How the military is losing its top talent because of pregnancy discrimination and what we can do about

45 years after women were discharged from military service for pregnancy, pregnancy discrimination polices still do not apply to its military members 

By Jessica Ruttenber

March 2020, I provided personal remarks before DACOWITS, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. They represent one of the oldest Department of Defense (DoD) federal advisory agencies. DACOWITS is composed of civilian leaders appointed by the Secretary of Defense to provide advice and recommendations relating to the recruitment, retention, employment, integration, well-being, and treatment of servicewomen in the Armed Forces. Since 1951, the committee has submitted over 1,000 recommendations to the Secretary of Defense for consideration. As of 2019, approximately 98% have been fully or partially adopted by the DoD.1

I approached the committee in part because I had researched the topic of pregnancy being a long-standing and significant barrier to the career advancement of women in the Armed Forces for many years and recommended multiple policy changes to the Department of the Air Force’s Barrier Analysis Working Group (DAFBAWG) Women’s Initiatives Team (WIT). Truthfully, I came forward out of pure frustration for myself and for the countless Airmen I had helped navigate the Inspector General, Equal Opportunity and Patient Advocacy process over my career. What I have found was many women often do not file complaints due to fear of reprisal, especially after learning that there are no clearly defined protections for their situation. I wanted to give women warriors a voice. I was deeply concerned that in 2020, service members’ careers are still unnecessarily impacted when they become pregnant. Current policies seem to imply that those members become a burden and have less value to the force. This attitude is not lost on pregnant service members, members considering potential future service combined with motherhood, and even their colleagues who are taking their cues from the institution and its leadership on how much women’s service and contributions are valued.

For context, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 makes pregnancy discrimination a form of illegal sex discrimination. This law does not always apply uniformly to the military. Department of Defense Directive (DoDD) 1020.02E, Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity in the DoD, prohibits unlawful employment discrimination based on sex (to include pregnancy), but only for civilian employees. Although DoD nondiscrimination protections mirror other categories under the Civil Rights Act (i.e., race, color, religion, sex, and national origin), pregnancy among military members is a glaring omission. 

Until 1975, military women were involuntarily discharged when they became pregnant. Married servicewomen did not receive the same benefits as men, (e.g., military housing for families) and their spouses were not always entitled to routine family medical care.2 Forty-five years later, pregnancy remains a barrier to the careers of female warriors. While women are no longer affirmatively forced out, they still risk harm to their careers when having a child. Additionally, a strong argument can be made that current policies encourage servicewomen to hide their pregnancies because of real and perceived impacts to their careers that begin the moment they disclose they are pregnant. As a result, some servicewomen do not obtain prenatal health care during the early stages of their pregnancies.

This is due in part to outdated policies as well as outright discrimination. DoD policies need to be modernized at the service-level. But an important step, both symbolic and practical, is to bar pregnancy discrimination altogether when the member can competently perform the mission. Destigmatizing pregnancy is essential to servicewomen’s sense of inclusion in the military. By taking this important first step, the military will be in a better position to compete for diverse talent, enhance operational readiness, and retain qualified personnel–all while preserving mission accomplishment.

Restrictive policies and blanket occupational health profiles intended to protect servicewomen during pregnancy can negatively impact unit readiness, individual career progression, and the retention of female Service members. As a result, servicewomen miss training opportunities, leading to less experience than their male counterparts. In some cases, they are unnecessarily losing qualifications in critical career fields. These highly trained professionals should be provided the opportunity to perform their duties and/or attend training while pregnant, as long as it does not impact the mission. Policies need to be written to give servicewomen the ability to make informed decisions with their obstetricians’ approval vice automatically removing them from their careers with no consideration given to medical recommendations or the member’s desires. 

