SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good afternoon. Very good to see everyone.
As Secretary of State, my job is to ensure that our foreign policy delivers for the American people.
To achieve that, we have to recruit and retain a workforce that truly reflects the American people.
Diversity and inclusion make our diplomatic team stronger, smarter, more creative, more innovative.
Because we’re operating in a diverse world, and America’s diversity is a source of strength that few countries can match, when we fail to build a team that reflects America, it’s like we’re engaging the world with one arm tied behind our back.
And as President Biden has made clear, prioritizing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility is also a national security imperative.
We’ve got our work cut out for us.
The State Department simply isn’t as diverse and inclusive as it needs to be.
The numbers speak for themselves.
Last year, the Government Accountability Office found that racial or ethnic minorities in the department’s Civil Service were up to 29 percent less likely to be promoted than their white peers with similar qualifications.
The report also found that the higher up you went in the department, the lower the proportion was of women and racial or ethnic minorities.
In other words: up in rank, down in diversity.
There’s been a lot of attention focused on what’s happened with diversity and inclusion in the last few years, including the alarming lack of diversity at the highest levels of the State Department.
But the truth is this problem is as old as the department itself.
It’s systemic. It goes much deeper than any one institution or any one administration – and it’s perpetuated by policies, practices, and people to this day.
That’s why we’ve got to grapple with the problem of unequal representation – and its root causes out in the open.
We can’t sweep it under a rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. This work is hard, it can be painful, but it’s going to make us better diplomats, and it will help us do right by the people on our team who have for too long waged this battle alone.
It’ll also show other countries that we’re practicing what we preach when it comes to working to advance equality and respect here at home.
Today, we’re taking an important step in that direction by naming Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley as our chief diversity and inclusion officer – the first in the department’s history.
I couldn’t be happier about having Gina join our team.
The CDIO will report directly to me.
She’ll be empowered to develop a robust framework for fostering diversity and inclusion in our workforce.
She’ll also be entrusted with aligning and advancing diversity and inclusion efforts across the department.
And she’ll do it transparently, in a way that holds all of us accountable – including senior leadership, including me – which hasn’t happened in the past.
The CDIO will help us finalize and then implement our Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, which – for the first time – was developed with representatives of every bureau, as well as bureau and post diversity councils and employee affinity groups.
And we’ll rigorously track our progress, because talking about our commitment to diversity and inclusion doesn’t mean much if we don’t show results.
We’re asking hard questions.
What’s the full spectrum of diversity we aim to reflect?
How do we incentivize and reward progress? How do we hold ourselves accountable when we fall short?
And recruitment and advancement are just one part of a much broader challenge.
How do we ensure that the voices of people who have often been marginalized and underrepresented are afforded equal weight and respect – by their colleagues, and by our policymaking process?
To change the numbers, we have to change the culture – our norms, our behaviors, our biases.
We can’t build lasting diversity without first building an environment where all people are valued.
That’s the foundation. Laying it is going to be hard work, but I consider it one of my greatest responsibilities as Secretary of State.
And look, these problems are going to take time to fix.
The roots of discrimination, inequity, intolerance – all of them run deep – not just in our institution, but in our country.
We’re in a time of reckoning for our nation.
From Me Too, to Black Lives Matter, to the recent attacks on Asian Americans, we’re grappling with the profound ways that race, gender, and other parts of our identity have so often been grounds for discrimination, dehumanization, and violence – for treating people as “less-than.”
The State Department has to reckon with this too – and foster within our building the kind of inclusive environment that we’re fighting out – that we’re fighting for out in the world.
That starts with being sensitive to the fact that different people on our teams – simply because of who they are – experience what happens in our institution, in our country, and in our world in different ways.
That what seems distant or invisible to one person can feel personal and deeply hurtful to another.
This is not just the work of the CDIO – or any other individual with “diversity” and “inclusion” in their title.
I want to be crystal clear about this: Promoting diversity and inclusion is the job of every single member of this department.
It’s mission critical.
It demands that each and every one of us reflects on our actions and asks:
What more could I have done in the past to make this place more inclusive and respectful toward people who are different from me?
What more can I do now?
That includes me.
I’ve been working in national security and foreign policy for a while now, and I know there is more I could have done to push for and lead change on these issues.
