One leave to rule them all: how the military can create parental equality

By Jessica Ruttenber

In 2020, Air Force pilot Major Travis Wilkes and his wife Amanda eagerly awaited the arrival of their first child. Like many fathers of his generation, Travis desired to share in parental responsibilities and to have time to bond with his baby.  Being stationed in a foreign country, geographically separated from family and friends and further complicated by a global pandemic, Travis knew he was needed at home while his wife recovered from birth.

Up to this point, Travis made the assumption Air Force policies afforded women 12-weeks of maternity leave (six of which are medical leave) and men were allowed 3-weeks (21 days) of paternity leave. However, he was surprised to learn the regulation was not gender specific and stated “primary” and “secondary” caregiver and the non-birth parent may designate themselves as primary. In actuality, primary caregiver leave is 6-weeks (42 days) and the birth parent is entitled to 6-weeks of medical leave which can total 12-weeks if the birth parent is also the primary caregiver.

Prior to the birth of his daughter, Travis designated himself as the primary caregiver and requested 6-weeks of leave versus the 3 weeks of secondary. Unfortunately, because of how the Air Force Instruction (AFI) is written, despite wanting to support Travis’ choice, his commander felt as if he could not approve this request without a legal review. Like many situations commanders face, the AFI wording was convoluted. It leaves many to interpret the guidance to restrict military members from designating themselves as the primary caregiver if they have a civilian (non-military) spouse, who is also the birth parent, unless extenuating circumstances exist (extenuation circumstances such as the birth parent being incapacitated, unavailable due to work constraints, is in a dual military relationship, has medical complications or dies). As a result, Air and Space Force women are overwhelmingly (approximately 87% of the time) designated as primary caregiver in a service that consists of 21% women.

Travis was frustrated because he felt the policy was discriminatory and devalued the importance of men’s role in their children’s lives, and it motivated him to drive positive change. “AFI policy, driven by parent DoD guidance, regarding primary and secondary caregiver fails to simply acknowledge that parents can have equal responsibility in raising their child(ren)” he said. “The notion of a primary and secondary caregiver is something out of the 1950’s.  We are in an age where the DoD has a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office…yet the parental leave policies are inequitable.”

He stressed primary and secondary parental leave is not maternity convalescent leave, a medical entitlement which is necessary for women to physically recover from the act of giving birth. Women need to have adequate time to medically recovery, establish breastfeeding (if that’s something the mother is capable and/or chooses to do), as well as to bond with their child(ren). However, medical recovery is not applicable to parental leave, and breastfeeding is typically not applicable with adoption.  In all cases, both parents need time to bond with a new child, whether it be by birth or adoption (the latter potentially even more so, depending on the child’s developmental level).

Although the regulations states, “in most cases the primary caregiver will be the parent who physically gives birth” it also states the non-birth parent/covered military member may elect to designate themselves as the primary caregiver.  This statement, along with additional guidance found by his leadership team, gave his commander the authority to approve Travis’ designation as the primary caregiver for his daughter.  “I was not actually expecting that to be the outcome” Travis wrote to his commander upon receiving the good news. He acknowledges he and his family are extremely fortunate to have leadership who not only entertained the request, but actively worked with him to find a positive outcome.  “I will forever cherish those six-weeks with my daughter and I’m grateful to have had the leadership that I did. However, I’m the only male I know of who’s been able to do this, and for that we need the law and DoD guidance to change.”

Travis’ story is becoming an increasingly common occurrence. A policy that makes men jump through hoops to justify caregiver leave does not make sense. How often do commanders feel pressure to obtain a legal review when a female designates herself as the primary caregiver? The current wording of these policies have baked in bias about traditional gender roles, leaving many commanders and service members unaware the non-birthparent has an option to become the primary caregiver. Some men feel they will be stigmatized for asking for such a role which further divides gender inequities. A stereotype might be felt stronger in a service such as the Navy and the Marine Corps who elected for 14-days of secondary caregiver leave instead of 21-days authorized by law.  

Air Force pilot, Major Sean Domincovitch, and his wife Jessica, were expecting their second child. After delivery they encountered numerous challenges by having two children under the age of three at home. “At the time we didn’t have any family that could support us right after the birth so I decided to take personal leave in addition to my secondary caregiver leave,” Sean said. Like many military families, Sean and his wife faced multiple military moves that disrupted their ability to establish a local support system.  Because leave policies are written ambiguously and left open for interpretation, neither Sean nor his commander knew he was able to apply for primary caregiver leave.  Given the approval of Sean’s additional leave by his commander implies he would have likely been approved a primary request.  Instead Sean needlessly took time from his annual leave to care for his children.

Christian Paasch, Chair of the Virginia chapter of the National Parents Organization, advocates the importance of having both parents involved at an early age benefiting a child’s overall well-being.  “As a result of 50+ empirical, peer-reviewed studies on the benefits of shared parenting (i.e. children having consistently substantive & meaningful relationships with both parents, except in cases of abuse & neglect), we know that children are best served by policies that facilitate and encourage such relationships,” Paasch stated. “These studies also support this specific involvement of fathers, even with very young children and infants.  The gender stereotypes of the past have not applied to American families for decades, so it’s time for our policies to reflect reality.  Perpetuating the dated and false ideas that women only belong at home and men only belong at work does nothing to improve society; it keeps us mired in dynamics that we know help no one.  At the end of the day, the more we force men to stay at work, the more we force women to stay at home…and we know this hurts our children and, by extension, society.”

