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.
“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
A call to service is a call to sacrifice. Frequently, it is the family that makes the greatest sacrifice so that a loved one may serve. Their lives are filled with long separations and awaiting the inevitable move associated with a change in duty station. Often this is just after the family has finally settled in from the previous assignment. Their lives are filled with uncertainties; new schools, new jobs, friends left behind. Spouses are the glue that keep the family together when the challenge of service calls once again. There is no doubt our families are the true unsung heroes behind each successful service member.
Active duty members in a dual-military marriage face unique challenges balancing their careers with family. The armed services make an effort to match assignments for these couples when available. Unfortunately, given the member’s career field and available leadership opportunities, joint assignments may not be compatible with both members’ career goals. To continue serving, they may be forced to take separate duty stations with the “hope” of reuniting in their next assignments. Often these couples find themselves having to make the difficult decision of choosing whether to progress in their careers OR be stationed together.
Unfortunately, dual-military marriage is predominantly a “female issue.” In 2018, of the 671,591 married active-duty members in the Department of Defense (DoD), 12.9% were in dual-military marriages. Only 7.6% of men serving made up that dual-mil statistic. Almost half (44%) of active duty married women were dual-military.
That is not to discount that either gender may have a professional civilian spouse who has also influenced the family’s decision on whether to continue serving. Identified in their exit surveys, a spouse’s career path has been shown as causal to many members leaving the service. In Heather Penney and Miriam Krieger’s 2015 study, The Millennial Imperative, they state:
“Personnel management practices are predicated upon an outdated, 1950’s nuclear family model; the full-time domestic support of a portable, stay-at-home spouse is a necessary condition for most Airmen to be able to serve and promote without limiting factors on their career. Female officers are rarely partnered with such a spouse and thus often must sub-optimize their career, becoming less competitive for promotion and retention as a result.”
The study goes on to say American society no longer reflects the traditional nuclear model–women are a leading indicator for future retention problems in the millennial generation.
But let’s take a step back from the dual-military spouse and reflect upon who we marry. For both spouses to have successful careers with children, the parental responsibilities must not default to the woman. Your attitudes about family planning and equitable parental responsibilities will determine your success regardless of profession. We need to be more honest and have these difficult and less romantic conversations with our potential future spouse. Or, perhaps you are already married, and the complexity of work-life-balance is hitting you like a train. It’s never too late for your marriage to evolve and grow. Sheryl Sandberg discusses this in her book Lean In. She describes this search for balance in a chapter titled, “Make your partner a real partner.”
“According to the most recent analysis, when a husband and wife both are employed full-time, the mother does 40 percent more child care and about 30 percent more housework than the father. A 2009 survey found only 9 percent of people in dual-earner marriages said they shared housework, child care, and breadwinning evenly. So while men are taking on more household responsibilities, this increase is happening very slowly, and we are still far from parity. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, same-sex couples divide household tasks much more evenly.)”
No wonder many members throw the towel in and leave military service. That pace would run anyone into the ground and is not sustainable when combined with the additional demands of service. Don’t be afraid to seek support and change the status quo.
“My advice to someone with aspirations for a successful career in a serious relationship is to ask your partner in what situation would they consider changing their current career path for a relationship heading towards marriage? If the answer is a hard nothing, then swipe left and move on with your life.”
When my first child was born in 2012, my husband and I took an assignment apart to continue advancing in our careers. Our daughter lived with me. Luckily, he was only 90 minutes away attending a one year school while I continued to fly at an operational KC-135 unit. One morning my 5-month old daughter became ill, and I had to fly a mission that afternoon. I called my husband to ask him to miss school and drive up and stay with her. On the other end of the phone was silence. It just then occurred to me despite all the non-stop over planning we did for her arrival; finding the best day cares, sleep training books, best bottles to prevent gas… we never talked about or considered who would have to miss work if something unexpected came up. Like many new partners, we were naïve.
In my husband’s mind, this responsibility defaulted to the woman. He came from a background where his mother stayed at home with the children. In my mind, I was piloting a mission, and his school could wait. Either way, we both would get push back from our units. To complicate this, we did not have family around to support us because, just like every military family, we move from base to base and continuously have to start anew. I highlight this to tell you that we had to evolve and we could have avoided a lot of conflict and misunderstanding with a little more preparation and expectation management.
