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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

How to Help Women Succeed in the State Department with Alison E. Dilworth

For the U.S. government to help achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 16,  peace, justice and strong institutions, there needs to be an inclusive workforce at the top, in its diplomatic ranks in the U.S. State Department. Alison E. Dilworth is a Foreign Service Officer with more than 20 years of experience, serving in countries such as Paraguay, Israel, Egypt, Poland and the United Arab Emirates.  She is currently the Director of the Office of Children’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State and President of Executive Women at State. In this episode, she talks about her career  and what needs to be done to address gender and diversity issues at the highest levels of government.

Alison E. Dilworth

I do think that women bring a perspective that is sometimes incredibly needed and real life experience with some of these issues, especially within the diplomatic corps, because very often people who join the diplomatic corps are either first or second generation immigrants themselves. And so they have lived through a lot of the experiences that they're now talking about and negotiating over. So, if you bring women to that table, it just brings the perspective of half of the population. And you absolutely need that.”

-- Alison E. Dilworth, Director of the Office of Children’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State and President of Executive Women at State.

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise in geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. 

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions has been the focus of our podcast for the last few months, and building inclusive institutions at all levels is obviously critical to that. For the U.S. government to help achieve this goal, there needs to be an inclusive workforce at the top, including in the diplomatic ranks of the State Department. Today's guest is taking on this challenge and is striving for equality and opportunity for women working within the State Department. Alison Dilworth is managing director in the U.S. Department of State Office of Overseas Citizens Services and president of the Executive Women at State, which is an organization that brings State Department employees together to promote, support and mentor women for senior leadership positions. She's also had more than 20 years of experience serving as a foreign service officer in countries such as Paraguay, Israel, Egypt, Poland and the United Arab Emirates. Alison joins us today to talk about her career and what needs to be done to address gender and diversity issues at the highest level of government. Welcome, Alison. We're just so delighted that you're here. 

Alison Dilworth [00:01:41] Oh, it is an absolute pleasure. I'm so happy to be here. 

Annelise Riles [00:01:44] So you've had such a fascinating career. Tell us a little bit about it. Take us back to your childhood. How did this all get started? You grew up right here in Illinois, right? 

Alison Dilworth [00:01:54] I did. I grew up in the southwest suburbs and always was fascinated by language and travel. My parents are both British and my father traveled extensively for work, so he would always bring me back toys and stories from being overseas. And it just lit a fire within me. And I knew from when I was about 13, 14 that I wanted to be an international something I wasn't quite sure. So I did go to Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and then on to law school. And I thought for a while I'd been an international lawyer. I loved the arguing part of the law, but I also loved the social change that it could bring. And I saw that within diplomacy, we could show the best of America to the rest of the world, and we could really highlight our American values to others around the world. And that was incredibly important to me as a first generation American. I'd been told that by my parents since I was a very little girl, that it was really important to make a change in the world and to make it a better place. And I thought that diplomacy was really the best way that I could do that. Plus, I'd get to travel, which I really loved. 

Annelise Riles [00:03:05] You speak so many languages, English, of course. And then German, Spanish, Polish, Arabic, which is, by the way, not an easy language to learn. So how is it that you speak so many languages? How did that come to be? 

Alison Dilworth [00:03:16] It is incredibly important for the State Department that we portray not only American values, but that we are part of an international community and learning languages is an incredible part of that. I came into the Foreign Service with German and then they taught me Spanish and Arabic and Polish. And so I spent a year learning each, which was incredibly fortunate and lucky. And I had teachers who taught 5 hours a day in the classroom and then 3 hours of private study, which made my brain fall out of my ear some time. But it was marvelous. And I can tell you that when I got to post and was able to communicate, even just to exchange pleasantries with my colleagues in the various foreign ministries, it really meant a great deal to them. And I'll never forget introducing the ambassador for our 4th of July event in Poland in Polish in 2006. We had a crowd of probably about 400 attendees at the event, and after I finished speaking there was dead silence and I thought, Oh, I must have said something incorrectly in Polish. And then the crowd just burst into applause. They were so proud that an American had learned Polish enough to give this speech that they were clapping furiously in the audience. And I think that was an incredibly proud moment for me. 

