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A Theoretical Approach to Demographic Diversity in the Diplomatic Service: A Study of the U.S. Foreign Service

Jessica Wamala wrote "A Theoretical Approach to Demographic Diversity in the Diplomatic Service" as part of the 2014 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship. The research essay was first published in Transatlantic Perspectives on Diplomacy and Diversity (Humanity in Action Press 2015). The complete book is available for purchase on Amazon 


This paper uses a theoretical approach to argue that demographic diversity matters for the effectiveness of the diplomatic service. It begins by exploring the importance of demographic diversity in the diplomatic service from an empirical and normative approach. Using literature from the field of management and applied psychology, this paper argues that demographic diversity benefits the problem-solving and decision-making processes in the diplomatic service by adding additional perspectives, skills and alternatives. In addition, proportional representation of demographic diversity further benefits the diplomatic process by furthering democratic values and strengthening the argument for the external promotion of inclusion and tolerance in U.S. foreign policy. A comprehensive study of the diversification efforts of the Department of State and the U.S. Foreign Service not only exposes the historic battle for diversity and inclusion but also sheds light on where future diversification efforts should be redirected. 


The United States’ Department of State houses the official diplomatic service, the U.S. Foreign Service, and operates the diplomatic body of the United States. The diplomatic body signifies “the body of ambassadors, envoys and officials attached to the foreign mission residing at any seat of government,” and diplomatic service or corps defines “the branch of the public service which supplies the personnel of the permanent mission in foreign countries.” (1, 2) While the Department of State is responsible for the external representation of the United States, there is and has been an inconsistency and contradiction between the composition of individuals that compose the professional diplomatic service and the composition of American society. Does demographic diversity matter in the diplomatic body and to what extent? This paper begins the exploration of a new angle to diversity and decision-making through their intersection with diplomatic affairs. 

The heterogeneity of functional specializations and demographic/cultural individual characteristics define an organization or group’s diversity. (3) Scholarship suggests that demographic diversity, specifically referencing racial and gender diversity, in decision-making and problem-solving groups makes dramatic and measurable improvements by providing additional perspectives and increasing the interests represented to enhance opportunities for mutual understanding and achievement of the strategic goal. (4) In addition, the liberal democratic goals of pluralism, equality and peace cannot be achieved without active participation from all minorities. However, the entrenched elite in the United States has historically excluded minorities, especially racial and gender minorities. With a history of slavery and institutional racism, American non-whites have been an integral part of the U.S. narrative but have limited access to positions of power. (5) The Foreign Service has instead been overrepresented by affluent, white and prestigiously educated men. Since the U.S. holds equality and equal opportunity as fundamental values, this paper will argue that a diverse diplomatic service is necessary and should be prioritized. 

The recognition of racial and gender diversity as a necessity will frame this paper’s theoretical foundation. Because the literature lacks research of the empirical benefit of diverse groups in the context of diplomatic responsibilities, my argument will be parsed from a detailed understanding of previous management studies, which operationalize how the composition of demographically diverse work environments affects certain outcomes. This section also addresses issues of tokenism, which can result directly from diversification. By arguing that the inclusion of minorities benefits the diplomatic process from both an empirical and normative perspective, this paper claims that it is a country's responsibility to prioritize diversifying its diplomatic services without undermining the level of competence and expertise of foreign policy practitioners. Furthermore, by using the United States an example, this paper will outline the different ways the U.S. has prioritized the diversification of its diplomatic service and discuss its effectiveness.

Through an evaluation of the historical and contemporary efforts to increase diversity in the U.S. Foreign Service, the latter half of this paper will focus on the strategies and attention given to prioritizing this issue and how the Department of State has shifted its stance over time. Some of these efforts include recruiting tactics, changes to the entry process and promotion strategies. In order to evaluate the measurable effects of these approaches, this paper will focus on the changes in demographics over time to measure diversity. In addition, qualitative interviews will offer additional perspectives on how the implemented changes are perceived internally and externally.

Because there is limited research on the relevance of diversity in the official channels for diplomacy, the main aims of this study are to (1) advance the current research on the importance of diversity in the workplace, (2) ignite the necessary conversation regarding tokenism in diplomacy and (3) offer recommendations for the continuation and evaluation of current diversification efforts. This study is not a discussion of best practices for affirmative action policies, but instead, a discussion of the theories underlying affirmative action – the necessity of demographic diversity. In particular, this study seeks to prove the continued importance and relevance of demographic diversity and place its emphasis on how diversity affects the foreign policy decision-making process. It is evident that the United States has varied its approach of diversifying the representation of the diplomatic service. By outlining these changes, this study will illuminate critical insights to where methods for diversification were successful and where they should continue or be amended. The diversity of ideas needs to come from a diversity of people, which requires the intentional inclusion of women and non-whites. 

