said that getting ahead in the department requires “cracking a secret code” — another said the department had cultivated an image that it is a place “for people of means.” The clear implication: The State Department for too long has relied on a narrow group of Ivy League-educated Americans to set its internal culture.

Career diplomats are an elite group: 60 percent hold an advanced degree, compared with 13 percent of the American population. But some diplomats are more elite than others: The GAO found in 2020 that among junior diplomats, Ivy League graduates enjoyed a 23 percent higher chance of promotion than a colleague without such a degree. Promotion rates for ethnic minorities were up to 42 percent lower than for white employees.

Vic Marsh, a former diplomat turned diversity and innovation expert, said that the organic mentoring relationships the State Department relies on today are a recipe for inequality. “If everyone went to the Woodrow Wilson School [now named Hobson College, at Princeton University], that would be fine, but they don’t. And that means a lot of people arrive without organic mentors in their network,” he said.

Female diplomats and others from minority backgrounds and state colleges described informal networks that are still common among diplomats — such as chummy golf and poker clubs — that led them to believe an old white boys’ culture still prevails in the department. It’s time for the department to “give people the guidance to get ahead and change the definition of what success means,” Manyam said.

Retaining wall

Irvin Hicks Jr., president of the Thursday Luncheon Group — founded in 1973 to advocate for diplomats who are Black or from other minority backgrounds — described the department’s diversity issues as “systemic.”

The State Department has been working since 1963 to boost Black recruitment, with only slow and uneven progress to show. “The more things change the more they stay the same,” he said.

Hicks Jr. is a rare second-generation Black senior foreign service officer: “Along with my father we have 60 years of family contribution” to the department, but “the representation is worse than when my father retired in 1997,” he said.

Hicks Jr. is most worried today about retaining staff from minority backgrounds. “In my conversations with former Deputy Secretary and now Secretary Blinken, I highlighted that you can do all the recruiting you want, but if there is not a level playing field for advancement, you’re going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in personnel and find it lost to retention issues,” he said. Eric Rubin of the America Foreign Service Association agrees: “we’re doing a better job or recruiting a diverse workforce than we are at keeping it,” he said.

In a labor market that increasingly offers premium salaries and benefits to the highest-educated workers, the State Department’s competitive landscape is getting tougher. “Whether it’s civil service or foreign service, you have the creme de la creme at State. So you can take that skill set elsewhere, make more money, and be recognized,” Hicks Jr. said

“There’s a lot of killing the messenger” when staff raise a problem, said one diplomat of color. “Gen Z is not going to put up with that. They’re going to check out the furniture for one or two tours [overseas postings], but if they don’t think the corporate culture fits their principles, they’re going to leave.” He notes this departure is often encouraged by spouses working in more dynamic private-sector environments.

‘You have to keep your head down’

Skeptics might ask: If the problems are so deep and obvious, why haven’t more staff spoken up?

Mid-level staff are “hard-wired to keep our heads down,” said Maryum Saifee, a career diplomat who’s been posted to Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt.

The message staff receive from their arrival at State is: “Keep your head down and behave yourself,” said another female former diplomat. “For day-to-day stuff that’s fine. But when senior officers tell you that about racism and sexual assault — and I suffered both — that’s not OK,” she said.

The State Department’s Inspector General previously noted that sexual harassment is “likely underreported” in the department, and that a key reason is "lack of confidence in the department’s ability to resolve complaints."

Around half the diplomats who experienced or witnessed sexual harassment did not report it, according to an internal department survey. Even so, 635 reports of sexual harassment and over 100 reports of sexual assault were filed from 2014-2017.

The former diplomat told POLITICO that after working at the White House and being selected for overseas postings she was sexually assaulted by her boss. “He groomed me, isolated me, all the sort of textbook stuff,” she said, adding “I spoke out and got branded uncooperative.”

She said she received no formal reply to two complaints filed about the incidents, but that her boss achieved promotion into the Senior Foreign Service as she waited for the complaints process to advance. Her takeaway from the experience: “Issues like sexual harassment don’t disqualify you from promotion.”

POLITICO offered the State Department the opportunity to explain its sexual harassment procedure, but didn’t receive a reply.

Amy Dahm, a former diplomat who retired on medical grounds after serious harassment, is supporting passage of the State Harassment Assault and Prevention Eradication (SHAPE) Act, which is designed to bring new reporting protocols, support services and accountability to the State Department.

“I documented the abuse I was facing to over 20 officials, but nothing was done. When I attempted to report my sexual harassment to an HR director, she screwed her eyes shut, plugged her ears, and told me, ‘No names!’” Dahm testified in the Truman Center report.

The problems are not limited to women. Wes Reisser — a deputy director in the department’s Bureau of International Organizations — said he took a State diversity training course thinking it would help him be a better manager. When he found himself the victim of homophobic discrimination by a Trump administration political appointee he said he realized the department’s H.R. systems had deteriorated from “creaky” to dysfunctional.

“I never thought as a middle-aged white guy, I was going to have to file an Equal Employment Opportunity Act complaint,” Reisser said. “It was an incredibly challenging and painful experience, and it proved to me that the department really didn’t have the tools in place to help people when they are illegally targeted by people above them.”

Former diplomats told POLITICO the situation will not change without a new set of incentives for managers, and protections for staff who speak out. “The department needs to welcome and reward dissent,” Reisser said.

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