Andrea Harrington, Air Force veteran, discusses family polices not only impact the Armed Services, it also impacts the culture in the United States. “The U.S. is woefully behind other nations in family friendly policies, particularly surrounding parental paid and unpaid leave after the birth of a child,” she observed. “Multiple studies to include the UNICEF 2019 report ranked the U.S. second to last and last in family leave policy among 21 developed nations”. But fortune 500 companies like Amazon have started offering more support and resources for parents to attract and retain talent.  Amazon offers 6-weeks of fully paid parental leave for its full time employees as well as other family friendly flexible policies. Progress isn’t exclusive to the civilian industry. In 2020, Congress amended the Family and Medical Leave Act that allowed federal employees to take 12-weeks of unpaid time for effective births, adoptions or foster placements.  Under the Congressionally-revised policy, federal employees will now receive fully paid benefits for those same 12-weeks. Eliminating the perception there is a primary or secondary parent is the next logical step for the military to modernize policy.

Equity in the Armed Services requires equity in caregiver leave policies. Air and Space Force and DoD regulations are constructed around an outdated family constructs; this archaic default imposes the primary responsibility of childcare upon the parent who gave birth, sending a message to males they do not play a significant role in child raising. This outdated family construct no longer reflects American society and the population in which the military recruits from. A population, which according to a DoD report, states 71% of American’s youth are ineligible to serve.  To attract quality recruits with a dwindling recruiting population and retain current talent to increase foundational readiness, the DoD should modernize their caregiver leave policies.

The solution is very simple: eliminate secondary caregiver leave and replace it with one standard parental caregiver leave.  Simply put, this would increase the secondary caregiver leave from 3-weeks to 6-weeks to be on parody with primary.  Active duty members have an average of 2.0 children and overall, 38.1% of the total DoD has children.  These numbers are relatively low compared to return on investment by making the service more attractive to quality recruits and retention. This update in policy will send a clear message the DoD is serious about eliminating gender inequalities and supporting all families that serve, including same-sex couples. In short, it’s a three week increase felt twice over the span of an entire career.

“Policies that provide equity for LGBTQ service members and their families are vitally important. Supporting a policy of equal parental leave is the right thing to do to take care of all military families.” -Bree Fram, President of SPARTA

A three week increase in caregiver leave may be felt more deeply by smaller units especially during a deployment cycle, sea duty, or in career fields that are critically manned.  The solution, or order to lessen the impact of this necessary policy change is to make caregiver leave flexible to be taken over a greater time span, up to 2-years after qualifying birth or adoption, or allow more than one leave duration increment can alleviate the negative impacts to the mission. It is already common practice to extend leave earned by each service members into the following year when they are unable to take their normal 30 days of annual leave due to operational requirements.  A matter of fact the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 allows service secretaries to authorize parental leave to be taken in more than one increment. However, these changes are not being implemented at the tactical level.

In order for the DoD to be permitted to make these much needed changes legislation must amend the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 which established the number of days for the current primary and secondary caregiver construct. 10 U.S.C. 701 Entitlement and Accumulation, must be amended to remove secondary caregiver leave and rename primary caregiver to parental leave. This will grant all service members, regardless of gender or family circumstance, access to an equal amount of 6-weeks parental leave. Simply put, equity in the Armed Services requires equity in caregiver leave. The time for this change is now.


1. Remove references and regulations in 10 U.S.C. 701 Entitlement and Accumulation associated with the “Secondary Caregiver”. 

2. Replace the term “Primary Caregiver Leave” with the more inclusive & accurate term “Parental Leave”. 

3. Establish 6-weeks (42-days) of Parental Leave for all Service members following a qualifying birth or adoption. 

4. Delineate the 6-week medical (maternity) convalescent leave from Parental Leave.  A Service member who is also the birthparent would still have access to 12-weeks of total leave.

5. Ensure Parental Leave cannot be restricted based upon family circumstances of Service members. 

6. Expand Parental Leave utilization window from 1-year to 2-years in order to provide Commanders and Service members greater flexibility to balance deployment requirements, unit readiness, currency, and certification requirements, as well as to not inhibit career progression and support individual family needs. 

7. Maintain current paragraph (i)(5) which allows parental leave to be taken in more than one increment. 

8. Member may elect to forfeit parental leave if the members request. 

9. Research possibility to include a manpower study in predicted person-year workforce cost of increasing Parental Leave from 6-weeks to 12-weeks, similar to what Title 5 Federal Employees were provided in the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. 

Current Law & DoD Military Parental Leave Policy (MPLP) does not support gender equitable parental leave. Many groups within the services such as the Air Force’s Women’s Initiatives Team (WIT) and Air Combat Command’s Sword Athena recognize current policies discourage men from becoming caregivers and have begun to review data to help senior leaders better understand how important equality in caregiver policies help close the gender gap. The WIT’s chair, Major Alea Nadeem, oversees many of these efforts.  Alea states “to establish equity in the Armed Services for parity in caregiver leave, it takes the stroke of a pen and a common sense approach; which is in the realm of the possible. Let’s get to it!”