Annelise Riles [00:04:33] I do a lot of research in Japan and I had the pleasure to watch just the other day the acting U.S. ambassador deliver a little farewell video speech. And he did it in Japanese. And I just felt so proud. And I knew that it meant so much to everyone who was watching to see that. So, you know, this is such a key value for us at Buffet. We really believe that students need to learn languages because we all think differently in different languages and we see the world differently just by changing our linguistic lens. If you like. So whoever can connect the dots across language barriers can probably bring a lot of innovation and maybe even peace and justice to the world. So it's impressive that you do this 100%. 

Alison Dilworth [00:05:15] My boys, I have three boys, and it's really funny because I've always made them learn the languages of the countries we were in. To this day, I will use various phrases to get their attention if I need. 

Annelise Riles [00:05:25] Tell us a little bit about what it was like when you started your career in 1997. What was that like? 

Alison Dilworth [00:05:30] Well, in 1997 there were smaller entry classes into the Foreign Service. So I was fortunate in that my entry class was half women, half men. And I looked around and I saw diversity and I was so impressed and so in awe of my fellow entry classmates. And the department was really trying at that time to recruit more women, to recruit a more diverse population that looked like America. But then I got into the actual work at the State Department, and I looked up and I saw no one who looked like me. I saw no ambassadors, no one at a senior level who was a woman with active interests. I saw lots of women who devoted themselves to nothing but the State Department and the work of diplomacy, which is an admirable thing to do. But they weren't married, they didn't have children. And that was an incredibly important part of life to me. And I was worried. I was very worried as a younger officer that I had no role models to look at. Fortunately, though, I had my first ambassador, was a woman named Maura Harty, who is just a phenomenal individual and has been a mentor to me throughout my entire career. She was married and she said, I know you don't see many of us, but we do exist. We are there. And you can do this and you can still have the life that you want as well. So I was very, very lucky early in my career to see that. 

Annelise Riles [00:06:53] I understand that 40% of Foreign Service officers are women, but only about a third of the chief of mission positions are held by women. Why do you think that's the case? 

Alison Dilworth [00:07:04] That's correct, for a lot of reasons. In my work with Executive Women at State, we've done extensive research on this. And the fact is that we really at the State Department do have the recruitment piece down now. We've been working on it for about 20 years, and so most of our entry classes are 5050 on the gender scale. We still have a little bit of a ways to go on the diversity scale. But for gender parity, when entry classes come in to the Foreign Service, it's it's really pretty good. But that number drops precipitously when you get to the ten year mark. And so we have asked women who have left, why, why did you leave? What what happened that changed your mind? And the answer almost always is family issues. They had care of children issues. They had elder care issues. I had something that brought them back to the United States. And then they felt like they didn't have the support from the Department of State to go back overseas into the more senior positions, or they didn't feel like they could put the time and the effort in that was required in order to reach those senior positions. Now, in my personal case, I was incredibly lucky. My mother came to live with me when my first was born, and so she lived with us overseas until she passed away and really took care of my three boys when they were younger. And so I could stay late at work. I could have receptions where I had to go at night, or I could get a table written for the ambassador when he wanted. That was different than most of my colleagues. I was incredibly lucky to have that and I realized that at a very young age in my career. And so I started to look for women's organizations, professional organizations that would help with this cause to help and support women. And that's really where I first found Executive Women at State. 

Annelise Riles [00:08:52] Tell us a little bit about what Executive Women at State does to support women. What is it that you think women at State need the most and how does the organization provide that? 

