In March, ahead of foreign service officers’ performance reviews, or “employee evaluation reports,” the State Department sent out an email, signed off on by then–secretary of state Rex Tillerson and recently shared it with BuzzFeed News, reminding managers of best practices.
Most of the points were straightforward: Submit a report for each employee supervised. Comment on employee potential. Give examples.
Point nine, however, told raters and reviewers to “avoid gender normative language.” It reads, “It is disappointing that a few raters last year mentioned female employees’ baking skills, which, among other things, wasted space that could have been used to discuss the employee’s precept-linked accomplishments and potential for future advancement.”
The email encouraged raters and reviewers not to write something about a woman that they would not write about a man. One foreign service officer expressed frustration that, even while this email was sent out, employees who complain about sexism and sexual harassment can be punished via negative performance reviews.
But another foreign service officer received the email more positively. “I actually thought it was great … To ask yourself, while writing an employee's EER, ‘would I say this for a man as I would this woman I'm writing for?’ I thought it was great,” she wrote in a message to BuzzFeed News.
The issue of sexism at the State Department is broader than baking. The department has long had a reputation as being “male, pale, and mostly Yale.” In late November, over 200 women in national security signed an open letter speaking to the widespread problem of sexual harassment in their field. Jenna Ben-Yehuda, coauthor of the letter, wrote of an email, “...In the absence of broader unconscious bias training and other tools, I'm not sure that raters will fully understand the message or be able to identify means to offer more balanced language. Still, it's a start.”
Asked how widespread the phenomenon of commenting on baking in performance reviews was, a State Department spokesperson answered by email, "Every year, we send out a cable with observations from our selection boards. The baking reference was one observation that one of the selection boards made regarding an evaluation for one employee; it was not a description of a pattern or general observation."