Review of Diversity Literature

In order to understand on a theoretical level why countries should prioritize the diversification of their diplomatic service, it is imperative to understand why racial and gender diversity matters. Analysis of how demographic diversity affects the work of diplomats has been understudied. However, on both the descriptive (empirical) level and the normative (value laden) level, the literature on diversity’s intersections with group decision-making and democracy has expanded rapidly in the past 20 years. Exploring these bodies of literature will not only illuminate the importance and necessity of racial and gender diversity in the diplomatic service but also highlight the need for its continued research.

Empirical Importance of Diversity

At the national level, senior level diplomats are responsible for implementing foreign policy decisions, but these decisions rely on the confluence of many international affairs practitioners. The crafting of each strategic decision is the culmination of not only a complex bureaucratic policy process, but more importantly, the result of teamwork on multiple levels of experience. (6) Therefore, if policy makers in a group are contributing to the decision, then the characteristics of the group need to be critically examined. Because previous research discussing the importance of diversity for group decision-making has been keen in the field of management and applied psychology, (7) as well as the public sector, although studied to a much lesser degree, (8) this expansive body of research will frame the foundation of discussing diversity in a diplomatic context.

The study of heterogeneity within groups and its effects began to accelerate in the 1990s, as management researchers started focusing on changing legal, cultural and demographic factors, such as globalism, declining birth rates and an increase in the non-white U.S. labor force population. (9) Seeking clarity and organization when parsing out diversity’s effects, most researchers distinguish between two types of diversity dimensions: non-observable and observable. (10) The non-observable dimension is sometimes referred to as informational diversity or functional specializations, which are “differences in knowledge bases, skills or perspectives of team members.” (11) Yet, as a relevant dimension to the study of diversity in diplomacy, the need for differing levels of informational diversity remains low. The United States Foreign Service recruits highly educated area-expert candidates, maintains a difficult entrance exam and extensively trains employees where additional skills are needed, which would intuit that governments do not want functional gaps in their diplomatic workforce. (12) Therefore, this diversity dimension falls outside the scope of this study. The second – observable – dimension of diversity is social category diversity or demographic diversity, which Jehn et al. notes most people are commonly referring to when talking about diversity without any clarifying adjectives. Social category (or demographic) diversity refers to “the degree to which a unit (e.g., a work group or organization) is heterogeneous with respect to demographic attributes…[which] generally include ‘immutable characteristics such as age, gender, and ethnicity…” (13) For example, the definition of gender diversity as it pertains throughout this study is “the collective mix of men and women in the organization.” (14) As aforementioned, the remainder of this study will focus solely on the dimension of demographic diversity.

By the 2000s, the findings surrounding the influence of demographic diversity on group performance were mixed. (15) The mixed results have come as a result of researchers positing different questions for demographic diversity and work groups based on differing critical components of diversity. Therefore, the literature for evaluating the empirical importance of demographic diversity is divided: (1) focus on contribution, addressing the question of viewpoints; and (2) focus on intergroup relations, addressing the question of cohesion. By focusing on diversity’s contribution, researchers posit the effect of demographic diversity on group performance as positive because the differences among the group members “give rise to varied ideas, perspectives, knowledge and skills that can improve their ability to solve problems and accomplish their work.” (16) The fundamental aspect of the argument is that heterogeneity increases the total amount of cognitive resources and problem-solving abilities. Watson, Kumar and Michaelson were the first to champion the argument that demographic diversity is valuable because there is a greater amount of skills and abilities, and it can stimulate employees to consider different perspectives and alternative solutions. (17) More recently, Page expands this hypothesis using models and logic to show how diversity performs better than homogeneity. According to Page, differing perspectives that are critical to uncovering encoded solutions can facilitate more problem-solving and inspire breakthroughs. (18)

Skeptics of demographic diversity have not utilized the contribution question to understand diversity, but instead have focused on intergroup relations. The main argument, according to Lisa Pelled, is that the benefit effect of demographic diversity on group performance is negated because observable differences incite intergroup bias, conflict and miscommunication, which result in unfavorable group outcomes. (19) Moreover, “diverse groups appear to marginalize some members on the basis of their demographic attributes.” (20) Other researchers have recognized this dichotomy in the literature and have attempted to reconcile these contrasting outcomes by suggesting that the success of diversity is contingent on task-related factors, long-term results and communication. (21) The research conducted by Watson, Kumar and Michaelson concluded that although the demographically diverse group reported less effectiveness at the beginning of a newly formed group, suggesting inter-group conflict as a short-term cause, over time, their group performance improved rapidly, suggesting a missing condition. (22) By identifying the conditions that intervene between the demographic composition of groups, qualitative research conducted by Ely and Thomas demonstrated that work groups which were willing to express and manage tensions related to diversity showed sustained benefits and enhanced functioning and performance. (23) In concurrence, Page contends: “For diverse groups to perform well, people must feel as though their identities have been validated and their contributions verified.” (24)


