Decades ago, back when she was a diplomat-in-training, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley was told by the Foreign Service’s selection board that African-Americans struggled cognitively with reading large amounts of material.
On Monday, Ms. Abercrombie-Winstanley was named as the State Department’s chief diversity officer, with the mandate of schooling the American diplomatic corps on fostering a more inclusive workplace.
Ms. Abercrombie-Winstanley, who is Black, is the department’s first diversity chief. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken created the position in response to the social upheaval last year among women and people of color that revealed the depths of an endemic “pale, male and Yale” culture, as the common refrain goes, in the diplomatic corps.
In announcing Ms. Abercrombie-Winstanley’s appointment, Mr. Blinken said she would help “change the culture, our norms, our behaviors, our biases,” which he described as “one of my greatest responsibilities as secretary of state.”
Recent studies show that the senior ranks of the Foreign Service are less diverse now than they were 20 years ago. As of March 2020, women held 36.3 percent of senior-level career jobs at the State Department, Asians 5.3 percent, Hispanics 4.5 percent and Black people 3 percent, according to State Department data.
Dismal promotion and retention rates among State Department employees of color have also alarmed senior officials and former diplomats, who say they undercut the values of democracy and equal rights that the United States espouses abroad.
“We are at a particular time in America, and the world is watching us,” Ms. Abercrombie-Winstanley said after Mr. Blinken’s introduction, during which he recounted her own early experience with discrimination by the Foreign Service selection board.
“We all share in the responsibility to ensure that each of us feels that we are not only having the opportunity to excel, but we are expected to reach our full potential,” said Ms. Abercrombie-Winstanley, who joined the Foreign Service in 1985 and served in embassies across the Middle East. She later held senior positions in the White House and the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau before President Barack Obama named her U.S. ambassador to Malta in 2012. She served there for four years.
She will review employment practices at the State Department and, Mr. Blinken said, make changes to “foster within our building the kind of inclusive environment that we’re fighting for out in the world.”
Mr. Blinken said he bore some responsibility for failing to demand inclusivity in the past. “I’ve been working in national security and foreign policy for a while now, and I know there’s more I could have done to push for and lead change on these issues,” he said.
But he expressed confidence that Ms. Abercrombie-Winstanley would not let future slights go unnoticed.
She “is a diplomat who knows there are times when you shouldn’t be diplomatic,” Mr. Blinken said. “She won’t be afraid to tell me where we’re coming up short. And when she does, it’s on us to listen and act.”