“One of the important things that we must do as diplomats is challenge when it doesn't make sense,” says Ambassador Gina Abercrombie Winstanley.
More than 230 years of “Yale, pale, and male” is no longer the solution or the blueprint for governing our nation’s diplomatic corps. A new solution—and blueprint—is being entrusted to the experience and leadership of Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley.
On April 12, 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the veteran stateswoman’s appointment as the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer—the first in the department’s history. The announcement came in the wake of articles and reports outlining the structural barriers, systemic exclusion and isolation, absences of diversity and inclusion measures, and vast exodus of Foreign Service Officers from the department.
As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!
The risk-averse, bureaucratic culture of the State Department has created a retention crisis that has stifled its potential. A study published by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy on July 2, 2021, found that one in three U.S. diplomats are actively considering leaving the Foreign Service.
To address the chronic challenges impacting the Department’s workforce, Rep. Joaquin Castro, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Development, International Organizations, and Global Corporate Social Impact, reintroduced the Diversity and Inclusion at the Department of State Act. With the support of 30 House Democrats and several foreign affairs organizations, this bill, among other provisions, makes the office of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer permanent.
“The State Department simply isn’t as diverse and inclusive as it needs to be,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told those gathered for the announcement of Abercrombie-Winstanley’s appointment. According to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report, there were discernible differences in promotion outcomes for racial or ethnic minorities and whites and for men and women during the fiscal years 2002 through 2018. Although racial and ethnic minority hires increased from 17 percent to 24 percent during this time, they only made up 14 percent in the executive ranks. Women only made up 32 percent. Statistics aside, diplomats of racial and ethnic minorities have also reported instances of microaggressions, office intimidation, and promotional challenges.
“There is a lot of work to do,” Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley tells me. “We know the sort of organization that we need. People with a wide variety of backgrounds, of experiences, of points of view... we need us all at the table.”
An avid advocate of diversity and inclusion, Abercrombie-Winstanley is a 30-year veteran of the diplomatic corps who has devoted significant portions of her career to cultivating and sustaining a diplomatic workforce that reflects America’s highest values. The ambassador is a decorated public servant who has held many senior positions, including the first woman to lead a diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia and the longest-serving U.S. ambassador to Malta. Since retiring, she has written op-eds and co-chaired reports on how to transform the State Department.
Guided by the pillars of intentionality, transparency, and accountability, she says that she is developing a strategy to address the structural challenges at the State Department, including utilizing proposed funding for new resources to recruit, train, and retain a first-rate and diverse global workforce, with nearly 500 additional Foreign and Civil Service positions—the most significant staffing increase in a decade. “My intention is that we be a model for the rest of the government,” she says.
I recently sat down with the ambassador in her new office at State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom to learn more about her plans to move the department forward with diversity and inclusion at the forefront. A transcript of our conversations is below, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Kayla M. Smith: I would love to start by learning more about your world. Could you walk me by what a typical day is like in your life [as the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer]?
Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley: There is no typical day when you're doing a startup. I'm a startup. This is the first time this position has been created at this level, reporting directly to the Secretary. There is a lot of work to do... but we know the sort of organization that we need. So that means we've got to support each other and ensure that our system works to provide a pathway that each of us can reach our full potential.
KMS: How have your earliest relationships and experiences shaped your approach to this office and just international affairs in general?
GAW: Well, certainly, my career as a diplomat led me to understand that any successful relationship is built on respect. What my mom always said, you know, "do unto others, as you would have them do unto you." If you keep that uppermost, you are going to be able to build a respectful, positive relationship. That’s how I conduct myself in my personal and professional lives and what we should be doing as an organization.
KMS: I want to know, what is the cost of authenticity? For someone thinking about their authenticity and how they show up as their whole self in a career, is there a cost to being your authentic self at the State Department?