Edited by Megan Biles

Resources: Open source for the FAQ that helped Travis. Current Air Force guidance can be found on the myPers website by searching “MPLP FAQ”.

Featured Photo provided by author.

Photo Slideshow provided by Major Travis Wilkes.

The opinion written by the author is her own and does not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Air Force.

HAIR POWER: How Four Airmen Changed Policy

By Jessica Ruttenber

The Air Force announced its new hair policy allowing female Airmen to wear their hair down in a single braid, double braid or pony tail. This change in policy will provide relief to thousands of women who suffer from hair loss and tension headaches caused by long hours of wearing hair pulled too tight. As the public affairs article went viral, reposted over 10,000 times within hours, the Air Force demonstrated they once again hit the mark as this change was met with an overwhelming positive response. Known to some as the #FreeTheBun movement, this medical and inclusion issue was the first substantial change in hair modernization for female Airmen in 70 years. This long overdue policy change did not happen overnight. It is the result of a few persistent and passionate individuals who have demonstrated the highest echelon of leadership: fighting for their Airmen.

In 2016, then-Technical Sergeant Johnathon “JB” Lind noticed something off with one of his young Air Traffic Control tower controllers during a shift. The Airman explained she was experiencing headaches and a condition called alopecia, a medical condition which causes hairloss.  This condition was a result of the requirement to pull her hair back to meet Air Force hair standards. JB recalls the Senior Airman in tears, telling him she “didn’t want to lose any more of her hair.” JB relayed the story to his wife, a Staff Sergeant who was deployed at the time, and was shocked to discover she too had been living through the same challenges. 

JB saw this as a call to action. Over the next five years, he made serval attempts through his chain of command to propose hair policy changes only to be met with opposition from what he calls the “frozen middle.” Frustrated but determined, he founded a group known as the Warrior Braids Project, who developed and submitted proposed hair policy changes to the Air Force’s Uniform Board. Despite repeatedly pushing it forward, the Uniform Board never agreed with the proposed changes. Undeterred after five years of perseverance, JB found an indispensable ally and unconditional support at his most recent duty station through his leadership at the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

During the same time, Lieutenant Montana Pellegrini read social media stories of women experiencing headaches and hair loss from wearing their hair in a tight bun. These accounts triggered a painful reminder of when she was medically disqualified from pilot training specifically due to migraines. Having experienced a major life change from the same issues that were associated with buns, she understood the significant impact that changing Service hair regulations would have for females in the Air Force. 

Pellegrini took action, elevating her concerns to the Chair of the Air Force’s Women’s Initiative Team (WIT), Major Alea Nadeem, who leads the all-volunteer group working to make policy change to ensure inclusivity of women. Pellegrini agreed to lead the effort and partnered with Captain Sarah Berheide who leads the WIT’s Female Healthcare Working Group. During their research they joined forces with MSgt Lind. The team made up of four Airmen – Maj Alea Nadeem, Capt Sarah Berheide, Lt Montana Pellegrini, and MSgt Johnathan Lind, shepherded this initiative to make it a reality.


— Air Force women everywhere

Through a survey, thousands of servicewomen provided feedback about Air Force hair regulations. Respondents largely considered the current policy discriminatory, especially to those of African American or Native American descent. Roughly 68,470 active duty and 39,502 National Guard and Reserve Airmen and Guardians were impacted by hair standards, with a disproportionate impact toward ethnic Airmen who have different hair types. Of the 10K+ survey respondents, 93% of female Airmen and Guardians agreed that the hair policy for females in the Air and Space forced needed to be updated. 52% referenced headaches and migraines due to the hair policies.

Servicewomen experienced receding hairlines, bald spots, hair thinning and reduced regrowth, better known as traction alopecia. Many also experienced migraines, hair breakage, scalp sensitivity, soreness, and moldy hair by putting it up wet in a bun. The Warrior Braids unofficially polled active duty female Airmen and Guardians and found 7 out of 10 reported migraines associated with the bun. Data also showed a higher rate of alopecia and hair loss among female active duty when compared to civilians within the military healthcare system. Military equipment has not been designed around a women’s bun; women had two options cut their hair short to properly wear a gas mask, helmet, night vision goggles, or take it out for the duration of training and be out of regulations. Or worst, not wear the equipment properly.

Most U.S. allies’ militaries already had inclusive hair policies. Canada allows a single braid, double braids, or a ponytail. Norway’s policy allows hair to be arranged so it does not fall below the upper edge of the jacket or shirt collar, or over the eyes. Alternatively, the hair can be set up in one loosely hanging braid, one ponytail, one knot centered on the back of the head or by using hair nets. Israel allows female soldiers with hair that descends past the collar of the uniform shirt, to have their hair tied back via a ponytail, a hair clip, or braided and Germany approves hair that can touch the shoulders when the body and head is held upright must be braided/plaited, tied or pinned back.

The U.S. military is the most diverse military force in the world; however our hair policies were not reflective of diverse hair options. That was until 21 January when the Air Force announced the hair policy change.