Diversity in the Diplomatic Corps vis-á-vis Contribution 

A review of the empirical research of diversity in relation to group performance and functionality supports the arguments that diversity in the official channels of diplomacy matters and that it is important to expand research surrounding demographic diversity in diplomacy more generally. The first finding argues that demographic diversity in the diplomatic corps is relevant. This argument is derived first by focusing on the contribution of diversity. Yet, in order to understand why diversity’s contribution is imperative for analyzing demographic diversity, one must understand the foreign policy making process. The public servants responsible for foreign policy never operate in isolation or make decisions as lone thinkers appointed for their IQ and expertise. The system for creating foreign policy and its implementation through diplomacy and diplomatic missions relies on a myriad of individuals at varying levels of experiences. (25) At each level of experience, from entry-level to senior, these important decisions are made in groups. These groups can span vertically, through many levels of experience, or horizontally, through task forces that span different topics or agencies, all requiring the input and inclusion of a functional group. Regardless of the specific reason for the group, each team is responsible for making well thought-out, solution-based policy and relaying these decisions to their superiors. Even at the highest level of decision-making, the most important foreign policy makers – like the U.S. Secretary of State – are supported by a special team of advisors. Furthermore, these decisions are carried out by diplomatic missions overseas and foreign policy directives and vary from country to country. 

Research from the literature review tackling the question of diversity’s contribution shows the empirical benefit of demographically diverse groups. Page advances these conclusions, concluding: “Identity diverse groups perform better when the task is primarily problem solving, when their identities translate into relevant tools, when they have little or no preference diversity, and when their members get along with one another.” (26) Much of the work of diplomatic personnel involves conflict-resolution and weighing alternatives for maintaining peace. Adam Watson describes their work as a “diplomatic dialogue …with forms of agreement or conflict of interests.” (27) Therefore, a demographically diverse group of diplomats would form the optimal foreign policy making group. The addition of more perspectives, the consideration of more alternatives and increased problem-solving abilities increases the performance and efficiency of the group of diplomatic personnel. This study hypothesizes that increases in diplomatic group performance would translate to improvements in better calculated and formulated foreign policy and its successful implementation. These theoretical conclusions warrant further mixed-method studies to test the causal relationship between diverse foreign policy making groups and the successful implementation of foreign policy as well as longitudinal research to understand these results over time.


Diversity in the Diplomatic Service vis-á-vis Intergroup Relations

The second empirical finding regarding demographic diversity in the diplomatic corps is illuminated by focusing on intergroup relations. There is a necessity for diversity’s negative potential vis-á-vis intergroup relations to be explored in the diplomatic service environment. The possibility of group fragmentation, ineffectiveness and personal invalidation warrant qualitative case studies, collecting data and analyzing diplomatic group work in the short-term and long-term. While the literature review revealed that intergroup conflict and miscommunication in a demographically diverse group can negatively affect group performance and function, it also revealed that these negative effects can be mitigated if managed appropriately. An examination of the management literature showed concrete ways to understand and mitigate these negative effects. Both Ely and Thomas and Page contend that all members of the diverse group must feel validated, valued and utilized in order for each member to contribute to the fullest and most effectively. (28) If not, certain members, women and people of color especially, are likely to be marginalized in diverse groups. Elsass and Graves, in summarizing several studies of diverse groups and organizational norms, suggest that the sources of marginalization come from the lack of diversity in setting organizational norms:

Societal norms, together with racioethnic and gender differences in the distribution of resources, have created a hierarchy of roles that awards status and authority to White men. Further, organizational norms typically are shaped by White men, reflect the values of the White male majority, and reinforce White males’ higher status. In diverse groups, interactions between members may reflect existing norms, creating barriers to the full participation of women and people of color. (29)

