The U.S. Department of State’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer defended her office against criticism from House Republicans, who said at an oversight hearing Tuesday that such initiatives threaten the merit system and lower employment standards.

“I believe that this office has a clever name that uses strong, emotional words — ‘diversity,’ ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ — but functionally does the opposite of what American has always stood for, which is simply, the best man [or] the best woman for the job,” said Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability Chairman Brian Mast, R-Florida, during the hearing on the department’s fiscal 2024 budget request.

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, the agency’s outgoing CDIO, said diversity in the hiring process is critical to healthy recruitment and attrition levels. Reports have also indicated employment disparities over the years created a need for the department to scrutinize promotion processes; minorities in the civil service are 4% to 29% less likely to be promoted than their white counterparts with similar education and experience levels, according to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report.

“We intend to attract, hire, promote, and retain talent and remove barriers that might keep some from rising as far as their talents can take them,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said.

One of the biggest changes to the State Department’s hiring came in 2022, when the Foreign Service moved away from a pass-fail exam and instead allowed an applicant’s score to be one of several considerations. Republicans on the committee balked at that change and others, saying the department has prioritized who people are over what they can do.

“I believe that your office is mandating division within the State Department,” Mast said.

Abercrombie-Winstanley maintained that the test was never intended as the “be all, end all.”

“There are many people already in the Department of State who, before the latest change, never took the written exam,” she said. That includes candidates who come in as lateral transfers or through early-career fellowship program, of which the State Department has several.

Since she was appointed in 2021, Abercrombie-Winstanley has been charged by Secretary Andrew Blinken to lead DEIA policy at an agency whose exclusivity and rigorous hiring pathways are renowned and whose work environment has been marred by a pattern of sexual assaults.

For fiscal 2024, which starts Oct. 1, the department is requesting $18 million hire at least 40 Foreign Service management specialists above attrition and keep up with increases in State’s overseas activity.

DEIA initiatives don’t mean favoring any one identity over another, she told the committee.

“My office sponsored a survey last year in which almost 9,000 employees participated — a full third of our direct hires,” she said. ”Their top recommendation was to focus on removing barriers to merit-based advancement.”

She also said many of the initiatives led by her office preceded the Biden administration. One of them was a government-wide push from former President Donald Trump to consider job candidates without college degrees.

Abercrombie-Winstanley said reaching these individuals continues to be a part of outreach efforts and that it’s the job of every officer to recruit in their communities and in between deployments.

She gave examples of barriers to employment for all staff that her office is uniquely positioned to address, whether it’s a mother who needs to bring lactation supplies into classified spaces, a low-income student who can’t afford an unpaid internship or a supervisor who experiences discrimination abroad by foreign governments.

New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat, said a DEIA-mindset allows the agency and Congress to create paid internships and fill critical skill gaps as federal employees retire. He decried the politicization of the committee’s work, which he said is increasingly mischaracterized as a contest between supposedly “woke” and “anti-woke” forces.

“Successive administrations have recognized the importance of increasing diversity, as well as fostering a culture of equity and inclusion, to better enable the State Department to deliver on his national security mission,” Meeks said. “That’s what this is about.”

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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