WASHINGTON -- Women are an integral part of the American military, and DOD officials are working to ensure their concerns are addressed.
Women make up roughly 20% of the Air Force, 19% of the Navy, 15% of the Army and 9% of the Marine Corps. Tens of thousands of women contribute every day to defending the nation. Their differences and needs must be considered for the United States military to function.
This is especially true since 2013, when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repealed the combat exclusion policy. From privates to four-star generals, women serve in every rank and can serve in any specialty in the military.
"I think we're doing a great job in terms of recruiting the right kinds of people, providing access to people from every corner, every walk of life in this country," Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said on CNN last year. "As long as you're fit and you can qualify, there's a place for you on this team."
But simply changing the policy is not the end of the process, and that is where programs like the Air Mobility Command's Reach Athena and the Department of the Air Force Women's Initiative Team come in. These groups look at the totality of women's service to find and eliminate barriers to ensure all can serve to their full potential.
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Air Force Maj. Jennifer N. Walters, who co-founded Reach Athena when she was stationed at Travis Air Force Base along with Major Kelsey Payton, said the program does build diversity in the military, but that is not the primary aim. "What it's for, is to identify policies that — intentional or not — are driving our talent away, or repelling them from the Air Force," she said in an interview. Reach Athena — named after the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare — began in 2020 and is headquartered at Scott Air Force Base. The Air Combat Command has Sword Athena looking at barriers in that Air Force major command. The Women's Initiative Team is at the Department of the Air Force level and began in 2008. All work together.
The WIT is part of a seven-team barrier-analysis working group. It "specifically looks at women's initiatives to decrease or remove barriers impacting women's service in the Department of the Air Force in order to increase force-wide effectiveness," Air Force Maj. Megan Biles said. "We look at existing policy which impacts women's propensity to serve and elevate solutions to senior leaders."
The idea is to identify anything that is antiquated or impedes mission success. "Our capabilities, technology and missions have evolved, as has the population which currently serves today," Biles said. "Future conflicts do not have the same requirements that past conflicts had. How we train and our requirements need to be evaluated and must evolve to ensure we are recruiting and training the most effective force. That means enacting policies and best practices designed to intentionally develop those serving today, not keeping outdated standards only for the sake of tradition or because that is how we've always done it."
Leaders realized some of these outdated policies disproportionately affect one gender. And have empowered the WIT to help eliminate them.
It is not just policies that these groups study, but equipment, uniforms, gear, grooming and other processes. "A lot of times folks will identify an issue at the tactical level and pass it up the line," