Blinken appoints new chief diversity and inclusion officer to build 'workforce that reflects America'

The State Department has tapped a new chief diversity and inclusion officer, just months after it defended a memo from Secretary of State Antony Blinken that urged staffers to steer clear of gendered language such as “mother” and “manpower.”

Blinken announced Tuesday that Zakiya Carr Johnson, who previously worked at the State Department from 2010 to 2017, had been tapped to lead the State Department’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion in an effort to “advance our deep commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in the Department.”

Tasked with constructing “a workforce that reflects America,” Johnson will replace Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, who served as the State Department’s chief diversity and inclusion officer from April 2021 to June 2023. Conny Mayer briefly served in the position as acting chief diversity and inclusion officer.


Antony Blinken, pride flag

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Tuesday that Zakiya Carr Johnson had been tapped to lead the State Department’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. (Getty Images)

“Over the past three years, the Department of State has made significant progress on this front but there remains work to be done,” Blinken said. “We will continue to pursue this mission aggressively, because recruiting, nurturing, and promoting the most capable workforce possible is critical to our national security.”

Speaking highly of Johnson, Blinken said her “previous work promoting entrepreneurship and access to opportunity for underrepresented populations, as well as her commitment to inclusive leadership make us stronger, smarter, and more innovative.”

“All of us at the Department must work to advance DEIA if we are to create the inclusive workplace environment we need to continue to attract and retain the nation’s top talent. When the people making decisions on behalf of the American people don’t reflect the full diversity of our nation, we all lose, and our national security is weaker,” Blinken added in the announcement.

The position of chief diversity and inclusion officer was created in 2021 by Blinken, who said at the time he was “committed to bringing the diversity and inclusion work already underway at the State Department to the next level.”

In announcing the position, Blinken said in February 2021 that the individual in the role will “hold senior leadership accountable” for implementing new diversity and inclusion programs and report directly to him.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts have been at the forefront of priorities for the administration ever since President Biden took power in January 2021.

Earlier this year, Blinken sent a memo to State Department employees, warning them against using certain gender-specific language.

Blinken at press conference

The position of chief diversity and inclusion officer was created by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in 2021. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The memo, titled “Modeling DEIA: Gender Identity Best Practices,” aimed to “increase understanding of gender identity and provide guidance on gender identity language and best practices that support an inclusive work environment.”


“When speaking, avoid using phrases like ‘brave men and women on the front lines,’” said Blinken’s Feb. 5 cable, which was first obtained by the National Review. Instead, State Department staffers were urged to “use more specific language such as ‘brave first responders,’ ‘brave soldiers,’ or ‘brave DS agents.’”

The State Department defended Blinken’s memo later, insisting it’s the “respectful” thing to do.

“If you look at that memo, as I have done, it’s a standard government practice to try to encourage people to just to be respectful of others, and use the terms with which others are comfortable, and talk to people the way that they would like to be addressed. And nothing more than that,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said at a February press briefing.

Miller said that though the memo had Blinken’s name on it, it did not necessarily come directly from the secretary. 

“When it comes to these types of cables, they all come out with the secretary’s signature on it. That’s the standard department practice, has been for years. It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a memo from the secretary himself,” he said at the time.

The guidance reportedly runs through a list of gendered phrases and words that should be avoided, including: “manpower,” “you guys,” “ladies and gentlemen,” “mother/father,” “son/daughter” and “husband/wife.” Instead, the memo urged staff to use “labor force,” “everyone,” “folks,” “you all,” “parent,” “child,” “spouse” or partner.”

The cable also cautioned employees against assuming someone’s gender based on how they look or their name and urged them to use “gender-neutral language whenever possible” to “show respect and avoid misunderstandings,” the guidance continued, and encouraged employees to include their preferred pronouns in emails or during meetings.

Pride flags are held at the Tennessee Capitol

Pride flags are held at the Tennessee Capitol, Jan. 22, 2024, in Nashville. (AP Photo/George Walker IV, File)

The State Department is charged with advising the president on foreign policy, as well as negotiating agreements with other nations. The memo was published as the U.S. grapples with ongoing wars raging between Ukraine and Russia, as well as the war in Israel, and just days after the U.S. launched strikes on Iranian-backed militants following the deaths of three American service members.


Other agencies under the Biden administration have rolled out guidance on inclusive and non-gendered language, including pronoun guidance for the Department of Health and Human Services that was slammed by an expert last year as violating employee rights and speculating it would lead to firings for “misgendering.

Fox News’ Emma Colton contributed to this report.

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