Who’s in the Room? Part I: The Case for a More Diverse State Department

Photo Credit: US Department of State Careers

International relations and security have long been acknowledged as “good old boys’ clubs” fields, particularly mired by white privilege and sexism, as well as lacking in religious, geographic, age, and educational diversity, among other factors. The present political climate in the United States has drawn attention to this issue, but it fails to speak the language those in national security best understand: threat assessments and opportunity costs. Simply put, the United States’ lack of diversity in the higher echelons of government and the national security apparatus is a key vulnerability our adversaries are all too willing to exploit. For proof, consider the fact that both parties agree the United States is in a new era of great power competition, facing a rising threat from China abroad;[1] Russia and other powers that seek to exacerbate underlying grievances have more than enough fodder to work with;[2] and more than one third of the federal workforce stands ready to retire within the next five years.[3] As the threats facing this nation become more complex, we need people in “the room where it happens”[4] who exhibit innovative new ways of thinking, firsthand experience with cultural issues different than our own, new languages, and creative problem-solving skills.[5]

A national security workforce that is “predominantly white, overwhelmingly male, and largely old”[6] acts as inertia on the US ability to check homogeneity of thought, pessimism, and narrow-mindedness that can cut us off from practical solutions.[7] I wish to make one thing clear: this is not a condemnation of the older, white male public servants in the federal workforce; they have served our country admirably over the years and are to be commended. What this essay is arguing, however, is that too much of one voice can drown out others’, discourage strategic imagination, and be manipulated by foreign governments.[8] With nuclear codes ever-present and the need to posture greater than ever before with the instantaneous news cycle, miscalculations are a cost we can no longer afford—especially when an answer is readily available.

“Who’s in the room” effectively means who gets input and who gets to make decisions. Without diversity “in the room,” we impede our own ability to consider creative policies.  Diversity dispels groupthink, supports teambuilding,[9] reduces reliance on technology[10] (which can be easily compromised today), and keeps teams more mission-oriented. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than at the US Department of State. When lives hang in the balance of a new nuclear deal or political treaty, every facet of information counts: “family stories, language skills, religious traditions, cultural sensitivities” and more are some of the most important tools our diplomats have to build bridges across national divides, settle disputes peaceably, and ensure democracy is safe worldwide.[11] Peter Romero, a former US Ambassador and the previous highest-ranking Hispanic at the State Department, claims that “our power to influence flows from who we are” (emphasis added).[12]  When our diplomats reflect the very real diversity of our country, they can overcome cognitive biases and ensure America and her allies maintain a competitive edge against her adversaries—many of which simply do not have the same core strength of diversity as does the United States.[13] What other countries like Russia see as our internal divisions and “Achilles’ heel,” we can operationalize into our greatest asset.[14] A diverse diplomatic corps in the US State Department would be better equipped to meet the challenges of tomorrow, make connections with foreign cultures from a place of common ground and credibility, and better assert US interests abroad.[15]

Unfortunately, this is not the current reality. From the 52 political appointees nominated under President Trump, 48 were white, and 38 were men.[16] Furthermore, this isn’t a partisan issue: a Foreign Policy analysis found that 84.4% of the ambassadors President Obama appointed were white.[17] This is a systemic problem perpetuated by a broken security clearance process,[18] a stereotype that Millennials and Generation Z (those born in the mid to late 1990s) will leave jobs quickly and are therefore not reliable “bets” for federal careers, and a preference for traditional hiring pipelines from favored universities and veterans.[19] In fact, members of the “digital native” population are well-primed to deal with threats from emerging technologies, and a recent poll discovered that 65% of this generation view their jobs as key parts of their identities.[20] Moreover, the wealth disparity for career fields in Washington virtually eliminate those who cannot afford unpaid internships. Ironically, those from lower-income populations may be best-suited to understand others around the world facing similar situations. By highlighting the mission of public service these careers offer,[21] and by democratizing access to the hiring pipeline through paid internships and merit scholarships, the government can efficiently promote a more diverse federal workforce. However, recruitment is only half the battle; retention is equally and sometimes more important to ensuring a well-rounded national security apparatus.