The announcement of Air Force’s female hair policy changes took social media by storm. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok flooded with memes and short videos.

One of the General Officers who championed this overdue change was Lieutenant General Mary O’Brien, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Cyber Effects Operations at Headquarters Air Force and the senior WIT champion. Under Lt Gen O’Brien’s leadership, she removed barriers and provided the much needed fire support to ensure the team was able to present their findings and recommend solution to the right senior leaders. Lt Gen Mary O’Brien remarked that, “this movement reflects leadership’s willingness to listen to feedback from service members and take rapid action. This policy change is long overdue, but the manner in which it took place showcases the trailblazing spirit of our Airmen and Guardians. The work done by the WIT proves that good ideas don’t usually come from the top—they come from passionate service members who truly believe in accelerating change.”

The recommendations to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force for hair policy change resulted from months of feedback, research, and data gathering collected by the Department of the Air Force WIT. The effort was substantiated by multiple senior leaders, at all echelons, who penned letters of support and expressed their own desire to see this needed change come to fruition.

“The team identified a problem and presented an innovative, common-sense solution. It was a matter of getting the information in front of the right decision makers” Capt Berheide stated.  “This policy update is an example that Airmen at any level can affect change beyond their local unit.  Our Airmen are the experts and have the innovative solutions essential to winning America’s wars.  The WIT model is a necessary answer to [Air Force Chief of Staff] General Brown’s call to Accelerate Change or Lose.”

While hair policy may seem insignificant as we have real-world problems, the DoD has to start updating policies to be reflective of all Airmen, which includes servicewomen. The hair polices servicewomen inherited from the 1940’s under the Women’s’ Auxiliary Corp were not rooted in mission readiness or operational missions. No one in the 1940s fathomed a woman would ever fly an aircraft or be on the front lines. The old polices were rooted in how a woman should look in uniform; not how she can best wear a helmet safely to do her mission.

While the policy change arrives after several decades of being largely ignored, it comes at an important time for the service. Many of the restrictions included in hair policy have been particularly impactful to women of color, whose hair can suffer disproportionately compared to other servicewomen.  For years, women of color have had to consider the damage to their hair as the cost of service in the Air Force.

“As the service continues to put a premium on diversity and inclusion initiatives, this policy change is very much in lockstep with the Department of Defense’s path forward,” said WIT Chair Major Alea Nadeem.  “Amending the rulebook isn’t just another good talking point for the Air Force’s efforts in diversity; there are real operational impacts to this policy change, our team pushed. It’s just good, old-fashioned common sense.”


Edited by Megan Biles

Featured Photo provided by the Warrior Braid Project: Captain Susan McLeod in the 388th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Hill Air Force Base. The initial effort presented, where this photo is from, was to allow women to have a length to their elbows.

The opinion written by the author is her own and does not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Air Force.

Invisible Women: Advancing the National Defense Strategy through modernizing Human Systems Integration

By Jessica Ruttenber

Dedicate to WASP….your story doesn’t end here.

“For decades, the United States has enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain…today; every domain is contested—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace” (National Defense Strategy, 2018).  As China develops as a strategic opponent within the evolving Great Power Competition, another competition has emerged; talent competition.  By 2030, China will have four-times the U.S. population and fifteen-times the number of STEM graduates.  China’s growing numbers, combined with ongoing academic reforms, place them at an advantage to leverage their human capital for the People’s Liberation Army.  

As China grows, the U.S. struggles to find quality recruits.  In 2018, the DoD released a report stating that 71% of young adults in the U.S. are ineligible for military service due to health, fitness, and educational factors. To maintain the military’s lethality, the U.S. needs to modernize its capabilities to attract and retain talent to hold a competitive advantage.  Failure to do so will result in our inability to remain a strategic competitor.  

Currently, the United States Air Force’s aircrew height standards are based on a 1967 anthropometric survey that accounts for only males. The required standing height of 64 inches to 77 inches and sitting height of 34 to 40 inches is documented in the Air Force Instruction 48-123 and the Medical Standards Directory (MSD).  The MSD is used for a flying class physical upon entry into service. Without a waiver, the standing height requirements eliminate 44% of the U.S. female population between the ages of 20 and 29, compared to only 3.7% of males.  For minorities, the sitting height requirements eliminate 74% of black females, 72% of Hispanic females, and 61% of Asian females.

As the United States population continues to evolve, so must our approach to Human Systems Engineering.  The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the nation is on a trajectory for an emerging majority-minority and White/Non-Hispanic population cross by 2025. The USAF’s total force of officer aircrew is 85% white, with 2% black and 5% Hispanic. With female aircrew representing 8% of the total force, being a female of diverse ethnicity is to be the underrepresented of the underrepresented. Yet our U.S. population, and thus recruitment pool, is half female.

Women consist of 5% of Air Force pilots.  For fighter pilots, this number drops down to 2%. These numbers are staggeringly given that it has been 27 years since serving in combat was open to women.  Although the reasons for low female representation in aviation are multifaceted and complex, height and stature is a significant factor restricting a large portion of the recruitable population.  To compete with China’s human capital advantage of 4:1 per capita, each of our pilots must be even more capable. Simply put, the U.S. can’t afford to continue to drown in self-imposed engineering barriers. 