Alison Dilworth [00:09:02] We're an organization of about 1600 members in the State Department, women and men, mostly women. But we do have male members, too, which I love. We've been in existence for a little over a decade now in various forms. When we started, we had different organizations for different levels in the State Department, so we had a junior women's organization and then a mid-level and a senior. About seven years ago, we decided that it was time to really combine forces and work on that critical piece, which is retention and pushing women up into these senior positions. That has an effect on recruitment and the junior women in the organization, they need to see the role models like I was talking about before. But also the more senior women need to step up and be a little bit more vocal on the on these issues. So what we do in executive women at State is sort of a wide range of things. We have lots of panels where we bring senior women who are in the department right now. We have some incredible senior women like our. Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman, or our Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs, Rina Bitar, who really are dynamic personalities and have wonderful stories to tell. And so we bring them on panels and let the less experienced women in the State Department know that there is a possibility to have the life you want and the career that you want. But then we also fight. We work on issues that are important to women at the State Department, probably important to professional women in every organization. And we speak to the secretary's office, to the deputy secretary's office, and we tell them, look, these are our priorities and these are the things we think you could work on right now. And some of them are very, very simple things, like, could you create a child care policy that says X? Or could you, you know, work with our building organizations so that there's parity in the way that people can bid on new jobs in the State Department, things like that that are relatively simple but having a huge impact. But then we also talk about issues like retention that are incredibly important. And we commissioned the survey that took us about two years to complete that really showed that retention was the biggest issue for for women in the State Department and then came up with our goal paper with sort of ten different things that we could work on to make that better. Everything from coaching women through, you know, applying for those senior positions to making sure every short list for an ambassadorship or an assistant secretary has gender parity. You know, these are very simple things, again, that we can do, but they have an enormous impact because our study showed more than anything that unconscious bias is something that we are really, really fighting against in the State Department. And people who are hiring for these senior positions tend to hire people like them. And it's not just people that look like them. It's people they went to the same school or had the same experience. But if you add all those things together, that most typically is men. So in order to get women in that room, even to be considered, we have to have things that people don't like to talk about, like quotas, and you have to have regulations and people have to have transparency in how jobs are bid and how promotions are done. And I think if we can achieve that, we can do miracles in the State Department. Really? 

Annelise Riles [00:12:25] That's so interesting and not all that different from the Academy, frankly. You talked about the kinds of unconscious bias that exists. So I'm wondering what about the craft of diplomacy itself? I studied international affairs as an undergraduate and I remember thinking all these rational choice war games, you know, us versus them. I don't really think like that. So I must not be a diplomat. And now whenever I teach law, I always tell women, you know, 98% of all cases settle and you don't have to be a courtroom litigator type to be a fantastic lawyer. So what about in diplomacy now? Do you find that the influx of more diverse leaders has changed the way we think about what the craft of diplomacy is? 

Alison Dilworth [00:13:06] 100%. I mean, I have been at negotiating tables where the presence of one woman has changed the dynamic. Incredibly, it's allowed for more innovative solutions. It evolves more to negotiated peace treaties and policy treaties that just use compromise in a way that we never did before. As you said, it used to be that negotiation was a battle at the table, and you came to it with your list of demands. And if you didn't achieve those, then you walked away. And there is a time and a place for that. And we're actually seeing that, I think, right now with Russia. But in many ways, in many situations, there is a role for negotiate a compromise. And I think women bring that. And I think women also bring a somewhat no nonsense approach to negotiation that says let's let's get the achievable goal done instead of just, you know, yelling at each other across the table for an entire day. Let's try to find something that is a solution for both sides. And I've seen it in action. And it is incredible when you do, I do think that women bring a perspective that is sometimes incredibly needed and real life experience with some of these issues, especially within the diplomatic corps, because very often people who join the diplomatic corps are either first or second generation immigrants themselves. And so they have lived through a lot of the experiences that they're now talking about and negotiating over. So if you bring women to that table, it's just brings the perspective of half of the population. And you absolutely need that. We've all seen pictures of negotiating or negotiations where it was all men around a table and they were talking about women's reproductive rights. I mean, that's just ridiculous. So we got to get better about that and to have that perspective. And also for, I think, our male colleagues to really understand what that female perspective is. You know, I do a lot of education with my male colleagues and they are extremely receptive to it as to how their actions and words might be perceived, even if they don't intend them to be that way. Right. And I think that is an important discussion to have. 

Annelise Riles [00:15:23] You mentioned a few minutes ago about the conflicts happening in the world now. And I want to just ask you a little bit about that. You direct the State Department's Office of Overseas Citizen Services, and I think many of us have seen on the nightly news American citizens, frankly, singing the praises of your office and talking about the remarkable assistance they have received in getting out of Ukraine most recently. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what that was like behind the scenes. How did you do it? 