In addition, Ely and Thomas emphasize that disproportionate representations of higher-status identity groups in positions of authority reinforce marginalization of underrepresented demographic groups. Taking this research into account, when applied to the diplomatic service, demographically diverse groups that are overrepresented by white males will likely cause marginalization, and the benefits of diversity may be compromised. Female diplomats and diplomats of color will be the most likely to feel invalidated, undervalued and underutilized. By understanding and addressing where marginalization, which in most times is the source of conflict, is likely to emerge, the promotion and advantageous results of increased diversity in the diplomatic service will not be negated. Furthermore, these implications suggest that researchers who explore the causal relationship between demographic diversity in the diplomatic service and group effectiveness should account for the nuances of intergroup conflict. A particular focus on the experiences of women and personnel of color can illuminate the contributions and resources linked directly from their experiences and demographic identity as well as the extent to which personnel feel personally valued. (30)


Normative Importance of Diversity

In addition to empirical research focusing on the overall advantageous effects of demographic diversity in work groups, previous research has also addressed the normative relevance of demographic diversity. Much of the literature on the normative importance of diversity on group performance has focused on either the proportional representation of certain demographic groups and its effects on those traditionally in the minority or on the ethics, morality and constitutionality of demographic diversity, studied in democracy literature. These two bodies of literature will further confirm the importance and necessity of racial and gender diversity when applied to the diplomatic service.


Effects of Proportional Representation

The first normative argument for demographic diversity focuses on the proportional representation of traditionally underrepresented groups. As aforementioned, women and people of color are often underrepresented in organizational work groups. Researchers that argue using the proportional representation theory examine the impact of increasing the number of traditionally underrepresented individuals – or diversification. (31) Intentional diversification is the act of an organization recruiting members for their demographic qualifications in an effort to expand their demographic heterogeneity. In general, researchers examining this approach recognize that demographic diversification alone is not a strategy to end work place discrimination and must be coupled with efforts that change the power relations between in-group and out-group members.(32) While efforts to increase traditionally underrepresented members in a group do not solely change the power dynamic, increasing proportional representation can have other positive effects on group performance. 

Some researchers suggest that increasing the number of demographically underrepresented members removes certain barriers associated with minority status and maximizes the productivity of all individuals, thereby increasing the group’s effectiveness.(33) In her seminal work, Men and Women of the Corporation, Rosabeth Kanter theorizes how proportional representation (i.e. balanced demographic representation in groups) can eliminate several negative phenomena using her research on women in predominately male organizations. Tokenism, polarization and assimilation all derive from the low proportionate representation of minority group members, a skewed balance where minority representation is less than 15%. (34) Tokenism is defined as “a tendency for [minority members] to be viewed as representatives of their culture group rather than as individuals, as well as a tendency for their performance, good or bad, to be magnified because of the extra attention that their distinctiveness creates.”(35) Polarization refers to the tendency of members of the majority group to become acutely aware of the differences between demographic groups and emphasize the similarities shared by the in-group, resulting in social isolation of the out-group. (36) Lastly, assimilation distorts the perception of tokens to conform to preexisting stereotypes. Furthermore, the studies of tokenism and its psychological effects have expanded, showing that tokenism can arouse stigmas of personal inadequacy, self-perception issues and alienation. (37) Therefore, proportional representation shows a necessity for balanced demographic groups in the diplomatic service. The diplomatic service should benefit from a diverse work force in order to avoid the negative aforementioned phenomena. 


Democratic Values of Diversity in Diplomacy

Lastly, the normative argument for demographic diversity is supported by liberal democratic values. If diversification embraces demographic heterogeneity by balancing minority and majority demographics, and diversity’s very essence is the inclusion of similarities and differences, then diversification upholds democratic values. By promoting diversity, an organization can promote inclusion. As Thomas Hughes aptly writes in Foreign Policy, “[D]iversity is democracy, and democracy is diversity. They are synonyms, one often duplicating and defining the other. Diversity suggests the element of agnosticism fundamental to democratic life, the toleration for ventilating differences, the richness, variety, and experimentation which democratic systems exist to preserve and express.” (38) The classical definition of democracy from ancient Greece used the language of “rule by the people” and expanded in the Age of Enlightenment to include essential elements such as liberty, equality and human rights. The idea of liberal democracy emerged in the sixteenth and seventieth centuries with political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and later Locke, Montesquieu, Hume and Tocqueville on the foundation that individuals should reach their potential but never at the expense of anyone else’s liberty, emphasizing the equality of all humans. Hence, their link is inextricable: democracy assumes the existence of a multitude of different groups – diversity, the existence of different characteristics. The key to their link is tolerating difference. 