When asked about diversity, the State Department’s common refrain is to point to diplomat in residence programs at universities and the Thomas Pickering and Charles B. Rangel fellowships. If the avenue to a fruitful State Department career is limited to two highly competitive fellowships for applicants of color, this is neither sufficient nor sustainable. Furthermore, this only postpones the inevitable. It is hard to promote prominent officials of color when the internal pool is still mostly white: only 13% of senior foreign service officers are non-white, and this shrinks to 11% when examining civil service officers.[22] When it comes to retention, women and people of color tend to leave the foreign service earlier and at higher rates for a multitude of reasons.[23] Finally, since the foreign service tends to promote officers by cohort, the current senior foreign service reflects the demographics of those onboarded nearly two decades ago.[24] Derek Hogan, the first Pickering fellow to reach ambassador status, only did so in 2018, despite the Pickering and Rangel fellowships being established in 1992 and 2002 respectively.[25] Meanwhile, three of State’s most senior African-American officials and the highest ranking Latino officer were removed or resigned from their posts in 2017, and many were re-assigned to lower ranks.[26] Furthermore, what we know hardly even begins to cover the discrimination qualified officers experience. Clearly, retention is as much of a problem for State as recruitment, though it is far less addressed.

We know that change is possible from looking at the State Department’s own history. The first black man to join the foreign service, Clifton R. Wharton, did so in 1925, and he was alone in this achievement for 20 years.[27] In the 1950s, Blacks easily failed the security clearance process for being part of “subversive” organizations like the NAACP; those that did pass faced a segregated work environment.[28] In 1994, a white officer stationed in Bolivia sent a cable that criticized the “unscrupulous race and ethnic jumpers’ trying to ‘con’ their way to the top.”[29] Today, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review that spanned 2002-2018 found that African-American Foreign Service members only increased 1% (from 6-7%) in the 16 year period. Within the Trump Administration, three out of 189 ambassadors are Black.[30] GAO also found that public servants of color “had statistically significantly lower odds of promotion.”[31] In fact, President Trump has selected only one Black woman to be a US Ambassador, as confirmed last week.[32] The data is clear: the State Department does not accurately reflect the United States of America. For a country that prides itself on its democracy and equality of opportunity, the United States simply does not live up to its ideals when it comes to a diverse federal workforce, and this has serious national security implications.

So, what is to be done? The federal government at large and the State Department in particular should take a page from the private sector’s playbook and set aggressive goals, more frequently collect data, and benchmark its diversity standards against more equitable institutions. These procedures are already standard practice for many private firms and have been shown to increase accountability, transparency, and sales,[33] so why would we not adopt this same mindset in holding our government accountable to the principles enshrined in our Constitution? Why would we not keep this data transparent and open to both encourage reform and deny our enemies the opportunity of weaponizing this weakness? Would this not contribute to a better “sale” of democracy and freedom abroad?

To increase retention, the State Department should work to ensure confidentiality and action in its complaint systems; ensure restorative justice channels in dispute resolution; test for biases in technology to improve anti-racist recruitment;[34] involve managers from the start;[35] and importantly, educate senior leadership.[36] Secretary of State Pompeo’s November 2019 email to staff stated that diverse candidates applying for Pickering and Rangel fellowships had doubled[37]—but again, are two fellowships the entire State Department strategy to achieve diversity? Moreover, calling applicants “diverse candidates” immediately identifies them as the “other.” We are all diverse in some way; labeling applicants as “diverse” has become a politically correct way to name them as non-white and does a disservice to everyone in pretending that diversity is no more than race and ethnicity. In this instance, racial and ethnic diversity is paramount to achieving a more representative and threat-resilient State Department, but it is not the only type of diversity that matters. Changing the use of the word “diverse” along with leadership’s focus, strategy, and perspective on a more equitable Department of State will be vital to achieving a sustainable solution.

This essay has examined just a few of many ideas currently circulating to increase, improve, and protect diversity in the federal government. Critically, “…national security cannot be the chief rationale for pursuing civil rights. After all, racial injustice is not just another chink in our armor. It is the great flaw in our character.”[38] We should all strive for diversity because it is quite simply the right thing to do. The value lies in being able to address this challenge head on—as America has done for every problem she has ever faced—and realizing that, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”[39] Facing the music about the lack of diversity in the State Department is not an easy proposition but doing so will allow us to realize greater equity for outstanding racial and ethnic minorities and increase our influence abroad. It will transform our current national security vulnerability into one of our greatest strengths—if we have the courage to put in the work and fight for what is right.