Every year, the Air Force has more applicants than pilot slots, but those candidates’ competence varies.  A strong argument can be made that these engineering barriers force the Air Force into selecting less qualified candidates, given that a significant amount of the competition is artificially eliminating from competing.   Would you rather have ALL of the best-qualified pilot candidates competing or only those who meet a self-induced physical standard constructed under a 1960s contracting model that does not correlate with airmanship and capabilities?

How is it possible that in 2020 the Air Force still designs aircraft and flight equipment based on predominantly male standards?  Simply put, in a very complicated acquisition process, the Human Systems Integration requirements are established by the users.  In other words, if you only sample the “current” aircrew demographics whose entry requirements are based on the 1967 height standard, then the Air Force continues to perpetuate these restrictions.  In 2011, the USAF funded an Aircrew Sizing Survey (ACSS) to replace the 1967 Survey (Choi, et al, 2014).  However, due to funding limitations and utilizing a “volunteer sample strategy,” too few females and non-Caucasian males were surveyed to account for minority demographics adequately (Choi, et al., 2016). 

With the data acquired, it was possible to utilize ACSS as the updated anthropometric database for the male USAF Aircrew Population; however, the female USAF Aircrew Population database had to be derived from the 2012 Army Anthropometric Survey (ANSUR II) (Hudson, et. Al., 2016; United States Army, 2012).  The use of the ANSUR II data as a “workaround” to account for the lack of female representation in the ACSS is an equivalent example to the use of a waiver process as a “workaround” to account for the lack of female representation in FC1 anthropometric requirement (Rigollet, 2017). Both are Band-Aids, which will not produce the enduring solutions required to ensure our military recruits the most capable personnel. 

Accurately noted, “One of the most important things to say about the gender gap data is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate.  Quite the opposite, it is simply the product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia and is, therefore, a kind of not thinking” (Criado Perez, 2019). Senior military and Congressional leaders have been trying to address female fitment issues. But due to an absence of success with identifying the real barriers to entry, and the institution’s lack of holistic innovation in developing next-generation technology has only addressed the symptoms. Peeling back the layers further, we can identify an outdated acquisition model is the root cause of the problem. 

In 2002, a cockpit evaluation was conduction by the Airmen Accommodation Lab to determine accommodation envelops for all USAF.  Later, an algorithm representing those envelopes was developed into a WebPASS system to determine if individuals could safely perform their crew station’s necessary actions for exceptions to policies (ETPs). Those ETPs are subjective to the approval authority. Since 2015, of the 210 height waivers that were applied by women, 89% were approved.  However, those wavered individuals were restricted to a handful of aircraft. Thus, while a quick and overt solution, it does not resolve the problem of ensuring the most qualified individuals are piloting the most advanced aircraft in the world.  Waivers only mask the underlying issue and masquerade as a sustainable solution.  For example, the F-15 accommodates only 8.9% of females. The B-52 14% and the A-10, 28.9% of females are eligible due to stature limitations.  Most of these wavered individuals cannot fly a fighter, a career field that has only 2% women and historically generates the greatest number of senior leaders serving as the highest echelons within the Air Force.  Mobility aircraft accommodation is slightly better, but the C-130 and C-17 eliminate 1 out of every 3 women compared to a staggeringly small number of 1-2% of men. Will these disproportionate standards be the same for the next inter-theater airlift or a next-gen fighter? 

It is understandable and logical to not use female demographics in legacy aircraft designed before women were permitted to fly in combat (1993). However, dated standards are used today, 27-years later.  The original F-35, Joint Strike Fighter Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS), eliminated approximately 55% of females due to historical engineering constraints.  When the Undersecretary of Defense of Acquisitions (Dr. John Deutch) was informed of the lack of accommodation, he directed the development of a solution that would permit at least 80% of eligible females to operate the aircraft 7 (Hudson, 2003).  However, after congressional pressure, the Human System Integration standards were changed to develop an aircraft that accommodated 97.5% women. This is the design that is available today. 

Unfortunately, while the F-35 accommodates 97.5% of women, the pilot candidate must first meet the standards for the preceding training aircraft, the T-38 (41.5% female accommodation), to have the opportunity to compete. Until the T-7 replaces the T-38, 57.5% of females will be restricted from flying the F-35. The T-1 is another a major limiting factor as the mandator aircraft trainer for mobility aircraft with 57.9% female accommodation due primarily to sitting height. Since 2016, AETC approved a 1-inch cushion to open the aperture, which allowed approximately 20 individuals to receive a height waiver 27-years after students began flying the T-1.