In regards to the diplomatic service, a democratic country is a society that tolerates diversity, allowing for differences and encouraging equal opportunity. The diplomatic service should be a job opportunity open to all individuals, and requirements for entry and advancement should be based on criteria only relevant to performance. Kraal et al. summarizes the importance of equal opportunity in the labor market as essential for social cohesion, stability and prosperity. (39) Furthermore, the internal promotion of diversity aligns with the external objective of promoting diversity. The ultimate objective of the diplomatic service, after the creation of foreign policy, is to carry out and implement it abroad – a foreign policy that places a high emphasis on combating intolerance and injustice. In the case of the United States, the Department of State’s mission is “to build and sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and act responsibly within the international system.” (40) Externally, diplomats execute the United States’ commitment to protecting human and minority rights, preventing and responding to conflict based on diverse religious and cultural groups and advancing the rights of women, youth and the LGBT community. As the democracy literature suggests, to promote these democratic values abroad is to promote the tolerance of difference. If internally there is a demographically diverse diplomatic service, externally the diplomatic service showcases the importance and priority of diversity. Therefore, the diplomatic service, as an extension of a liberal democracy, should strive to be demographically representative and nondiscriminatory while advancing its missions to tolerate difference. 



To conclude, demographic diversity in the diplomatic service matters and is supported both empirically and normatively. Evidence from the previous sections confirms the original hypothesis proposed by Wanous and Youtz: (41) heterogeneous groups are more likely to generate a multitude of recommended alternatives for a task or solutions for a problem, in turn stimulating effective group discussion and leading ultimately to high quality decisions. (42) In the diplomatic service, demographic diversity is necessary in order to attain high quality decisions that will impact foreign policy. Therefore, contributions of traditionally underrepresented personnel are a valuable asset to the group’s function and performance during decision-making and problem-solving. In addition, it is in the interest of the country and its diplomatic strategies to represent demographic diversity proportionately. However, the underrepresented individuals who bring the additional resources cannot be ignored or marginalized to remain effective. Lastly, efforts to diversify and balance the diplomatic service promote the liberal democratic values of equality, inclusion and opportunity as well as strengthen the argument for implementing inclusive and tolerant foreign policy. 

The remainder of this study will examine the Foreign Service of the United States in depth. The case study will begin by summarizing the Department of State’s diversification efforts, starting in the 1970s. In addition, this study will highlight landmark events that spurred the Department of State to take intentional and overt efforts to diversify. An evaluation of the historical and contemporary efforts to diversify the diplomatic service will offer a critical lens of diversification strategies. In order to evaluate the measurable effects of these efforts, the following section will utilize primary and secondary sources as well as qualitative interviews.

Case of U.S. Diplomatic Body

Keeping the supported theoretical framework for racial and gender diversity in mind, this section investigates the presence of and changes in demographic diversity at the U.S. Department of State and its diplomatic service, the United States Foreign Service. Today, the State Department employs nearly 14,000 people in the Foreign Service, with an additional 10,800 people in the civil service, and maintains 275 embassies, consulates and other missions in 190 countries. (43) Of the total Foreign Service, over half (about 8,000) are generalists, who are described as performing “key diplomatic tasks,” and the specialists (almost 6,000) are responsible for “daily operations of office management, security, technical equipment, health, and other support services.” (44) According to the U.S. Diplomacy Center, an office in the Bureau of Public Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, its workforce is the largest it has ever been and more closely reflects the demographic mosaic of the United States: 

African Americans make up 5.4% of Foreign Service Generalists and 9% of Foreign Service Specialists. Asians now make up 6.7% of the Foreign Service Generalist and 6.4% of Specialists. Hispanics comprise more than 7% of Foreign Service Specialists and 5% of Foreign Service Generalists. (45)

It is important to note that these percentages have not always been high, and that there is still a need for improvement. The racial and gender diversity of the Foreign Service has been a slow and gradual process, and often times involuntary; for a long time, the Service was known as the “old boys’ club.” (46) Before the professionalization of the Foreign Service through the Rogers Act of 1924, only one woman had served in any official capacity. Prior to being allowed in the Service, women were only allowed to "clerk, copy letters and documents, and clean the department's offices.” (47) Established American history researcher J. Robert Moskin, in his recent publication American Statecraft: The Story of the U.S. Foreign Service, describes the Foreign Service as a “sanctuary for white, mostly Protestant, males,” (48) and Ambassador Gutierrez refers to the old adage, “PMY for pale, male, and Yale.” The demographics of the Department of State did not begin to change even after World War II; for example, in 1961 blacks constituted only 1.8% and women, 8.8%. (49) Still, even afterward, the process was gradual.

