The Foreign Service Journal, June 2008
The assignment process is failing to live up to its claims to be “family- friendly.” The reduced number of consecutive years officers are allowed to serve in Washington, the jump in the number of unaccompanied posi- tions, and the “fair share” system (a true misnomer) all reduce individual bidders’ flexibility. “There’s got to be a better way to staff these posts or to allow eligible family members to join their spouses or to allow spouses and members of household to find work at these posts,” Bushnell says. She adds, “I would wager that the near-certainty of having to serve at an unaccompa- nied post is putting a lot of women off of the Foreign Service. Not because we aren’t brave or ambitious, but because the burden of caring for chil- dren and aging parents still falls most- ly on our shoulders. It’s not fair, but it’s how our society functions at the moment.” Another FSO echoed the concerns of many peers: “At the end of the day, between the danger to my family, the shrinking resources and the policies we were pushing, I decided to retire and focus on an area where I could have a bigger impact: my family.” My conclusion is that the Foreign Service is out of touch with the times and is losing valuable talent as a result. After all, it no longer holds a monop- oly on overseas careers. Fortunately, management can take some steps to reverse the trend. More Flexibility Needed Perhaps the time has come for a new personnel system, under which the Foreign Service offers the same benefits as the Civil Service. For example, those employees routinely go on overseas “excursions” (including Iraq) and can then either convert to the Foreign Service or return to their domestic jobs. But instead, State forces out good Foreign Service officers — men and women — because of time-in-class, time-in-service or age, even when they would like to convert to the Civil Service. What a loss of talent and knowledge! Let’s have one combined Service, giving us a larger pool to draw on for overseas postings, instead of forcing out FSOs and then hiring them back on short-term contracts. This is not a totally new concept. Collapsing the Senior Foreign Service into the Senior Executive Service was considered during discussions about the 1980 reforms. A study of a very successful bureau, such as Population, Refugees and Migration, might be a start. PRM has about 100 women and 22 men (mostly Civil Service), with some 22 refugee coordinators over- seas drawn from both services. Women hold the majority of leader- ship positions and morale is very high. Could this be a model? The constant changing of rules to limit time in Washington, and the nar- row way that fair-share requirements are interpreted, both force women (and men) to consider leaving the Service. Maybe officers can do their first 10 years out and the last 10 years in Washington when they have older kids, or the reverse. I hate to suggest yet another study, but when is the last time the State Department (or anyone else) system- atically reviewed the issue of family- friendliness and the status of female officers? I am also disappointed that the Bureau of Human Resources is not following these issues, nor pub- lishing statistics. Leadership training courses should include a discussion of the pervasive nature of stereotyping by gender and its effect on performance evaluations. Studies have been conducted to explore how the performance evalua- tion process can be structured to min- imize gender bias and enable organi- zations to tap the best leadership tal- ent from all employees. These studies also document the prevailing view among many success- ful women that they have to work harder than men to be treated the same. Nearly all the Foreign Service women I interviewed for this article credited their success to good luck and timing, disavowing any aspira- tion to rise to the senior levels. Some might find such modesty commend- able. But it seems to me that the sus- tained dedication to the Foreign Service and to promoting America’s interests that these officers — and so many of their peers — embody deserves to be rewarded with promo- tions. If the system is not willing to give such women their due as lead- ers, then we will all be the poorer for it. Susan Crais Hovanec is a retired Sen- ior Foreign Service officer with more than 30 years of experience as a pub- lic affairs professional. Among many awards and distinctions, she conceiv- ed and helped make “Afghanistan Unveiled,” an oral history and docu- mentary film nominated for a 2005 Emmy. She also received the Secretary of State’s 2005 Award for Public Out- reach for raising the profile of the Office of International Women’s Issues and deepening public understanding of U.S. foreign policy, both at home and abroad. 14 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J U N E 2 0 0 8 S P E A K I N G O U T With few exceptions, FS women have remained quiet about mistreatment.
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