GAW: When I was in my A-100 [orientation] course, we were told that we needed to come in in professional attire. Fair enough. And then they said, that means a jacket and tie for men and a skirt or dress for women. And I remember being so annoyed at that dress code, and the very next day, I came in trousers. It was a trouser suit, although it was a winter white with a black window-pane plaid through it and black wool trousers and a cream silk shirt. And I just waited for somebody to say something to me and nobody said a word, and so we broke the dress [code] just that way.
Challenge when it doesn't make sense. One of the important things that we must do as diplomats is when the rules don't make sense to you, challenge it, ask about it, ask why, why are we doing it this way? And see, can we get it changed? I've always been willing to push the envelope with attire, hair, and personal presentation, but within a frame.
KMS: Can you describe what drew you to return to the State Department and step into this new, historic role? Where were you when you received the call? What were the emotions? Any doubt, any excitement, any anxiety? Can you walk us through that?
GAW: Sure. All of the above. I left in 2017 unexpectedly. I had not intended to resign at that time, but the [Trump] administration made clear that my services were no longer valued. And although, as a tenured diplomat, I couldn't be fired—I mean, they couldn't just tell me to walk out the door and stop paying me—but they could, and did, refuse to give me an assignment that challenged me, that allowed me to bring my full potential in public service to the Department of State.
And the worst insult that my mother could give to someone in the workplace we heard, from time to time, and she'd say "so-and-so," and she'd say, "drew on his breath and his pay." And we knew that was just the worst thing. And so, while I could have stayed and drawn my breath and my pay, I could not. I was not raised that way. I need to be of service. So, you know, I left and was of service, but in the private sector. Speaking and mentoring and career coaching, advising. I did a number of things that were very rewarding, and I was very grateful that I could take what I had learned and been trained for here as a diplomat and translate it into work in the private sector.
The need for a Chief Diversity [and Inclusion] Officer at the department was something I felt very strongly about. And indeed, while I was still here in 2016 and 2017, I did a proposal, which I gave to then-Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan for a Chief Diversity Officer. So it was on my mind and in my heart.
So my work during those three years of advocating for greater diversity and inclusion in the department, was something that came to the attention of the [Biden] administration. And the Secretary of State called me shortly after his confirmation in late January and asked me to come and do the job. And I said, ‘yes,’ immediately.
And I would not have come back for any other job. Would not have come back for any other job. This is what I wanted to do, and felt that I could be value added to the department in this role. Because I know the department so well and then I know the issues, and what needs to be done in the diversity and inclusion space, I felt like I was the right person for the job.
KMS: Since this has been on your mind, and you were thinking about this role for a while, what does it look like to really prioritize diversity and inclusion at the Department of State?
GAW: It means it's part of every conversation in every office and in every mission. The Department of State, we will tell you, we recruit for diversity, but we hire on merit. But that means ensuring that a diverse array of people are before you so that you can reflect America and you don't have to compromise on quality. So part of every conversation that we're looking at, you know, how we staff, how we bring people to the table and recognize that just as important as, as you know, an education in the general sense of the word.
So just as important as education and emotional intelligence and cultural competence, all of these things, diversity and inclusion are equally as important. That's where we want everybody to be in their thinking about what makes the best, the best Department of State, the best cohort of diplomats for the American people.
KMS: I think you may have touched on this a little earlier in our conversation, but what are the guiding principles of your mandate for this office?
AW: I am here to improve access and representation of women and minorities at the senior levels of the Department of State.
I am here to make sure that people from all backgrounds can reach their full potential. That is my job. So I am intent on that. I'm not trying to just, you know, make foreign policy better. That will happen as a result, but my intent is to increase diversity and inclusion. It goes then to transparency, making sure that people understand what we're here to do, what the organization is intent upon accomplishing, and what is expected of employees as we conduct ourselves. To do better by each other, to treat each other with respect, to not discriminate, to overcome our biases, our comfort levels.
So intentionality, transparency, accountability. If we don't get it done, we have to be held accountable. But also, if we do get it done, we have to be rewarded. It goes both ways.