Source: United States Air Force Research Laboratory

Unlike the officer system, for the approximately 15,000 Career Enlisted Aviators (CAE), no evaluation has been done to determine a waiver process. Female representation of the CEA remains at 8%.  Regarding such a disparity to CAE career field admission, career fields that are directly tied to the National Defense Strategy, such as Airborne Cryptological Analysts (linguists), who utilize foreign language skills to analyze messages obtained during a flight, are significantly understaffed.  Typically, these linguists fly in the back of surveillance aircraft.  Their only physical requirement is to egress the aircraft as a normal passenger would, yet they are held to the same height standards as the pilots who fly the aircraft.  Instead of assessing the enlisted crew duty stations and tasks, these career fields elected to lower their academic standard for entry in the Defense Language Aptitude Battery scores. As a result, the career field is fully manned, but the program’s attrition rate has dramatically increased.  These positions could have been filled by any of the 44% of the female population who measured under 64 inches, which would have met the original linguistic standards. Instead, the career field standards were lowered instead of increasing the recruited population by eliminating an artificial barrier that had nothing to with competency in the actual career field- linguistics. The cost of the study for that one aircraft would have only cost $125,000.  The Air Force is not taking risks in the right areas.

The problem is not isolated to aircraft design; it is in everything from G-suits, maternity uniforms, aircrew flight equipment, and even defender’s issued body armor. It is no secret that the military has struggled to design and provide available equipment and uniforms for female members.  In 2016 Maj Whitney Pratt, call sign WASP, was an F-15 Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) flying a routine mission.  A breakdown in communication between her and the pilot resulted in an 8.5 G break where she found herself in the wrong body position.  Under eight and a half times her weight, her 93 lb head and 16.5 lb helmet snapped to meet her knee and pinned her in a folded position for the turn’s duration, injuring her.  When she landed, she had no feeling in her left arm and intense pain through her shoulder and neck. WASP, her Commander, and her physical therapist identified that her ill-fitting flight equipment significantly contributed to her injuries. The size and weight of her helmet severely aggravated the symptoms down her neck and arm. The weight and distribution of the 44-lbs survival vest across her shoulder and neck caused her ribs to sublux, making her movements like turning her head or supporting her arm on her hand controller difficult, if not impossible. 

Regardless of the equipment WASP was wearing that day, the injury would have occurred. However, due to a lack of adequately sized equipment for her smaller size, she carried extra weight, resulting in increased severity of those injuries. The ill-fitting equipment contributed to her inability to recover and return to flying status.  The Air Force lost an investment of millions of dollars and years of training of this highly trained WSO due to ill-fitting equipment. After a long battle to recover her health, a Medical Evaluation Board declared Captain Whitney Pratt unfit for continued military service duty. She dedicated her last year working with Air Combat Command on designing proper fitting equipment for women, such as bladder relief systems used by bombers and fighter.  Last month her service ended, but her story doesn’t have to.

This gender gap is not unique to military service. This representation of ergonomics and engineering designs has primarily focused on males. Test dummies, which are historically based on the average male stature, are typical examples of a design that neglects women and, consequently, puts their lives at risk. Caroline Criado-Perez discusses in her book, Invisible Women, how women are put at risk on the road. “Men are more likely than women to be involved in a car crash, which means they dominate the numbers of those seriously injured… But when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 71% more likely to moderate injuries.” It wasn’t until 2011 that the U.S. started using a female crash-test dummy. Even with the addition, there are some that question the testing accuracy. For pregnant women, the consequences are more severe. Although a pregnant crash-test dummy was created back in 1991, testing with it is still not governmentally-mandated (Criado-Perez, 2019).

This disproportionate gender data is not unique to just the private sector and has unfortunately been adopted in past contracts awarded to governmental engineering standards. It highlights the preeminence in which women are disproportionately acknowledged or studied regarding both safety and engineering standards. This has extended into what is accepted, yet outdated, standards used by the armed forces. This is an abdication of opportunity to entry for almost half of the American population, one that our military cannot risk perpetuating if we intend to remain globally competitive.  

The solution is that the aircraft should fit the human rather than the human fit the aircraft. If the military considered and designed their equipment, gear, and uniforms to the population it recruits from, rather than from limiting legacy designs, they would not have to spend such a significant amount of time and resources trying to fix a self-inflicted barrier. 

A step in the right direction is the recently awarded Next Generation Ejection Seat (NGES) to upgrade the existing systems on the F-15, F-16, F-22, B-1 and A-10 will increase its weight range to 103 to 245 pounds to be more accommodating to both smaller and larger stature individuals. According to Jennifer Whitestone, from the AAL, “reducing barriers for women to join the USAF obligates Human Systems to safely and effectively protect smaller personnel.” From the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Dr. Reed emphasizes the need for a neck model. Women are 3-times more likely to experience neck injuries; the neck circumference is the largest discriminator between men and women due to the female’s smaller cervical circs as well as smaller musculature. AAL’s ongoing efforts will define the deficits and identify solution requirements, but continued funding is needed to expand future Air Force readiness and capability.

The Department of the Air Force Women’s Barrier Analysis  (DAFBAWG) Women’s Initiative Team (WIT) has been tracking and researching anthropometric barriers. Recently, the WIT identified these barriers and presented a solution to Assistant Secretary of Acquisitions, Dr. Will Roper.  Dr. Roper not only supported the much-needed change that is essential to our ability to compete for talent but also mandated in a 31 July policy change that Air Force “use the central 95 percentile of the entire U.S. recruiting population for all future acquisitions in aircrew flight equipment” (Air Force Guidance Memorandum 2020-63-148).   Additionally, a CEA study will be funded to evaluate the current USAF aircraft inventory, led by the Air National Guard, which will update its underrepresented database. 