And that’s true of so many people who have the privilege of serving in leadership positions.
Many people within the State Department are already leading the way in making their missions and bureaus more diverse and inclusive.
By now, I’ve done town halls with, I think, ten U.S. missions around the world.
And I’ve heard one story after another about the ways our staff are leading by the power of their example.
Our embassy in Seoul made headlines by hanging a Black Lives Matter banner in the wake of George Floyd’s horrific killing.
And they’re doing quieter work too, like starting a book club to dig into issues like unconscious bias and white privilege.
In Canada, our mission was inspired to launch a monthly discussion on social justice issues facing indigenous communities on both sides of the border.
The Open Conversations platform launched by our Bureau of Global Talent Management has allowed department employees to communicate across more than 160 diversity councils worldwide – with the shared aim of building a workplace where every member feels welcome, respected, and heard.
A few weeks ago, I got a letter co-signed by State Department employee organizations, 17 affinity groups, and individual Civil and Foreign Service employees.
They wrote, and I quote, “As public servants representing the United States of America, we are most effective when we draw on the diverse characteristics we each bring to work,” end quote.
Then they offered targeted recommendations for improving retention and advancement of a diverse workforce.
No one asked them to do this.
They did it because they want to be part of a department where everyone is treated with respect, regardless of who they are.
And because they know this will make us stronger.
Our country is so fortunate to have public servants like these.
And now we have an outstanding person to unify and galvanize this effort across the department.
Let me give you four reasons why Gina is the person for this job. And we’ve known each other for a while.
First, Gina has 30 years of diplomatic experience.
After joining the Foreign Service in 1985, she served in posts around the world, from Jeddah to Malta, on issues ranging from counterterrorism to gender equality.
She knows the department for what it is. Just as important, she knows what it can and should be.
Second, Gina has a track record over her career of bringing empirical rigor and fierce urgency to the fight for diversity and inclusion, and in pushing for accountability.
Third, Gina has consistently been a courageous and outspoken voice on these issues, including by sharing her own experiences of discrimination, harassment, and other abuse in the department.
Like when she was told in a briefing for State’s Board of Examiners – the institution that selects candidates for the Foreign Service – that quote, “African Americans have cognitive difficulties with large amounts of reading material,” end quote. She knows the toll this takes on individuals but also on the institution.
And fourth, Gina is a diplomat who knows there are times when you shouldn’t be diplomatic.
Like when people are denied an equal shot at rising in their career – prevented from serving our country – because of who they are.
She won’t be afraid to tell us where we’re coming up short. 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.
There’s a hallway in Mahogany Row on the seventh floor that leads to my office.
It’s lined with portraits of former secretaries dating back to Thomas Jefferson.
It’s hard not to notice that almost every one of the secretaries along that hallway is a white man.
That’s the story of the State Department until pretty recently.
I thought about those portraits when I read something that Gina said in a congressional hearing on this topic last year.
She said, and I quote, “I constantly walked into most meetings at State and knew instantly that everyone who should have been there wasn’t,” end quote.
For as long as they’ve existed, our institutions have been defined not only by who is at the table, but by who wasn’t.
When the people sitting at our tables don’t reflect America, we’re losing out.
When we allow bias to hold back capable people from developing their skills, building their careers, making their fullest contribution, we are failing to deliver the best team for the American people.
We have a responsibility to make sure that everyone who should be at the table is at the table.
I can’t think of anyone better to move us toward that goal than Gina. I am so glad she is taking on this mission.
AMBASSADOR ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. It is a privilege to once again be able to serve the American people by returning to this great institution and its exceptional people. I am grateful to you, sir, to you and to President Biden, for your leadership and strong commitment to what is the heartbeat and soul of this building – its people.
I know the extraordinary talent and experience we have here, here in the department and in our offices and missions around the world. We will draw on that talent and experience to deepen and amplify the good work the Secretary has noted has already begun.
I believe that we, the Department of State, should and can become in the field of inclusion a leader. Indeed, we have the talent to become the model for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workforce.
We are at a particular time in America, and the world is watching us. As the Secretary said, 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.
With our focus now on identifying and implementing the structural changes necessary to bring it about, we will ensure that the Department of State becomes the organization that deserves the devotion, the sacrifice, and the dedication that so many of us have freely given.
We can do this. Thank you.