On the whole, the first substantial effort towards a diverse Foreign Service came during the Civil Rights Era and the passing of critical federal legislation, supplemented by both the judicial and executive branch. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed under President Lyndon B. Johnson, granted the initial opportunity for women and people of color to access employment in the federal government. (50) Title VII of the law prohibited all discrimination in government employment, from recruitment and advertisement to promotion and termination, based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. (51) In addition, Executive Order 11246, passed in 1965, issued directives to all organizations receiving federal funds to formulate intentional inclusion policies which had to include goals, timetables and stipulations to take “affirmative action” to increase employment opportunities for visible minorities, defined as American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, Black and Hispanic individuals. This executive order and subsequent others (E.O. 11375 in 1967, and E.O. 11478 in 1969) formed the foundation of the affirmative action laws, holding the Department of State accountable to actively recruit and employ members of underrepresented minorities. (52) 

By the 1970s, there was still a resistance by the Department of State to diversify. In 1970, the Foreign Service was 95% male and 99% white. (53) A naturalized U.S. citizen from Cuba, Career Ambassador Lino Guiterrez joined the Foreign Service in 1977 and described the demographic diversity of the Service as being “in no way reflective of the population at large.” (54) Retired Senior Foreign Service Officer (FSO) Cynthia Bunton, an African American woman, entered the Foreign Service in 1979, and noticed upon entry that “there were very few people who looked like [her].” (55)  In an effort to seek justice and inclusion, women formed the Ad Hoc Committee to Improve the Status of Women in Foreign Affairs Agencies in July 1970. (56) Prior to 1972, the Service required any female Foreign Service officers to resign if she married, and women were barred from entry if they were already married. (57) Overall, and as will be discussed in more depth, women and people of color remained dissatisfied with their lack of representation and continued to face discrimination, marginalization and limited advancement opportunities. As discussed in the literature review on proportional representation, when an organization has a skewed balance (less than 15%) of minorities, the dynamics of tokenism and polarization will dominate. (58) This dissatisfaction with the system spurred collective action, and between 1976 and 1980, the Department of State lost two class-action lawsuits - one filed by female FSOs on the basis of sex discrimination and the other by African-American FSOs on the basis of race discrimination. 

The passing of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 showed a clear response of the Department of State to their transformed commitment to diversity, now openly and diligently pursuing a broad-based approach to hiring and training minorities. Articulated in the first section of Chapter 1 is the following clause:

(b) The object of this Act is to strengthen and improve the Foreign Service of the United States by – (2) fostering the development and vigorous implementation of policies and procedures, including affirmative action programs, which will facilitate and encourage (A) entry into and advancement in the Foreign Service by persons from all segments of American Society, and (B) equal opportunity and fair and equitable treatment for all without regard to political affiliation, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition. (59)

Additionally, the Foreign Service Act of 1980 held the Department of State accountable by requiring the submission of a yearly report to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which detailed the Department’s minority recruitment and affirmative action programs. (60) 

As American society changed, so too did the Foreign Service. From 1985 onwards, the Department of State saw its most dramatic gains in demographic diversity. In 1985, 80% of the Foreign Service was male, and 72% was white male; in 2005, the male/female ratio was 66% male, 34% female. That same year, Ann Wright published “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” in the Foreign Service Journal, where she observed: “The rapid gains of the past decade contrast sharply with the incremental advances of the previous 70 years and position women for new breakthroughs in the months and years immediately ahead.” (61) Before the current Secretary of State John Kerry, a white man, there have been three women – Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton – and two African Americans – Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice – serving at the highest rank in the Department of State. Two career FSOs, Ambassador Guiterrez and Cynthia Bunton, suggested the stimulus for demographic diversification in the Department of State came as a result of the changing society. According to Bunton, positive trends in the Foreign Service “also trended in the U.S.,” where people became “used to diversity.” (62) Ambassador Guiterrez echoed these sentiments, recalling that the “society had gone through a lot of changes” in order to make changes in the State Department possible. 

