This is a follow-up to my earlier article, “The Price of Promotion,” which criticized the U.S. Foreign Service promotion system. The following analysis is based on the Department of State Bureau of human Resources “Foreign Service Promotion Statistics by Cone, Ethnicity, Race and Gender” for FY 2017 and 2018. I have focused primarily on gender and racial classifications limited to white, African American, and Hispanic. I do not claim this to be definitive; I am not a statistician and I am happy to engage in conversation about my conclusions.
Promotion rates for women on aggregate are higher than for men but this masks the fact that there are far fewer women in the Foreign Service. The female population is small enough that the higher promotion rate does not narrow the gender gap at senior ranks. The Foreign Service is 35 percent female, compared to 43 percent across the federal workforce and 46 percent of the national workforce.
There are so few racial minorities in the Foreign Service that their distribution across cones, where they compete and are promoted, can be numbered in single or low-double digits. As with female officers, this dramatically limits the numbers of minorities competing at the senior level. In fact, the numbers are so small that they affect statistical validity. While friends have noted that even with low numbers, or a limited sample, certain reasonable assumptions can still be made, readers should not draw hard conclusions in the absence of a larger sample. This probably explains the wide variation in numbers and promotion ratios: individual variations can have dramatic statistical consequences. (Additional data earlier than 2017-2018 is not currently available while the State Department updates its web site.)
The gender distribution varies dramatically by cone and that directly affects promotion opportunities, especially at the senior ranks. Public Diplomacy is 53 percent women, for example, while in Political women represent 32 percent of the total. Public Diplomacy has more women and minorities represented but fewer officers than Political. This narrows the number of women and minorities who are promoted each year, as promotion rates and opportunities vary by cone.
Specifically, Political has more officers and promotes more of them to the senior ranks than other cones. The most dramatic evidence of this is the ratio of women competing at the FS-01 to FE-OC level and above by cone and real numbers of competitors: Consular (35 percent of 102 total competing), Economic (38 percent of 162), Management (35 percent of 105), Public Diplomacy (47 percent of 130), and Political (28 percent of 205). This hurts women as they advance primarily because Political promotes the most to the senior ranks (45 slots to Consular’s 23, for example).
Similarly, promotion rates for white officers in Political and Management cones are more than double their African-American colleagues and also higher in Public Diplomacy. But African American officers exceed the rate of promotion of both their Hispanic and white colleagues in Consular and Economic cones. Again, keep in mind this is based on two years’ data and very small real numbers of minority officers that can fluctuate dramatically depending on the data set.
Most importantly, female and minority officers between the FS-02 and FS-01 threshold appear to be abandoning the Foreign Service at higher rates than white and male officers. Whether this is voluntary withdrawal or the result of time-in-service limits is a question worth looking at in more detail. But result in both cases is the same: it reduces the ratio and real number of women and minorities competing at the senior ranks, and it reduces real numbers that were already low to begin with. The Foreign Service has a minority population of 21 percent (2016), compared to 36.4 percent of the federal workforce and 35.3 percent of the national workforce.
The already-small number of women and minorities in the Foreign Service, as compared to the federal and national workforce, is an embarrassment. But it can be remedied. If we intend to deploy a diplomatic corps that represents the United States in its broadest and deepest sense, we need to improve the recruitment and retention of our most talented citizens. This clearly demonstrates the need for improved gender- and minority-inclusive recruiting, creative retention strategies and incentives, early leadership training and mentorship, and aggressive efforts to combat conscious and unconscious bias.