In addition to DoD changes, congress should amend Title VII, EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES – 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16a (2012), to apply to the military, thereby requiring the military to articulate a sound justification for any differential treatment of women based on pregnancy discrimination. This much needed amendment could conceivably be phrased as follows: “Military departments, as provided in Sec. 2000e-16(a), shall include uniformed personnel. This shall not preclude pregnancy as a bona fide occupation qualification, as define in Sec. 2000e-16(a), for education, training and employment.”

In the past month, the DoD has begun a policy review for the career enhancement of pregnant U.S. Service members. I applaud them for recognizing this issue and being willing to take action. Change in any large institution is difficult because of the vastness of the bureaucratic layers that exist. Astutely stated by Victor Hugo, “there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” I believe for the armed services our time has come. The armed services are ready for the much-needed change that will transform our culture to one of inclusion, fostering an environment of even greater competence and lethality. After all, the same era that discharged women when they became pregnant was also a service that had ashtrays installed in-between flight controls so their pilots could smoke while flying. Look how far we have come and imagine how much further we will go. 

This is not a phenomenon unique to military culture and policies; the private industry faces equally significant issues. In 2008, a study by the National Partnership for Women & Families found that pregnancy discrimination complaints have risen at disproportionate rate compared tothe steady influx of women into the workplace.3 Research reveals that pregnant workers continue to face inequality in the workplace.4 The study found that much of the increase in these complaints has been fueled by an increase in charges filed by women of color. Pregnancy discrimination claims filed by women of color increased by 76% from FY 1996 to FY 2005, while pregnancy discrimination claims overall increased 25% during the same period.5

Why should we care? By addressing these barriers and coming up with solutions, we will increase retention rates necessary to maintain our lethal edge and sustain the warfighter imperative. Highly trained women choose to leave the military at a disproportionate rate compared to their male peers. It costs more than $1 million dollars to train one Air Force pilot.6 When it comes to retention, 63% of rated male Air Force officers continue to serve beyond their initial service commitment. In comparison, only 39% of rated female officers elect to continue service beyond the end of their commitment.7 Exit surveys directly contribute family considerations and culture as reasons that Airmen choose to leave service. These reasons that women chose to leave are ones that can be fixed through policy and culture change. Why wouldn’t we want to protect this investment?

Women are a significant component of our recruiting pool, and by not fostering a sense of inclusion, we lose our ability to compete for that talent. We risk filling our service branches with less qualified individuals simply because we do not consider the needs of one gender. It is a warfighter imperative that we focus our efforts on future talent to ensure that we inspire, recruit, develop, and retain highly skilled service members capable of meeting current and future mission requirements. “The United States faces challenges recruiting and retaining men and women in the military, as approximately 71% of young adults do not qualify to enlist in the military, mostly because they are physically unfit, do not meet educational requirements, or their criminal or drug use history is disqualifying. Women qualify for military commissions at higher rates than men but continue to be recruited and retained at lower rates than servicemen.”8

The 2018 RAND study, “Addressing Barriers to Female Officer Retention in the Air Force” identified that pregnancy issues influenced 85% of the focus groups on female officers’ retention. A common pregnancy-related concern raised focused on the difficulty of timing pregnancies to fit within rigid career timelines. Female officers relayed that they have felt the need to “program” pregnancy at precise times in their careers to minimize adverse career effects. Despite attempts to “schedule” pregnancies, service women still encountered negative career impacts such as the inability to attend in-residence Professional Military Education (PME), or, career field-specific problems such as loss of flight time for pilots.