Over the last couple of decades, there has been a significant focus on symptoms instead of accurately identifying the sustained illness, the actual barriers to entry. Waivers are one-off exceptions that are not persistent fixes and present their own unique obstacles to entry into the military force. It is paramount that the military finds innovative ways to access the greatest possible talent. The current problems are self-inflicted barriers which are not unique to only Air Force aircraft ascensions but to all of the services.  It makes sound business sense to financially invest in longstanding solutions rather than hemorrhaging out money and quick fixes to bandage sustained problems of high attrition rates or barriers to access. Historically, diversity has been treated as a luxury we can’t afford during fiscal restraints. When considering the next strategic competition, we can no longer discount nearly half the potential recruitment population due to historic standardization. It is imperative to our Nation’s very survival to transform how we conduct business.   

Dr. Roper and the WIT’s vision have trailed blazed next-generation military ascensions to help successfully meet the emerging challenges that will face addressing Great Power Competition. However, history has shown that bureaucracy, fiscal restraints, and competing “priorities” will delay the acquisitions, design, and fielding of female fitment just as it did to update its database in 2012.  Senior leaders must continue to hold their commands accountable to expedite these changes while accepting reasonable risk to ensure an accelerated solution.  The current process is outdated. New innovative methods must be embraced, and the “that’s how we have always done it” mentality should be crushed out of the system. Complacency is the enemy of innovation. Innovation will secure global prevalence.  

With all combat jobs in the U.S. military open to women, Congress and the Secretary of Defense should follow the Air Force’s lead and mandate that all acquisitions, especially for weapons systems; Personal Protection Equipment (PPE); Aircrew Flight Equipment (AFE); and uniforms, use the central 95% of the population it recruits from. The PPE, AFE, and uniforms need to be as readily available for female warriors as their male counterparts. Additionally, an in-depth study should be dedicated to bringing clear understanding and analysis of the actual barriers instead of finding “workarounds” that masquerades as longstanding solutions. Finally, proper resources and funding should be immediately supported by data-driven recommendations, followed by periodic accountability reporting at the senior leader level.

The 21st Air Force Chief of Staff, General David L. Goldfein, made diversity and female fitment one of his top priorities. Through his last days, he continued to make female fitment a priority despite countless competing issues that were consistently highlighted during his final days in office.  As the Air Force takes another giant step forward and begins implementing new acquisitions policy, I leave you with Goldfein’s closing remarks, “we’ve got to make sure that we build the environment out there where the right thing is easy, and the wrong thing is hard,” after all, our democracy depends on it.


Edited by Megan Biles

Women’s Initiative Team Anthropometric members: Lt Col Jessica Ruttenber (lead), Maj Andrea Harrington (lead), Lt Col Christi Opresko, Maj Chandra Fleming, Capt Lauren Daly

Special thanks to Jennifer Whitestone and Chief Christopher Dawson


Air Force Instruction 48-123 (2019, May 13) Medical Examinations and Standards

Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and readiness. (2013) Qualified Military Available Study

Choi, H., Coate, A. , Belby, M., Hudson, J Whitehead, C. Zehner, G., & Fleming, S. (2014). Aircrew Sizing Survey 2011. Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio : 711th Human Performance Wing

Criado-Perez, Caroline. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. New York: Abrams Press, 2019.

Davis, Michael, Jake Johnson, and Jacob John. Rep. USAF Aircraft Accommodation Analysis. JointBase San Antonio-Randolph, Tx: AETC Studies and Analysis Squadron, 2019.

Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018.

Rigollet, Taylor S. “One Size Does Not Fit All: Removing Unnecessary Barriers To Entry In The Pilot Community.” Department of the AIr Force Air University, June 1, 2017.

Hudson, J., Baker, M. P., Davenport, I. N., Lafferty, C., Whitestone, J., Tharp, E., & Taylor, N. (2016, November 6). USAF Anthropometric Accommodation Assessment. Air Force Research Labs, 711th Human Performance Wing and Infoscitex Corporation, a DCS Company.

Rigollet, Taylor S. “One Size Does Not Fit All: Removing Unnecessary Barriers To Entry In The Pilot Community.” Department of the AIr Force Air University, June 1, 2017.

United States Army. (2012). 2012 Anthropometric Survey of U.S. Army Personnel: Methods and Summary Statistics. Technical Report Natick/TR-15/007.

I Believe You: Three Words to Inspire Cultural Change

“There is only one way to look at things until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes” ~ Pablo Picasso

By: Megan Biles

Our differences are what make us unique. When everyone is able to perform at their highest capacity, organizations are more successful and effective. Transformation comes from ideas brought to life through individuals who are bold enough to share their concerns to challenge the status quo. The challenge facing our leaders is finding a path to inclusion, where all feel confident stepping forward and inspiring change that will lead to transformation. 

Creating this culture starts with believing those who come forward.

How we, as leaders, respond to individual issues and ideas will influence the culture of our organizations. We must believe their concern and experience is real to them, and more than likely, real to many others within that community. There is significant power when “my” problem becomes “our” problem. 