[1] Zachery Tyson Brown, “Diversity is America’s Untapped Competitive Edge,” Inkstick, July 8, 2020. https://inkstickmedia.com/diversity-is-americas-untapped-competitive-edge/.

[2] Sherrilyn Ifill, “It’s time to face the facts: Racism is a national security issue,” The Washington Post Opinions, December 18, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-time-to-face-the-facts-racism-is-a-national-security-issue/2018/12/18/f9746466-02e8-11e9-b5df-5d3874f1ac36_story.html.

[3] Brown, Diversity is America’s Untapped Competitive Edge.”

[4] Lin Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton: An American Musical,” as seen on Disney+.

[5] Brown, Diversity is America’s Untapped Competitive Edge;” Thomas M. Pickering and Edward J. Perkins, “The Foreign Service is too white. We’d know–we’re top diplomats,” The Washington Post, May 18, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/05/18/the-foreign-service-is-too-white-wed-know-were-top-diplomats/.

[6] Brown, “Diversity is America’s Untapped Competitive Edge.”

[7] Andrew and Gaia Grant, “The 7 Biggest Creativity Killers,” Fast Company, June 12, 2012, https://www.fastcompany.com/1680919/the-7-biggest-creativity-killers.

[8] Brown, “Diversity is America’s Untapped Competitive Edge.”

[9] Beth Comstock, “Want a Team to be Creative? Make it Diverse,” Harvard Business Review, May 11, 2012.

[10] Grant, “The 7 Biggest Creativity Killers.”

[11] Pickering and Perkins, “The Foreign Service is too white.”

[12] Pranshu Verma, “House Lawmakers Examine Lack of Diversity at State Department,” The New York Times, June 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/17/us/politics/state-department-diversity.html.

 [13] Brown, “Diversity is America’s Untapped Competitive Edge.”

[14] Ifill, “It’s time to face the facts.”

[15] Robbie Gramer and Jefcoate O’Donnell, “White and Male: Trump’s Ambassadors Don’t Look Like the Rest of America,” Foreign Policy, September 17, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/09/17/white-male-trump-ambassadors-dont-look-like-america-us-state-department/.

 [16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Brown, “Diversity is America’s Untapped Competitive Edge.”

[19] Jeff Mazur, “Gen Z Doesn’t Want to Work for the Government,” Government Executive, May 14, 2020, https://www.govexec.com/management/2020/05/gen-z-doesnt-want-work-government/165362/.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Gramer and O’Donnell, “White and Male.”

[23] Ibid.

[24] Jory Heckman, “State Department: ‘Everyone has a role to play’ in workforce diversity strategy,” Federal News Network, April 15, 2020, https://federalnewsnetwork.com/hiring-retention/2020/04/state-department-everyone-has-a-role-to-play-in-workforce-diversity-strategy/.

[25] Gramer and O’Donnell, “White and Male.”

[26] Emily Birnbaum, “State Department: Allegations of racism ‘disgusting and false,’” The Hill, September 17, 2018, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/407002-state-department-allegation-of-racism-disgusting-and-false.

[27] Christopher Richardson, “The State Department Was Designed to Keep African-Americans Out.” The New York Times Opinion, June 23, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/23/opinion/state-department-racism-diversity.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage&fbclid=IwAR16RXGseLRyCDvgZaxBFnZpr49tlpL4FudJHLH5V49mIsUTjy5m2xsp3Pg.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Robbie Gramer, “State Department Struggling on Diversity, New Report Finds,” Foreign Policy, February 24, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/02/24/state-department-diversity-racial-ethnic-minorities-recruitment-government-accountability/.

[32] Gramer and O’Donnell, “White and Male.”

[33] David Pedulla, “Diversity and Inclusion Efforts That Really Work,” Harvard Business Review, May 12, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/05/diversity-and-inclusion-efforts-that-really-work?utm_medium=social&utm_source=linkedin&utm_campaign=hbr.

[34] Gramer, “State Department Struggling on Diversity.”

[35] Ibid.

[36] Pedulla, “Diversity and Inclusion Efforts That Really Work.”

[37] Gramer, “State Department Struggling on Diversity.”

[38] Ifill, “It’s time to face the facts.”

[39] This quote is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, although its origins are unclear.

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