A closer look at the Department of State’s diversity policies shows how the Foreign Service was able to rapidly diversify and improve its productivity. As the diversity literature revealed, balancing the diversity numbers is not enough to remove discrimination or “hidden barriers,” which negatively affect the cohesion and effectiveness of the Foreign Service. (63) Recruitment is one important mechanism that has been reformed to facilitate minority employment. Increased funding for outreach and minority-oriented programs, the development of the Diplomats-in-Residence program, which sends high-level FSOs to recruit at universities with diverse populations and emphasis from then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative were all cited by Ambassador Robert Pearson, former Director General of the Foreign Service, as reasons for the improvement of minority participation. (64) When asked about recruiting efforts, Ambassador Gutierrez emphasized the importance for young minorities to see diplomats who look like them to become inspired to even consider a career in the Foreign Service because there is a high probability they do not even know the job exists. (65) By 2006, the budget for minority recruitment was $1.2 million. After elaborate regulation changes in the admission exam to become less culturally biased toward white majorities, there was a clear uptick in minority applicants for the first (written) part of Foreign Service examination, and minorities were passing the second (oral) part of the examination at the same 20% rate as the white majority. (66) In addition, the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program and, more recently, the Serrano Scholars Program (particularly aimed at Hispanics) are critical recruitment tools that provide academic and professional preparation for candidates without bypassing the traditional entrance through examination. These three fellowships encourage the application of members of minority groups historically underrepresented in the Foreign Service and those with financial needs. (67) Moreover, in her eighth year as Director of the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program, Patricia Scroggs has seen positive trends in the program’s development, and reiterated the importance of these entry-level programs as an opportunity “to foster a new group of foreign policy leaders.” (68) According to Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the previous Director General of the Foreign Service, former Director of Human Resources and current Assistant Secretary to African Affairs, today the Pickering Fellowship and the Rangel Fellowship combined have provided about 20% of the minorities at the entry level. (69) 

In addition to recruitment, employee assignments were another important arena that needed addressing as the Foreign Service became more diverse. At the time of entering the Foreign Service in 1979, Cynthia Bunton had been a serious student of Europe and of international organizations more broadly. Her dream was to serve in Europe. However, as she recalls, the few African Americans that were in the Service were only allowed to serve in Africa. What Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr. describes as the “Negro Circuit,” African-Americans seeking to join the Foreign Service were funneled to serve small, third-world posts in Africa; the Department of State did not tolerate bids to other posts, even if an individual was more than qualified elsewhere. (70) Instead, racist comments and other forms of discrimination were much more standard in the 1980s when an African American broke the norm and received an assignment outside of Africa. (71) In addition, other event-related assignments became less about merit and more about an officer’s diverse qualifications, contributing further to increased levels of prejudice and tokenism. During apartheid in South Africa, there was a push to send African-American diplomats as a symbolic gesture, which sparked much internal controversy and undermined the credibility and merit of these diverse officers. (72) Furthermore, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield recounted other examples of prejudice toward African Americans, such as being unfairly criticized for an inability to write like a Foreign Service Officer and a failed mid-level recruitment program for African Americans which created the overall assumption that “all African Americans working for the Department of State were being employed for statistics, rather than for their skills and academic qualifications.” (73) Today, issues of placement have been mostly eliminated because all assignments are solely based on merit and availability. In most recent years, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, Bunton, Ambassador Gutierrez and Director Scroggs all noted an increasing level of competitiveness among all levels of the Foreign Service, which they all emphasized as confirmation that the Foreign Service is improving dramatically at giving everyone an equal chance for a successful career. However, while placements for minorities have transformed, prejudice still exists in the arena of promotion.

Promotion remains the most difficult arena for diversification. As aforementioned, the Department of State had always promoted officers based on merit, yet in practice that was not always the case due to racial and gender discrimination. (74) Even after the elimination of overt discrimination toward minorities and women, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield emphasized that the lack of formal mentoring for African Americans in the 1980s, compared to their white counterparts, was a detriment to promotion. (75) In addition, Ambassador Gutierrez recalled a similar void for Hispanics, who did not have networks to rely on when it came time to advance. Recruitment programs, such as the Rangel Fellowship, which attract outstanding candidates and “raise the standard for excellence” at the entry level, have transformed into more comprehensive support programs, complete with professional development and continued mentorship in order to develop stronger higher-level officers. (76) One limited way that the historical problem of minority promotion has been addressed is through strong minority social networks, which are outside the Department’s purview. The institutional landscape for networking is comprised of organized minorities and their representation through a variety of non-governmental organizations, interest groups and foundations external to the State Department, (77) but are linked to the Department's senior management Office of Civil Rights staff and Human Resources staff through a 2008 initiative called Employee Affinity Group. (78) The Department of State describes the purpose of the Employee Affinity groups as follows:

These employee groups promote internal networking, career development and community service, and are helpful in retention, recruitment, morale, skill development, and training initiatives.... [They] are matched with a senior executive [known] as a Leadership Liaison. Leadership Liaisons provide advice and ideas about effective leadership within the context of Department culture. They offer ideas, broker solutions, and serve in a mentor capacity to the Employee Affinity Group leadership. In addition, the Leadership Liaisons share information about the Employee Affinity Group and diversity-related initiatives at Diversity Governance Council meetings and with others throughout the Department. (79)

Examples include in-house support groups from the TLG – Thursday Lunch Group, which has met monthly for 40 years during lunch to discuss issues affecting the careers of Black officers – to large non-profits like the Hispanic Employees Council of Foreign Affairs Agencies and the Asian Pacific American Federal Foreign Affairs Council. (80) 