Representation in role models and the lifestyles they lived was another staggering finding. Focus groups found that 83% of participants identified the importance of having female role models in senior leadership positions. Participants emphasized that they rarely see female leaders who are married with children. The resulting perception among younger female officers is that it is not possible for women to both have a family and become a senior leader in the Air Force.9

Pregnancy discrimination does not always derive from a practical concern for mission accomplishment, but rather a robust implicit bias present in every individual. Implicit bias is the “unconscious attribution of particular qualities to a member of a certain group. These stereotypes are shaped by experience and based on learned associations between particular qualities and social categories, including race and/or gender”.10 Here is an example of two Airmen, call signs Taboo and Radar.  Both are the same year group and have almost indistinguishable careers, yet the Air Force and society see them very differently. They graduated from the same college and commissioning source and both were identical in rank as F-16 wingmen. When Taboo was in her first interview with her squadron commander, she was asked what her plans were to start a family. In the same circumstances, Radar was asked if he wanted to go to Weapon School. It doesn’t take a misogynistic supervisor or commander to make these distinctions, but they happen every day. Recognizing and accepting that we all have implicit bias is the first step. We also need to accept that in most cases, we don’t even realize it is happening. You can learn more about how to avoid these hidden biases derived from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes in the book Blind Spot written by psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald. 

Maternal bias is another concern that we, as leaders need to consider. This is a stereotype and discrimination encountered by working mothers and mothers seeking employment. Motherhood often triggers false assumptions that women are less competent and less committed to their careers.11 As a result, service members who are pregnant or have young children are statistically less likely to be selected for a competitive position or promotion by their leadership. Although pregnancy discrimination has many varying degrees, this one is one of the most prevalent that I have witnessed during my time in service. Commanders may become overly concerned about the time a member may be not accomplishing the mission without seeing the full picture. They may also make assumptions about the members’ career ambitions on their behalf without taking into account the member’s desires.

The truth is having a child will take Airmen out of the fight for a small period of time. The convalescent period after an uncomplicated delivery is six weeks. In most cases, the service member will opt for primary caregiver leave (42 days) or secondary caregiver leave (21 days). For every pregnancy, it is expected that the member will be out of the office for a period of 57 to 78 days.12 Men may be designated as the primary caregiver but are often discouraged. Exit studies are increasingly revealing that males are departing the force due to family incompatibility as well. And while we are calling out the elephant in the room, we also have to factor in current postpartum deployment deferments. This may seem like a significant period when looking at a career under a microscope. But when you retract the lens to look at more than a 20 year career, prioritizing that time and allowing members to support their families will pay dividends andretaining crucial talent in the long run. This is not just a female problem. Families should become a leader’s problem. By allowing all Airmen to take the intended leave to start and nourish their families, creates a needed high-trust environment. Leaders who show their Airmen that they care about them as individuals and value all aspects of their service, to include how they are as parents, will only make our force stronger and retain talent longer.

Another aspect to leading Airmen who are starting families is to not make decisions on their behalf. While I believe leaders are not intentionally disadvantaging careers due to pregnancy, even the greatest of uninformed intentions can cause rippling negative career implications. Leaders may think they are helping a new mother by not putting her in for a competitive position or pulling her from training or upgrade to give her more time to recover or be with her child. When this is done without consulting the female results in missed opportunities that will impact progression for the rest of their careers. As leaders, I would encourage you to speak with your pregnant subordinates to clearly understand their goals and priorities. You may be surprised by what a new mom is capable of doing and which opportunities they desire. As part of your feedback with them before the birth, have that conversation of their expectations and ask how you can assist her in achieving them. Through being intentional, proactive and having a plan, leaders can have a significant impact on that Airmen’s ability to continue serving to their maximum potential.  

We need to ensure a servicewoman’s career is not negatively affected as a result of pregnancy. I am encouraged that OSD’s recognizes this barrier and is considering potential policy changes that would improve women’s sense of inclusion.  Unfortunately this by itself will not be enough.  How we implement policy changes individually at a unit level is just as crucial; otherwise, it’s just words on a paper. We need to take our diversity and inclusion training and education more seriously.  If we put real resources toward social changes, we can achieve true equality and enhance our military’s foundational readiness. Our military is the most capable and lethal team the world has ever seen. To retain this world-class advantage in the future and meet the needs of our National Defense Strategy, we must deliberately ensure that all Americans have an equal opportunity to serve.

