The State Department has made concerted efforts and noticeable improvements in expanding the racial and ethnic diversity of its workforce, but minority employees are still disproportionately more likely to be passed over for promotion than their non-minority counterparts.

According to testimony from two former, high-ranking State Department Employees at a June 17 House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing, that lack of promotional potential stems in large part from a system that does not reward leaders that prioritize diversity and remove leaders that are hostile to it.

“The department has lost too many of us because of bias, discrimination and indifference,” said Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, former U.S. ambassador to Malta. “Our problems begin at the beginning, with recruiting. Our rigorous testing process brings us smart, educated and intelligent foreign service officers, but it has also welcomed racists, sexists and those who are indifferent to both. And this moment in America has shown us just how dangerous a culture of indifference can be.”

The “gatekeepers” who evaluate and select applicants to positions within the State Department’s foreign service need more diversity themselves to help ensure that selections are made with diversity in mind, said Abercrombie-Winstanley.

According to Peter Romero, former U.S ambassador to Ecuador, biases and discrimination have plagued the State Department from the beginning, and promotions need to actively look at an employee’s record of inclusion or discrimination.

“Raise inclusive leadership to the highest level of core competency for supervising officers and make them an absolute requirement for the precepts of promotion,” Romero said.

“Vigorously select out all of those officers who show an abusive pattern towards staff, regardless of any other personal qualities, influence or achievements in the service.”

Some efforts to increase diversity at the department may also have a plateau effect on the number of racial and ethnic minorities in the workforce.

The State Department’s Pickering and Rangel Fellowships, which are administered by Howard University, a historically black university, are designed to bring minority graduate students into the foreign service.

But according to Romero, the fellowship brings in people that are traditionally 23 or 24 years old, whereas the average new foreign service class member may be 34 or 35, putting fellowship members at a life-experience disadvantage.

Abercrombie-Winstanley noted that the fellowships can also lead to complacency in normal foreign service hiring: because the fellowship is prestigious and brings in largely minority employees, hiring officials have unintentionally been inclined to assume that minority applicants are meant to go through the fellowship program. Thus, a system designed to bring in more minority employees instead sets artificial caps on the diversity of incoming foreign service classes.

But the State Department is not the only part of the government that has struggled to ensure that minorities are equally represented in the upper ranks.

Based on workforce data released by the Office of Personnel Management in June 2019, racial and ethnic minority employees at GS-9 positions and under made up a higher percentage of the federal workforce than the U.S. population average, which is 39.6 percent racial minority according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in the workforce begins to drop in the GS-10 to 15 ranks, with such minorities filling only 24.9 percent of GS-15 positions.

The Senior Executive Service has an even greater racial disparity, with minorities making up only 20.7 percent of its ranks, according to OPM’s most recent 2017 report on the service.

Within the State Department, specifically, diversity fails to be as prevalent in the upper ranks, because many minority employees leave partway through their career, and those who do stay are less likely to be promoted into the upper ranks.

According to both Abercrombie-Winstanley and Romero, there is a lot to be gained from implementing and evaluating more exhaustive exit interviews to understand if minority employees leave because of that lack of promotion potential, a hostile work environment or other factors.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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