Fast forward 8 years, we have three children and both of us managed to keep promoting. My husband is an incredible father and, on more than one occasion, has pulled more than his weight when I handed him our children and deployed. Perhaps, being the primary and only caregiver of our children for long periods of time led him to the realization of the true workload of parenthood and gave him confidence. It also taught me I could let go of trying to do it all and my husband was more than capable of adapting to a more modern day role of fatherhood. Before he left command in 2018, he changed his unit’s weekly meeting to begin no earlier than 8:00 AM. His unit was 95% male and he made this change purposefully. The primary elementary school in the area started at 7:45 AM. As the commander, he did not want to push the burden of school drop-offs to spouses when such an easy adjustment could be made. He also created a playroom for the children in the unit and encouraged his squadron to bring their kids to work on school half-days instead of assuming their civilian spouse would automatically have to cover the logistics of those days. I’d like to say these types of considerations and acceptance is common, but it’s not.
At that same base, there were times on rare occasions, when I would bring my children to work when I was not flying and care was not available. I wish I could say that I was met with acceptance and support, but to be honest with you, I was not. There was a clear double standard for me. Some men missed work just as often, if not more so, to take their sick child to a doctor or a reoccurring appointment. My husband routinely took the lead and brought our oldest daughter to a weekly re-occurring medical appointment without adverse comment. Despite my average 50+ hour work week, I was counseled “out of concern” because I was occasionally coming in later in the morning. I made sure to never miss any important engagements and more than made up the time I was delayed due to supporting my children. But it was the “appearance” that concerned them. The men who missed work for their children were not counseled.
The priorities our leaders enforce are just as important as their leadership and acceptance. What kind of message are we sending to service members with our own policies? We have policies that allow women, but not men, to separate from service for having a baby. In Air Force Instruction 36-3208, Administration Separation of Airmen, it states, “women may find pregnancy and the expectation of motherhood incompatible with continued service.” The DoD also allows primary caregiver leave (6 weeks) and secondary caregiver leave (21 days) after having a baby. The female is almost always assumed to be the primary caregiver (after her 6 weeks of convalescent leave). Men often find resistance from their leadership when they try to become the primary caregiver. This mindset is effectively saying the responsibility of childcare is a women’s responsibility.
When our second child was born in 2014, my husband and I were stationed overseas. During this time, men were given seven days of leave for the birth of a child, I was given a total of six weeks. Having a newborn with an 18-month-old at home while overseas without support from extended family was challenging. My husband went to his leadership and asked if he could take 3 weeks of additional leave to help me out and was outright denied for no other reason it had never been done before. I ended up asking for 6 additional weeks of leave and was approved with no questions. Upon returning to work, I was re-qualified in the aircraft and was back accomplishing the mission.
Balancing raising children with a highly demanding job is difficult at the best of times. I love my children and desired to spend time with them, but I also found great satisfaction and fulfillment from my career and serving my country. However, with the lack of support and empathy, postpartum depression slowly crept in. It was a depression that I hid from others in part due to a growing fear that maybe I had dedicated my life to an institution not designed for me. Could I have avoided that depression had we been better supported? I can’t say for sure, but I know it would have helped a lot. All I knew at that time was I was coming up for a Lieutenant Colonel promotion board and I didn’t want to show any signs of weakness or be perceived that I had taken my foot off the pedal. I had already experienced being disadvantaged and discriminated against due to having a child. I was selected to interview for the executive officer position to the wing commander. It was canceled because I had just had a child, despite making it known to my leadership that I was willing and still wanted to compete for the opportunity. The interview I had scheduled for was canceled without my consent or consideration. The uphill battle of the addition of a new child, my spouse not being supported by his leadership to assist more, and my own experiences of the system prematurely denying me progression opportunities because of a newborn was a struggle to say the least.
Did I sacrifice alone? I did not. As my marriage evolved, my husband, a “fast-moving officer” selected early for promotion, started to make sacrifices to his career as well to keep our family together. No longer was my career the assumed back burner as it had been before. Although I am by no means destined for general officer, we have both been highly successful in making a positive impact on our Airmen and to the nation. We are both Lieutenant Colonels working in the Pentagon with three happy and healthy children. Who knows where we will be next. I would like to say our story of success is commonplace rather than the exception, but based on DoD retention and promotion data, it is not. My current boss is incredibly supportive of my family, and I hope with more supervisors like him and my husband, it will get even better.