There are three responses to personal issues that I have experienced from leaders. The first response is to be discounted for the idea or concern. This may be because the leader does not believe it is a significant problem or does not feel they have the resources to address it. This may because the issue does not personally affect them, or they cannot relate. You can visibly see the dismissal or disregard for the issue in their eyes, tone, or lack of actions. When the dominant majority does not concern themselves with the needs and concerns of the minority, people have a tendency to stop contributing to the success of the mission. Additionally, studies have shown that creativity and innovation used for solving problems will decrease when individuals do not feel respected and fear their ideas will be publically criticized.1 Who would want to lead, or be a part of, that kind of team?

The second is the acknowledgment that it might be an issue, but then you are asked to prove it. You are asked to come back with more data “to convince” them there is an issue outside of your perspective. This may stem from a well-intended desire to want to help. It is natural to want proof and be equipped to be able to further the issue to a solution. The initial response of “prove it” as it stands alone, puts the burden of proof on the individual who may already be hesitant about coming forward and this action immediately breaks down trust. More than anything, a response of “prove it” states the problem is not believed at face value.

This response is often seen when trying to work through the chain of command and hoping to get to the actual policy maker. Interim leadership may be cautious or skeptical supporting an issue they do not understand or cannot relate to and thus freeze momentum under the guise of requiring supporting justification. This is used as a stall tactic, often driven by a stability bias, a desire to not rock the boat or maintain the status quo,2 or due to the fact that they do not want to associated their name and weight behind that particular issue. It can be difficult to get honest feedback on how your team is doing due to several layers of supervision before something filters up to your level. How can we get revolutionary ideas to those who can implement them? How can we prevent ideas and issues stalling due to interim leadership?

Both of these responses are discouraging and will deter that person, and others, from bringing forward issues in the future. It tears down trust and sends the message that individual needs are not prioritized. There are many who are watching when “the one” comes forward and is vulnerable with their problem. There are many who are waiting to see if “the one” is heard, and if they can inspire change. And, there are many who are learning as “the one” is brushed to the side and forgotten.

This will influence what “the many” do in the future, when they have their own problems and burdens to face. This will influence the trust they have in the system to bring their own problems forward, whether they too believe that their issues can be solved. In an organization, when my problem becomes our problem, that loudly proclaims that the institution values the individual’s needs. There is significant power, belonging and trust that stems from my problem becoming ourproblem.  

That brings us to the third, and the most powerful response we can give. The response that will change an organization and make all the difference is to say, “I believe you.” What can I do to help? How can you and I team up to make this change?

To create a cultural change where all feel valued and included, we must begin by saying, “I believe you.” The challenge of creating a cohesive culture is finding a way for every person within our organization to feel valued and heard. There is power in listening that is underestimated. Empathy can be just as powerful as action. 

By reacting with “I believe you,” this response immediately sends a message that their experience is valued. For anyone who cannot relate or does not understand the concern brought forward, spend time asking them to explain. Gaining understanding is not the same as being asked to prove it. Seeking to understand fosters trust and shows a willingness to accept an alternative way of thinking. Ask from a heart of wanting to empathize; make their problem your problem.

Instead of telling them to convince you, ask them to empower you to help. Ask them to give you the knowledge and background so you can understand and use that knowledge to convince others to fix the problem. The leaders who I have seen embody this approach not only tell me, but they also show me they care about the issue and have empowered me to come alongside them and make impactful change.

This is not a call to blind acceptance and action, but instead asking for self-reflection, to be intentional with our initial reactions to others. Does the initial reaction encourage a culture of trust, or does it make people feel marginalized? Do we hear the problem and immediately think they are wrong? Or can we say, I believe this is real to you and I want to understand better. The hope is to stimulate a candid dialogue, where the leader either better understands and is equipped to help or this response encourages a mentoring opportunity to grow the other.

That is where transformation happens, because people are always watching, seeing how leadership responds. If they see a leader who stands with the individual and shows that their problems matter, that will encourage others to bring theirs issues and ideas forward. Some of the best leaders view vulnerability as a strength.  Society at times has an incorrect correlation between vulnerability and weakness.  Your initial response will either validate the individual’s concerns or further deepen a divide of the majority and minorities of your organization. “I believe you” transforms the perception of vulnerability from weakness into strength. 

If we can approach individual challenges with an open mind, genuinely believing their issues matter, and ask how we can partner with them to make meaningful change, then we can create a culture of inclusion. There is nothing more powerful than acknowledging that another’s individual experience matters to you. Trust can be immediately earned by believing and offering to collaborate to inspire change. We can transform the culture and improve the lives of those around us through such a simple first step. Those who come forward will likely surprise you with their innovative solutions, and it will show your entire organization that we value each individual and what they bring to the table. Through simply believing, we can inspire cultural change. 

The next time someone brings you his or her problem, I hope your response is “I believe you.”


Edited by Jessica Ruttenber

Artwork created by Miranda Embrey. Instagram @ Miranda.e.creative


[1] Benjamin Wolff “Is Diversity The Key To Creativity?” Nov 10, 2019

[2] Eva Rykrsmith “5 Biases in Decision Making – Part 2” Jun 7, 2013