By Dan Gephart, August 23, 2021

A year ago, the concept of “diversity training” was as welcome in the Federal workplace as a squirrel at a dog park.

But it’s now been almost seven months since President Joe Biden took office and immediately issued two Executive Orders aimed not just at bringing back diversity training, but also at improving the diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility of the Federal workplace – and the customers it serves.

This sudden about-face has left many agencies scrambling to figure out how to meet the goals laid out in those two Executive Orders, as well as the third diversity-related EO issued a couple months later.

We reached out to Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, who was recently named the first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the US Department of State. Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley’s 30-year diplomatic career includes stints advising the Commander of U.S. cyber forces on our foreign policy priorities, expanding State’s counterterrorism partners and programs, and coordinating the largest evacuation of American citizens from a war zone since WWII. She remains the longest serving U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Malta.

Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley is not opposed to taking on another difficult challenge. After all, State is sometimes derided as too “male, pale and Yale.” Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley’s focus early on in her tenure as Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers has been on getting the right data and finding the barriers to diversity.

DG: Everyone seems to have different definitions of diversity and/or inclusion. How do you define the terms?

GA: Diversity, of course, is a nice broad term that can mean any number of things. Our focus is on those who are underrepresented in the Department of State and part of protected classes as EEO lays them out. It’s a pretty specific definition on the one hand with how we’re going to be judged. In the department, we include a wide variety of aspects of human beings – backgrounds, perspectives, lived experiences brought about by visible differences, that is how we would define the diversity aspect of it.

The inclusion part and the accessibility part aren’t ensuring that everyone reaches same destination or same level because that’s impossible, but that everyone has ability to reach their potential within our organization. What we want not to do is waste talent. We don’t want to waste the money we spend on training, or on fellowships for people to join the State Department. The money from our budget is taxpayer money. If people are feeling stymied, unfairly disadvantaged, or discriminated against or dis-included, you’re wasting the talent, the resources. Our job is to make sure we make measurable improvements in those areas.

DG: What is your top priority or first goal as Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer?

GA: Two things we started doing my first day as secretary were communication and messaging. We have talked about (the value of diversity) a long time, and there’s a high level of skepticism in our organization. Why is this going to be any different than last time? We have to combine not only giving the message in a consistent, clear, and measurable way, but we also have to build the trust. Building the trust means listen to what we say and watch what we do.

To measure our accomplishments, we have to know where we are right now. We have done some work. One of my colleagues said “Gina, nothing but the hard stuff left for you.” You have to get that baseline, as everybody knows.

We are grappling with the numbers. Many don’t self-report. We want to know why (they) didn’t. There are several reasons, (such as) they thought it wouldn’t make a difference. But that information goes into how much money we give, how much effort we give, and how much success we will have.

DG: In your experience, what are the challenges faced by members of historically underrepresented groups within the State Department?

GA: I hosted an extraordinary roundtable yesterday on the anniversary of the ADA — me interviewing four employees, two posted overseas and two domestic, who have disabilities of various sorts. They talked about what works, what has been helpful from managers and supervisors, and what can we do to ensure their inclusion and their success. I was taking notes as furiously as anyone at that table.

Of our four panelists, only two had self-identified themselves. I’m sure both will go in and do it in short order. We need people to understand that the data on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability that we need to collect … none of that is connected to names. It’s anonymous data. What percentage we have. It doesn’t come with names, just the categories of the protected classes.

People say, “I don’t want to identify, maybe someone will discriminate against me.” And then I talk about the intersectionality of it, that we are responsible for each other. There are women and people of color who can’t hide it. We need to demand our organization value us for who we are.”

DG: Is it harder to do this job being the first person to hold the title, or do you think that it provides you freedom in that you’re not beholden to doing things a certain way?

GA: I have to spend time building. I hope we don’t have to pass the baton too many times. Our plan is to make our changes systemic. It’s just how we do business. I’m the first diversity and inclusion officer, but the department has made some changes over time. Work has been done in different smaller subtexts. Our Office of Civil Rights has done work. We’re trying to consolidate some of that, so we’re not reinventing the wheel here.

We really have to scrub those numbers, get that data. Whatever we do in this organization is going to be data-based. We have a lot of anecdotal evidence, but I want black and white. We have women not getting to senior positions. We have 87 percent of European Americans in leadership positions – a proportion that does not reflect the ability of everyone within the organization. Why does that happen? What are the choke points?

We have to identify what the barriers are, determine whether we’re asking the wrong questions, or is something wrong with how we advertised the position. Barrier analysis is a major tool in what we have to get after. A little of that has been done already, but my office intends to do it in a robust fashion.

DG: Is there a measure or mark by which you will judge your success? In other words, what will success look and feel like to you once the State Department’s diversity and inclusion goals have been met?

GA: The long-term goal — no quotas, no numerical target, per se. Our organizations should look like America, but it’s very clear we’re not near that. We must make sure that we have everything in place so that if people enter in this career and they have the ability to do this career and they have the willingness to do this hard work because being a diplomat is hard work, but very gratifying … if people are willing to give themselves to public service, it’s incumbent on us to get the unnecessary barriers out of their way. And that’s what we’ll look at as success. [email protected]

FELTG Instructor Marcus Hill contributed to this article.

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