In the last 5 years, many of our DoD policies have improved. But we still have a long way to go. Women are a minority in the military. In 2018, the percent of women by service was Army 15%, Navy 20%, Marine Corps 9%, Air Force 20%, and Coast Guard 15%. The number of women in the service needs to hit critical mass, which is defined as a sufficient number of adopters of a social system that can influence the majority before meaningful change will occur. Studies vary, but 30% is the most agreed-upon number. Our numbers are slowly rising but until then very deliberate policy changes need to continually evolve with the millennial generation. What is worrisome is the low representation of women at the highest levels of military leadership, especially women who are racial or ethnic minorities. As of February 2020 there were 38 active duty four star generals (O-10). Of that there was only one woman. Of the entire general officer population (876) there are only 7.4% women. Senior enlisted are slightly higher, hovering around 13%. Women’s retention rates are almost half of men for varying reasons, but most of them are centered on the compatibility of a family with service. Women with occupations that are more physically demanding encounter more barriers to their progression during pregnancy.
On a side note, if you are going to travel this path, I highly recommend increasing your domestic support to give yourself margin. We would not be able to do what we do today without our incredible nanny, who is essential to providing us the margin we need. I would encourage you to seek and receive help where you are able to. No one has ever become less of a parent or a leader because they hired someone to clean their toilet. Studies show it’s about quality time, not the quantity of time with your children.
Was this easy for this military mom? Hell no! Would I do it again? Hell yes! Can you have a family and a successful career in the military? Yes, you can! A lot will depend on you and your partner becoming a team with equitable parental responsibilities. Become those that share the burden to avoid being run into the ground, burned out, or eventually forced into defeat. Despite societal conditioning and policies that urge you to slow down when a man would not, resist the urge to make your career the automatic backseat when facing these challenges. Policy and culture will eventually catch up, stop holding yourself back until it does. This is hard but doable. So take a bit of advice from Sheryl Sandberg and “Lean In” ladies.
And with that, I leave you with the words a senior leader whom I look up to and admire once told me. “I can only imagine a day where our daughters will take this all for granted. That would be a fine day, don’t you think?”
Yes ma’am. Yes, it will.
Edited by Megan Biles
Featured Photo: Lt Col Nichelle Somers with her husband Lt Col Jason Somers. From the left children Lilah (5), Corbin (7), and Jett (3). Lt Col Nichelle Somers and her husband are Air Force pilots stationed at Kadena, Japan.
Active Duty Master Personnel File, Military Academies. Defense Manpower Data Center, March 2020.
Melissa A. Milkie, Sara B. Raley, and Suzanne M. Bianchi, “Taking on the Second Shift: Time Allocations and Time Pressures of U.S. Parents with Preschoolers,” Social Forces 88, no. 2 (2009): 487–517.
Heather Penney and Miriam Krieger, “Female Officer Retention and the Millennial Imperative, 2015 unpublished study.
Melissa A. Milkie, Sara B. Raley, and Suzanne M. Bianchi, “Taking on the Second Shift: Time Allocations and Time Pressures of U.S. Parents with Preschoolers,” Social Forces 88, no. 2 (2009): 487–517.
Scott S. Hall and Shelley M. MacDermid, “A Typology of Dual Earner Marriages Based on Work and Family Arrangements,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues 30, no. 3 (2009): 220.
Between 1965 and 2000, the amount of time per week that married fathers spent on child care almost tripled and the amount of time married fathers spent on housework more than doubled. In 1965, married fathers spent 2.6 hours per week on child care. In 2000, married fathers spent 6.5 hours per week on child care. Most of this increase occurred after 1985. In 1965, married fathers spent about 4.5 hours per week on housework. In 2000, married fathers spent almost 10 hours per week on housework. The largest increase in the time spent on housework took place between 1965 and 1985. The amount of time married fathers spend each week doing housework has not increased much since 1985. See Suzanne M. Bianchi, John P. Robinson, and Melissa A. Milkie, Changing Rhythms of American Family Life (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006). Analysis done by Hook (2006) of twenty countries found that between 1965 and 2003, employed, married fathers increased the amount of unpaid domestic work they performed by about six hours per week. See Jennifer L. Hook, “Care in Context: Men’s Unpaid Work in 20 Countries, 1965–2003,” American Sociological Review 71, no. 4 (2006): 639–60.
Letitia Anne Peplau and Leah R. Spalding, “The Close Relationships of Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals,” in Close Relationships: A Sourcebook, ed. Clyde A. Hendrick and Susan S. Hendrick (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000), 111–24; and Sondra E. Solomon, Esther D. Rothblum, and Kimberly F. Balsam, “Money, Housework, Sex, and Conflict: Same-Sex Couples in Civil Unions, Those Not in Civil Unions, and Heterosexual Married Siblings,” Sex Roles 52, nos. 9–10 (2005): 561– 75.