However, the diversification efforts of recruitment at the entry level have not been enough to reflect a similar level of demographic diversity at the senior level. The Foreign Service is dependent on the system of “up-or-out,” where if one is not promoted in time to the next level, his or her job ends. Without the wherewithal or the political connections to navigate the complicated promotion procedure, which includes a skill matrix and multi-dimensional evaluations, many officers, with valuable language skills or area expertise, find themselves on “limited career extensions,” given to retirees who have the expertise to merit retention but not promotion. (81) For example, of the 373 generalists who competed for promotion into the Senior Foreign Service in 2013, 29.6% of the white officers who competed were promoted and only 8.3% of the African-American officers who competed were promoted. In addition, there are over twice as many men competing for Senior Foreign Service offices as there are women. (82) Director Scroggs stressed that the next steps in the Department of State’s diversification efforts need to include mentorship and formal networks of support to directly address the challenge of promoting minorities. Pointing directly to the high mid-career level of officers, she emphasized the necessity to concentrate efforts on cultivating “the same young people recruitment programs like Rangel and Pickering bring in” to reach the highest offices of the Department of State. While diversity efforts have translated into substantial representational improvements and the impenetrability of the early 19th century elitist group have lessened, there is genuine consensus that there is still “work that needs to be done.”(83) 


Despite such overall improvements, innovative initiatives and recent successes to highlight the diversity gap in employment, the Department of State today recognizes its work is not done. The numbers of African Americans, Hispanics and Asians in the Foreign Service are still not reflective of American society today at large, and the breakdown between levels of experience reveals a less cheery picture, with minorities and women finding “glass ceilings, sticky floors, and mid-level bottlenecks.”(84) The glass ceiling refers to invisible barriers that prevent women and nonwhites from breaking into the Senior Foreign Service, the sticky floor refers to the larger proportion of minorities concentrated at entry level positions and the mid-level bottleneck refers to the slower promotion of women and minorities through the middle level of the Foreign Service in comparison to white men. In 2014, 82.4%, an overwhelming majority of FSOs, were white, and according to the 2010 U.S. census, the white population made up 72% of the United States. (85) In addition, the Senior Foreign Service lacks the demographic diversity that is more present at the entry level. This study shows that future diversification efforts need to address the lack of mentorship and formal support channels for minorities.

However, the overall pressure on the Department of State to change its policies starting after the 1960s has continued to remain a driving force for change. In 2011, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13583 to reestablish a coordinated government-wide initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in the federal workplace (U.S. President E.O. 13583). In addition, Secretary of State John Kerry continues to recognize the importance of the Foreign Service reflecting the diverse composition of the U.S., stating, “the skills, knowledge, perspectives, ideas and experiences of all of its employees contribute to the vitality and success of the global mission.”(86)

But when one considers the progress the Department of State has made, it is important to recognize that the Foreign Service did not just implement measures that solely increased the proportional representation of minorities, as affirmative action policies tend to suggest. Without understanding critically where conflict and marginalization arise, policy measures would not have achieved the same positive effect. The Department of State ultimately benefited from the culmination of the legacy of the civil rights era, costly class-action suits, bureaucratic culture shifts and passionate leadership to emerge an extraordinarily more just and equal political force for diplomacy. The empirical approach to diversification makes it possible to understand the importance for the Foreign Service to pursue intentionally inclusive policies within its own ranks. Skills such as communicative capacities, problem-solving, creativity and specialization are all not only required for advancement but are on the aggregate greater in a pool of increased heterogeneity. Furthermore, the normative approach to diversity proved imperative to understand the push for affirmative action policies in the late 1970s and 1980s. By committing to a diverse work force at home, Department of State strengthens the foreign policy message of diversity and tolerance that it brings overseas. While this study did not focus on the merit of any particular affirmative action policy, it has shown that maintaining a broad concept of diversity and its varied effects ultimately benefits the entire institution. The inclusion of members of minority communities into the decision-making diplomatic sphere leads to the overall strength of American foreign policy. 


 •     •     • 

About the Author

Jessica Wamala is a Rhodes Scholar, currently studying an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford. She has a MA in political science from Villanova University, and is also a Truman Scholar, a Rangel Scholar and a Gates Millennium Scholar. Wamala has interned at the US Embassy in Belgrade and at the Department of State Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. She has done extensive volunteer work with Philadelphia’s homeless and plans to pursue a career in the Foreign Service. Jessica Wamala is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow (Diplomacy and Diversity 2014) 


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