Secretary of State Antony Blinken named retired ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley as the department’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer Monday, a step that current and former diplomats said reflects Blinken’s seriousness about improving diversity at America’s oldest Cabinet agency.
“Gina has a track record over her career of bringing empirical rigor and fierce urgency to the fight for diversity and inclusion and in pushing for accountability,” Blinken said Monday at the State Department. He said Abercrombie-Winstanley has “consistently been a courageous and outspoken voice on these issues, including by sharing her own experiences of discrimination… like when she was told in a briefing for State’s board of examiners, the institution that selects candidates for the Foreign Service that, ‘African Americans have cognitive difficulty difficulties with large amounts of reading material.’ “
“She knows the toll this takes on individuals, but also on the institution,” Blinken said, describing Abercrombie-Winstanley as “a diplomat who knows there are times when you shouldn’t be diplomatic, like when people are denied an equal shot at rising in their career, prevented from serving our country because of who they are. She won’t be afraid to tell us where we’re coming up short.”
Abercrombie-Winstanley, a career member of the foreign service decorated for acts of courage during an al-Qaeda attack on the US consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has served as an ambassador to Malta, advisor to US Cyber Command, and as deputy coordinator for State’s counterterrorism bureau, as well as in a raft of assignments throughout the Middle East.
The diversity challenge at the State Department “is longstanding,” Abercrombie-Winstanley told CNN in February, adding that she brings both a personal and historical understanding of the hurdles. Her appointment, Blinken’s first concrete step toward changing the bureaucratic culture at the department, signals that real change is underway, observers and diplomats said.
“There are a lot of people out there who could have been figureheads in this role. Gina is somebody who is not there as a figurehead,” said Jenna Ben-Yehuda, CEO of the Truman Center, a nationwide group of national security professionals. Ben-Yehuda worked closely with Abercrombie-Winstanley and others to produce a March report on transforming the State Department and said the retired ambassador will bring to the job a nitty gritty knowledge of the system and a strategic vision for how to effect change.
‘Minor things that add up’
Through her 30-plus year career as a Black woman making her way to the highest ranks of the department, Abercrombie-Winstanley “brings both the strategic vision of where the department needs to go and an understanding what is possible, that’s deeply rooted in an understanding of all of the intricacies of the bureaucracy that have made progress to this point so challenging and elusive,” said Ben-Yehuda, a former civil service officer. “She’s somebody who knows, down to the regulation, down to the Foreign Affairs Manual citation, down to the stats in promotion classes, all of the seemingly minor things that add up to be key elements that form any person’s career.”
Blinken has made clear that increasing diversity, equity and inclusion is one of his top priorities – not just domestically, but at embassies around the world. In a recent, unclassified April 7 cable about reengaging with the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, Blinken referred to “our top human rights objectives” and then said: “Number one among these is re-establishing US leadership on racial justice, at home and abroad.”
During a March 10 hearing with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Blinken said that he “will consider it a mark of my success or not during my tenure as Secretary whether we’ve been able to put in place a much more sustainable foundation for advancing true diversity at the State Department, to make sure that we have a Foreign Service and foreign policy workforce that looks like the country that it represents.”
On Monday, Blinken said the State Department simply isn’t as diverse and inclusive as it needs to be and pointed to data from a 2020 Government Accountability Office report. It found that “racial or ethnic minorities in the department’s civil service were up to 29% less likely to be promoted than their White peers with similar qualifications,” Blinken said. “The report also found that the higher up you went in the department, the lower the proportion was of women or racial and ethnic minorities. In other words, up in rank, down in diversity.”
Abercrombie-Winstanley will help State finalize a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, which is expected to include concrete metrics for the Department and will be released later this spring. She will also be “empowered to develop a robust framework for fostering diversity and inclusion in our workforce” and “entrusted with aligning and advancing diversity and inclusion efforts across the department,” Blinken said.
Biinken called the lack of diversity a problem that “is as old as the department itself. It’s systemic. It goes much deeper than any one institution, or any one administration. And it’s perpetuated by policies, practices, and people, to this day.”
Abercrombie-Winstanley agrees. “We’ve been discussing the issue of lack of inclusion in the Department of State since I joined 35 years ago, and not a lot has changed,” she told CNN in February. “Secretaries Powell, Rice, Clinton, and Kerry among others have been talking about the need to improve it, the need to have a service that looks like America, except that the numbers are what the numbers are, and they’ve been pretty consistent.”
At the end of 2020, more than 74% of foreign service specialists and more than 80% of foreign service generalists were White, according to department data. Men accounted for 58% of the generalists and a full 71% of foreign service specialists. Whites make up around 87% of the most senior ranks of the foreign service. Almost 68% of the senior foreign service and nearly 60% of the executive leadership is male.
The difficulties that women and people of color face in climbing the department’s ranks are varied and structural, Abercrombie-Winstanley said, pointing to the need for more data and transparency.
“Opacity is the most comprehensive description of how it all works; in spite of the last foreign service act, which is 40, 50 years old, we still have a situation where most things are opaque: How people get assignments, how promotions work.” Abercrombie-Winstanley notes that promotions are directly tied to assignments that qualify diplomats for higher ranking positions, “so it comes down to: how clear and transparent is that process? Those steps that are career enhancing?”
Abercrombie-Winstanley has promoted mentorship throughout her career, and says they were invaluable to her as she made her own way. “I had mentors and sponsors who helped me understand the system,” she said. “That can be even more important than having a sponsor” backing you for a particular job.
The department’s diversity plummeted in the last four years, Abercrombie-Winstanley noted, but she emphasized that the challenge has more to do with the institution than any administration. “This last drop under the Trump administration was pretty extraordinary,” she said, “but the challenges are within the building, within the organization.”
‘They kept persevering’
Even so, like many diplomats, she spoke of the Trump administration’s apparent hostility to diversity and inclusion, including former President Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy. While she thought briefly of leaving the department, Abercrombie-Winstanley said family support and awareness of the challenges faced by the generations of Black diplomats who came before her, stiffened her resolve.
“I thought at the beginning of the Trump administration that I might have to leave because of the hostility I perceived,” she said. But her brother sent her an email encouraging her to keep at it. “He told me, ‘Our people know what it is not to be valued.’ And when you think about all the African American diplomats from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s – these people who had to deal with racism of the worst and most dangerous kind – and they kept persevering. So I stayed.”
Abercrombie-Winstanley points to the historical link between the US civil rights struggle at home and the country’s image and soft power abroad, an issue that rose again after the Trump administration’s militarized response to racial justice protests across the US.
In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy appointed Carl Rowan, a Black former naval officer and journalist, as ambassador to Finland and then head of the US Information Service. “He had to come back to the President to say, ‘This civil rights struggle in the US and the treatment of African Americans is undermining our foreign policy achievements,’” she said.
Abercrombie-Winstanley retired from the department in December 2017.
Apart from her work at the State Department, Abercrombie-Winstanley has held senior positions in the Pentagon and at the National Security Council of the White House and has served as a fellow on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the then-ranking member, Sen. Joe Biden.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler and Michael Conte contributed to this report