***

Edited by Megan Biles

Featured Photo by Jeff Wojtaszek: Air Force Commander of the 305th Operations Support Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base, Lt. Col. Jannell MacAulay handed the baton to Lt. Col. Michele Lobianco (2017)

Photo 2: Air Force KC-135 pilot, Lt Col Jessica Ruttenber with her 4 year old son Daniel at Altus Air Force Base (2018)

Photo 3: Air Force F-16 pilots, Lt Col Kathryn Gaetke (Taboo) and Lt Col Matthew Gaetke (Radar) at Misawa Air Force Base (2012)

***

NOTES:

1. Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS). Accessed June 13, 2020. https://dacowits.defense.gov/.

2. “1970s: Family Policy.” Detail. Women’s Memorial Foundation. Accessed June 13, 2020. https://www.womensmemorial.org/history/detail/?s=1970s-family-policy.

3. Nat’l Partnership for Women & Families, The Pregnancy Discrimination Act: Where We Stand 30 Years Later (2008), available at http://qualitycarenow.nationalpartnership.org/site/DocServer/ Pregnancy_Discrimination_Act_-_Where_We_Stand_30_Years_L.pdf?docID=4281 (last visited May 5, 2014)

4. While there is no definitive explanation for the increase in complaints, and there may be several contributing factors, the National Partnership study indicates that women today are more likely than their predecessors to remain in the workplace during pregnancy and that some managers continue to hold negative views of pregnant workers. Id. at 11

5. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission., and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues.” Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Accessed June 13, 2020. https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/enforcement-guidance-pregnancy-discrimination-and-related-issues.

6. Mattock, Michael G., Beth J. Asch, James Hosek, and Michael Boito, The Relative Cost-Effectiveness of Retaining Versus Accessing Air Force Pilots. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2415.html.

 7. Keller, K. M., Hall, K. C., Matthews, M., Payne, L. A., Saum-Manning, L., Yeung, Douglas Lim, N. (2018), Addressing Barriers to Female Officer Retention in the Air Force, RAND Corp.

8. Erika L. King, Diana M. DiNitto, David Snowden & Christopher P. Salas-Wright (2020): New Evidence on Retaining Air Force Members with Young Children: Exploring Work and Personal Factors by Gender, Military Behavioral Health

9. Keller, K. M., Hall, K. C., Matthews, M., Payne, L. A., Saum-Manning, L., Yeung, Douglas Lim, N. (2018), Addressing Barriers to Female Officer Retention in the Air Force, RAND Corp.

10. “Understanding Implicit Bias.” Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. The Ohio State University. Accessed June 13, 2020. http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/.

11. “We Tend to Believe Mothers Are Less Committed to Their Careers (VIDEO).” LeanIn.Org. Accessed June 13, 2020. https://leanin.org/education/what-is-maternal-bias.

12. DoDI 1327.06 June 16, 2009 Incorporating Change 3, Effective May 19, 2016, Leave and Liberty Policy and Procedures

6 thoughts

  1. Only comment is the phrase “starting a family” being treated as a stand-in for deciding to have children. Families without children are still families.

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  2. I am very interested to hear what kind of changes might be occurring. I am a huge advocate for mothers in the Army and work directly with Soldiers when they are having issues with their units. I have initiated several policy changes within the Army and other services. I am frustrated that the Army GLS begins in so many areas relating to postpartum.

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  3. I’m a chaplain candidate in the Army and 12 years prior service Marine. It’s actually written in my candidate manual that pregnancy is grounds for a medical separation. This is an at times six year program meaning I can even start trying for kids until I’m in my mid 30s while my male counterparts can start families whenever they want. I’m glad this whole topic is being taken higher and addressed, thank you.

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    • Rebekah you will be happy to know that effective Sept 4, 2020 the DoD has prohibited pregnancy discrimination. Each Service will have to abide and implement this in their own regulations. It takes a while to change a culture. Keep up the good fight and you can always reach out to me if you need any assistance.

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