Alison Dilworth [00:15:51] It was marvelous. One of the joys of my life to be able to serve in that capacity. You know, we've always got Americans overseas and we always need to serve and protect them. But when there's something like the war in Ukraine, it becomes even more meaningful. And I think it really does bring home how global events impact women in so very many ways. You know, we have seen stories of bravery of women trying to protect their families and their loved ones coming out of Ukraine, stories of mothers protecting their children and families trying to just get by and survive through this horrible war. So I've been really, really honored to serve and help our State Department efforts in Ukraine. I also think it has been remarkable for me, especially to lead this group and see women who are more junior officers sort of working on an overnight shift and helping to get a family out and going home to their own children, you know, that night. And that's just a perspective that no one else can really bring to sort of understand what that's like to be a mother trying to feed her children and then to know that you can help that mother get to safety. I think there's a level of experience that a mother would bring to that role that is just magical to see in action. 

Annelise Riles [00:17:21] Yeah, I can imagine that's true. Even to understand what is or is not possible for someone who's in a position of having two small children, for example, you know, just how far someone can walk as a toddler. 

Alison Dilworth [00:17:31] And to to really use our level of technology. Right. We have phenomenal men and women and the State Department working on this task force. But I've had quite a few overnight shifts where a mom has said to me, look, I have young children, so I can't really do this in an on an evening shift, but I can do the overnight and I can do it from home. If you if that's possible, then sign me up and I'll do extra shifts. And that has been remarkable to see. So the pandemic has really opened up a level of possibility for us in diplomacy that didn't exist before. 

Annelise Riles [00:18:06] And I imagine you've dealt with consular services in quite a few conflict zones. Does this feel different to you than others? 

Alison Dilworth [00:18:13] No, it doesn't. It's a little more intense, I would say. But we have evacuated American citizens from Lebanon, from Afghanistan, from lots of other places around the world. It's a little eerie how similar some of the cases get. You know, at the end of the day, it does always come down to families wanting to protect each other and do the best that they can for their families. And so I will often coach younger officers to take a moment and put themselves in the shoes of the person that they're trying to help. And, you know, if somebody is a little frazzled on and on a phone line or, you know, sends an email that seems a little aggressive, I tell them to sort of think about what that person is going through. And, you know what? That food they've had to eat or where they slept last night to sort of think through what it's like to be them right now. And that always, I think, helps to put things into perspective. But no, I think crises do stay the same for us in the State Department in a lot of ways, but fortunately, we develop better and better tools each time to help support Americans through and more, like I said, innovative solutions that can help us sort of get through and help more Americans. 

Annelise Riles [00:19:25] Finally, I want to ask you, Allison, the question that I ask all of my guests, which is, as you think about life right now, what are you most worried about and what gives you the greatest amount of hope? 

Alison Dilworth [00:19:39] Honestly, the thing that keeps me up at night right now is thinking about the the mom in Ukraine who's trying to get out with her kids and and doesn't have a way. I go to bed every night with the unresolved cases in my head thinking how how we can fix them. That does keep me up at night. And I think it will continue to. And if if it doesn't keep you up at night, then you shouldn't be a diplomat. I'll tell you the thing. That gives me the most hope is the work that I've been able to do this year with Executive Women at State, because our membership has just flourished over the last few years. And the work that we have done with our survey and the goals that we have set with the State Department has really achieved amazing results already. We're seeing greater amounts of women at the sort of mid-levels, which is what you need in order to get women into the senior levels. And we've had real commitment from our our front office. Secretary Blinken is one of our greatest supporters. It is marvelous to work with a secretary like him just to see that we have real support from the top levels for the things that we want to achieve. Gives me absolute hope. And, you know, I'll often say in any government organization, but for sure at state, because I know I have experience there that the ship turns very, very slowly, but it does turn. And when I look at the younger female officers who are coming into the State Department today, when they look up, they see so many more women that they can model and they can use as mentors and coaches and sponsors. And that is how we create a senior foreign service that includes gender parity, and that gives me a great deal of hope. 

Annelise Riles [00:21:17] Well, Allison Dilworth, you are an inspiration. You're breaking all kinds of boundaries, national boundaries, of course, but also gender boundaries and hierarchies. It's really inspiring to see that the face of our civil service is someone as brilliant and kind as you. So thank you so much for all you do. 

Alison Dilworth [00:21:35] Thank you so much. 

Annelise Riles [00:21:39] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at Buffett.Northwestern.Edu.