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More Change for the Foreign Service

The Department also began the implementation of the Foreign Service Act of 1980. Although the creation of a Senior Foreign Service was designed to advance some officers to the highest ranks, the “up-or-out” promotion system forced many—including those with valuable language and area expertise—into early retirement. The Department offered “limited career extensions” for those retirees whose experience merited retention but not promotion. The “up-or-out” system, however, left too many officers down and out, resulting in a serious threat to morale. In 1988, Congress temporarily suspended the system pending a thorough review of its impact on the service.

Throughout the decade, the Foreign Service also faced the public perception that it had become the last refuge of an elitist group of white men. In accordance with the 1980 act, the Department tried to make the service more “representative of the American people” by recruiting, hiring, and promoting women and minorities. From 1980 to 1990, the percentage of women in the Foreign Service doubled to nearly 25 percent, although the percentage of minorities rose by only one-quarter to 12.5 percent. In spite of “substantial progress,” Spiers conceded in 1985 that the lack of equal opportunity was still a serious problem, as reflected by the low number of women and minorities serving in the Senior Foreign Service. Despite the new emphasis on diversity, allegations of discrimination persisted. The Department continued to fight two lawsuits--one filed by women in 1976 and the other by African-Americans in 1986--that claimed a systematic denial of promotion and career opportunity.