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.
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.
In every career field there is a generation of of Firsts followed by a generation of Next. The security of opportunity afforded to the next generation is possible by the hardships endured by the women of Firsts. Although I am a women of Next, a second generation wave, I was raised by the generation of Firsts. I can look to my left and see beyond the perseverance of accomplished women that marked their place in history, to the pain of a generation of women who suffered in silence. Survival was priority, complaining was never an option.
Then I look to my right and see the women of Next and even the beginning of a third generation that is hopeful and not defined by gender. They at times take for granted the opportunities open to them. Unlike the Firsts with their “keep my head down” and excel mentality, the “Nexters” believe without question there is no reason they can not achieve their desired success. Because of the path cleared before them, they make no apologies speaking up to remove any barriers in their way. But the truth is that not all barriers are so obvious, they are hidden and often undetected by the women of Next. Their insidious nature can make progress even more difficult often manifested as a subtle impostor syndrome rather than a direct assault.
To the women of first thank you will never be enough. We see you. Some of you have ascended into positions of power, as few of you as there are. You hide your scars well and often play down your pain. Your generation taught you that standing out on the smallest of matters as a women had the potential to take away from your power and bring question to your competence and accomplishments. Each of you have adapted in your own way. Some assimilated into the collective that resented your mere presence or perhaps some of you now carry the sword and shield as a pathfinder for others. Many of you didn’t ask to be the first, you simply wanted to pursue your passion and along with it came the burden of discrimination and bias.
To the women of Next, continue to be unapologetic and ambitious. Maybe you have encountered a barrier or two along the way. Or maybe you have been fortunate to have a leveled playing field. I say to you now that the women of First may have shattered the proverbial glass ceiling, but it is up to us as the women of Next to pick up the pieces of glass that remain on the floor. Do not keep your blinders on. We are not done yet. So grab a dust pan and let’s finish sweeping up the tiny shards of glass up that won’t stop you from entering a race but will most certainly make it more painful to run it.
“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.
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)
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
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.
Understanding the importance of taking the first step in building a more positive culture.
By Jessica Ruttenber
Does policy change culture or does culture change policy? In general, I would argue both philosophies are correct. Part of changing culture is top down leadership driving policy change through a robust implementation of a strategy designed to educate and train their organization. Properly implemented, policy sends a clear message of expectations and guides the values of an organization. A policy can shape principles, guide decisions, and achieve outcomes. It is a statement of intent implemented as a procedure or protocol. Policy, by itself, won’t change the characteristics of a culture, but it is a necessary and essential, first step. Policy is symbolically and practically a meaningful way to create change.
So how do you change an institution steeped in bureaucracy? An institution that has long since accepted the seemingly impossible mantra of, “that’s the way we have always done it.” To effect change in such a challenging environment, I would like to present three ideas for consideration.
Immediately upon entering the service, we begin to assimilate its values. To a significant degree, they become adopted as our own. A service component’s core values are essential for a strong sense of organizational identity, resulting in an overall positive outcome.
Core Values Air Force: Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. Army: Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Coast Guard: Honor, respect, and devotion to duty. Marine Corps/Navy: Honor, courage, and commitment.
Each service has its own unique culture at large while simultaneously fostering smaller subcultures within different career specialties. When an individual does not naturally reflect the images of the organization’s or subculture’s dominate majority, they often resort to coping strategies in order to be successful or fit in. Occasionally, this results in adopting an organization’s culture that does not align with their own beliefs. Overtime, the individual begins to internalize this new way of thinking, believing that this is how the world should work. My first challenge to you is to stop taking on values that are not your own and start standing up for yourself. It is a rational safeguard if your initial response is to avoid “rocking the boat.” But consider the resounding impact this first step can make for yourself and others.
Maya Angelou once said “each time a women stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.” I challenge you; be brave enough to take that first step and stand up for yourself and what you believe it. I do not believe this will be easy, quite the contrary. I believe in you and the difference you can make. As I reflect upon a full career closing in on 20 years, I cannot convey strongly enough the influence that you have over those who are observing you without your knowledge. Think of it as the butterfly effect—one small change now can have an enormous rippling impact on the future. Every time you downplay a particularly difficult experience, you make it that much harder for those coming behind you who are experiencing a similar situation. Stop minimizing your challenges.
Next, be brave enough to stand up for others. You need to encourage each other. This will help break the cycle of feeling alone. It starts with one person pushing the preverbal boulder up the hill, but it takes a team to get it to the top. You can be that person who begins the boulder’s momentum. Oftentimes, struggles exist due to the majority not considering the perspective and needs of those that are not like-minded or have dissimilar experiences. It is natural and more comfortable for us to gravitate towards likeness and those who are similar to ourselves. Therefore, when you are able to help others, I urge you to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. You do not have to understand someone’s struggles or have experienced their challenges to make a difference of helping them excel.
Since this article is focused on women as a minority in the armed services, I offer you this third step to educating the force. We have reached a point where there are two or more of you, start finding your voice. Our issues are not highly guarded trade secrets that we pass from one women to the next. Take the opportunity to talk to members within your community about your concerns. Stand up in commander’s calls and speak about your experience to start normalizing these “female issues” as “our issues.” Start educating current and future leaders, both males and females alike. You will find that people want to help, but they do not understand the complexities, the unknowns, or perhaps misunderstood the real concern. Get smart on the topic and lead these conversations yourself.
From these three considerations I leave you with this: STOP HIDING IN THE DAMN BATHROOM, both in reality and symbolically! The Air Force outlined procedures and requirements to establish private, secure, and sanitary locations (not a bathroom) for the purpose of breastfeeding or expressing breast milk for our nursing mothers. The Air Force also outlined reasonable lactation breaks and a space in close proximity to their work location. Not only is this necessary for the member’s sense of inclusion and to continue to support nursing, but it is imperative to prevent conditions such as mastitis that can be very painful and cause high fevers. If the policy has changed, why am I still walking into bathrooms finding Airmen in stalls with their breast pumps? Culture does not change overnight or immediately following the instance a policy is written and published. Nor does it eliminate the negative parts of a culture that stigmatizes pregnancy. But dare I say it, do we as women bear some of this responsibility?
Every time a nursing mom does not ask for the space she is entitled to, she is telling the command team and her fellow Airmen that this is okay. She is saying that “my needs are less than those of other Airmen.” The desire to be a team player weighs on everyone and we all know that space and funds are tight. It may seem easier to decide to go to the bathroom, or to your car, or drive across to another building that might have some space, but this is at the expense of yourself, your own time, and the value we place upon you as an Airman. Represent the change you want for the younger Airmen that will follow in your footsteps, who are looking up to you right now. I promise you, there is an 18-year old future mom or supervisor that has observed your actions and internalizes them as unspoken direction that the bathroom is “good enough” for them. Your actions have taught them to keep their head down. If you are just starting out or if you are in a leadership position, I challenge you to do the right thing and to stand up for yourself. Because the reality is, what you do today, is standing up for all of us tomorrow.