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State Department's first chief diversity officer is stepping down

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Since its creation, senior-level government jobs at the State Department have mostly gone to white men, and the Biden administration has been trying to change that. It tapped retired Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley to help the State Department shed its pale, male and Yale image. More than two years later, the department's first chief diversity officer is getting ready to step down.

GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: I can't say that the numbers definitively have changed. What I can say is that our culture has begun to change, and that's what lifts my spirits as I walk out of the door.

FADEL: She set in place a five-year plan aimed at increasing equity and diversity, but the State Department is still mostly white men.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: If you really look and see, where are demographic groups in the organization? - then you get closer to that 80% European American. And so you could look at it and see, well, where are African Americans? Where are Latino/Latina? Where are Asian Americans? Where are people with disabilities? The import of that is not to divide us but to unite us, to ensure that the playing field is indeed level.

FADEL: It's about looking at the actual numbers and then going from there. Were there no official numbers before?

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: There are a lot of things we simply did not ask.

FADEL: OK.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Much easier to say we don't know than it doesn't look great.

FADEL: Oh.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: So it took some effort, you know, to negotiate and get everyone within the organization that touches this space comfortable with us really taking hard, clear, unvarnished look at the numbers. I, several years ago, went to a talk with another chief diversity officer who reminded us all that when you put in, as many professions do, you want a college degree, you've cut out 65% of the American population immediately - immediately. And we don't do that in the government, of course. But it's that sort of thing that we have to take a close look at. Are we putting barriers in place that won't bring us better candidates?

FADEL: So - but just to be clear...

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Sure.

FADEL: ...You're not saying we shouldn't have a college degree to go into the State Department.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: You don't need a college degree to become a foreign service officer. That's never been a requirement.

FADEL: Interesting.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Never been a requirement.

FADEL: I just assumed it was.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: People do. So we have to make that clear. So I go and talk to community colleges. I talk to high schoolers to let them know knowledge is not the same as education, or education doesn't have to be formal.

FADEL: You're a Black woman who served in the Foreign Service for 30 years. If you could talk about your own experience and how that informs the way you approach this.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: I can't imagine that there is an African American woman in our organization that hasn't had a similar experience, now or before, of our colleagues underestimating our abilities. You know, when I came in, people expected me to get coffee or that I was the support staff. Even I have been discriminated against. I've dealt with sexual assault - all of it. I mean, it is part of what one deals with, I think, in the workforce in general and certainly in this building, which is very male-dominated and very conservative. And, you know, a lot of it is being overlooked. You know, I walk in as a Black woman, and people don't expect me to be the leader. I have to spend time establishing my bona fides. I have to spend time making sure they understand, no, I'm not bringing coffee. No, I'm not an assistant. Nothing wrong with either thing, but that's not what I do.

FADEL: You spoke at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. You were discussing funding. But a lot of that testimony was dominated, especially when you were being questioned by Republican members of the committee, including the chairman, by questions about whether your mandate is to divide the nation, whether this is a form of reverse racism. I just want to know what you were thinking as you were hearing these questions about the work that you're doing.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: I believed that we could have done a better job of serving the American people if there had been space for a genuine discussion of the issues. One of the most important things we've done since I've been here is bring greater transparency to senior assignments that, until August of last year, you had to be known by someone to be a deputy assistant secretary in this building. And my office led the change for that. Now, while the change is going to benefit women and minorities because we're the least likely ones to have got that tap on the shoulder...

FADEL: Yeah.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: ...I'm delighted to tell you that the first person to benefit was a European American male. And he came up to me, and he was kind of apologetic 'cause he said, I don't know if I'm your demographic, but I want to say thank you. And he said, I saw the advertisement. These positions had never been advertised before - really. You had to know someone. And I said, yeah, you. You are my demographic. Inclusion is for everyone. And what everyone needs to understand is that we are not trying to put a new group at the top of the pyramid. We are trying to level the playing field.

FADEL: Do you worry that much of the work can be reversed in a climate like the one we're living through right now?

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: I don't worry much about it at all. Again, I don't think the workforce wants to go back to the smoke-filled room. Nobody wants to go back to that, No. 1. No. 2, certainly for the precept, that's negotiated with the union. So regardless of the next administration, that's not going away. Now, what people do with it - I would tell you one last story. And we put in place last October - my shorthand is it's, you know, nondiscriminatory ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba (ph) policy. We got your back is what I call it.

So if something happens to you at a border as a woman, you know, they pull you into secondary and they start harassing you and won't let you go through, or if you are gay and they start making comments and question you and not letting you go through, or if you're driving down a road in a country and you're Black and you get pulled over and stopped at a checkpoint - all of these things happen. The embassy or the consulate will now not tell you to suck it up. This is part of life abroad. And, you know, are you sure you didn't do something? They will go and speak for you, the host nation. Changes are being made. I don't think people want to give that up.

FADEL: Thank you so much, ambassador, for your time.

ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: My pleasure. My privilege. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AXEL KUHN TRIO'S "HELLO JUNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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