- Blog Post
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Gabriela Hasaj, interdepartmental program assistant at the Council on Foreign Relations, contributed to the development of this blog post.
As protests across the United States call for an overdue reckoning on systemic racism, organizations in the public and private sectors are making commitments to internal change. It's time for the foreign affairs community too to look inwardly. Despite important rhetoric, changing the face of our nations' diplomats and foreign policy professionals has been incremental at best.
Decades of research and experience prove that diversity strengthens decision-making, promotes innovation, and brings new, critical perspectives to global challenges. The 2015 National Security Strategy recognizes that the diversity of the national security and foreign policy workforce is a strategic asset that enhances the ability of the United States to lead on the global stage. Yet the highest ranks of American diplomacy and security—where these assets are most needed—still do not reflect the diversity of United States citizens. Though African Americans, Asians, Latinos or Hispanics, and Native Americans represent 34 percent of the U.S. workforce, in 2019 they collectively represented less than 18 percent of career diplomats at the U.S. Department of State. Further, according to State Department data, about 60 percent of Foreign Service generalists, and over 70 percent of Foreign Service specialists, are men. Despite efforts to promote diversity, America’s foreign policy establishment remains disproportionately dominated by white men.
Last fall, two bold and innovative leaders in the foreign affairs space joined us at the Council to discuss the importance of gender, ethnic, and racial diversity within the foreign affairs community, and how to improve the numbers:
- Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte, former acting assistant secretary in the Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and former ambassador to El Salvador, and
- Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, former U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Malta and a founder of Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS).
The conversation examined new and growing networks of women and people of color in foreign policy, the lagging overall diversity in America’s diplomatic corps, and strategies to counter structural discrimination.
Both ambassadors challenged norms in the field of foreign affairs and rose to senior positions in the U.S. State Department. They agreed that one reason for the continuing underrepresentation of women and people of color within the Department is because the institution’s internal evaluation system is designed to put little value on equal employment opportunity (EEO). Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley noted that without pressure from leadership, EEO standards risk being seen as little more than a box-checking exercise. Not only does this lack of diversity undermine the Department’s efficacy, it has also been found to affect Foreign Service officer retention.
Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley and Ambassador Aponte emphasized the critically important role of professional and personal networks in advancing opportunity and boosting morale, especially when the foreign affairs community sorely lacks representation. Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley, who is African-American, expressed that through her involvement in diverse organizations, she felt a sense of inclusion and affirmation that she was not the only person in the Department and in the foreign affairs community who looked the way she did. When she had doubts about continuing her career in the State Department, her network inspired her to recommit herself, and recognize joy in serving as a representative of the United States. She noted that today there are a growing number of networks available for women and people of color in foreign policy, such as Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation, and the Diversity in National Security Network. In an effort to increase the number of women in senior foreign policy roles, Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley helped create the Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS).
But these networks alone cannot shift systemic exclusion. Our roundtable also explored how to effect change by marshalling political will, and demanding greater oversight for foreign policy institutions. Ambassador Aponte urged audience members to engage in the legislative process to ensure that woman and minorities are not an afterthought in policy and institutional change. Recently, the House of Representatives has introduced bills including a section on Standardizing State Department Parental Leave Policies in the 2019 Department of State Authorization Act, and the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 which could help support women and underrepresented communities.
Meaningful change will require ambitious efforts beyond those that have been tried. Even during the Obama Administration, which issued top-level calls for greater diversity, the numbers in the foreign service corps barely moved. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that in 2002, 70 percent of the State Department's workforce was white. Sixteen years later, in 2018, 68 percent was. The number of women decreased from 44 to 43 percent over the same period. Discounting civil service workers, the numbers are even more dire. In 2008, more than 81 percent of the foreign service workforce was white, and in 2018 white people comprised 81.3 percent of foreign service specialists and 75.5 percent of foreign service generalists. The GAO analysis found that minority workers were less likely to be promoted than their white peers at every rank—from early career to senior management—even when controlling for education, years of service, and occupation.
Both Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley and Ambassador Aponte took it upon themselves to navigate and try to improve an unfriendly system. Ambassador Aponte recalled when she was considering a career in the Foreign Service she had no role models. As a senior officer, she committed to filling that gap for other women and minorities, being a mentor for those who would eventually assume roles of influence like hers. Both ambassadors represent a powerful example of how women of color can push the boundaries of what appears possible, but both agreed that from a policy perspective, there will only be change if it is demanded by constituents, backed by data, and supported by organizations and networks of people in the foreign policy community.
For further information about gender representation and diversity the foreign affairs, see these resources:
- The Leadership Council for Women in National Security: LCWINS has called on presidential candidates to pledge to seek gender parity in senior-level national security appointments and works to bring attention to the issue of women’s underrepresentation in national security posts among the electorate and foreign policy community.
- Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation: WCAPS works to advance the leadership and professional development of women of color in security and foreign policy.
- Diversity in National Security Network: DINSN is a coalition of national security and foreign policy practitioners working to diversify the sector, amplify the voices of diverse practitioners and create opportunities for success.
- Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy: GCNP brings together leaders of organizations that work on nuclear policy and who are committed to gender equality in their spheres of influence. All gender champions adopt the panel parity pledge: pledging to, whenever possible, avoid appearing on single-gender panels.
- Women In International Security: WIIS has analyzed the gender balance of major foreign policy think tanks in Washington, DC, and released a roster of board candidates made up of women experts in international and national security.
- Foreign Policy Interrupted: FPI publishes lists of women experts in various sectors of foreign policy—including defense, refugees, and regional expertise—to serve as a resource for media or event organizers.
- Operationalizing a Feminist Foreign Policy: Our Secure Future and Smash Strategies offer recommendations to the U.S. Government, including diversifying representation in senior foreign policy roles.
- Toward a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States: The International Center for Research on Women’s report notes that an active commitment to diversity in foreign policy is a critical pillar of a feminist approach.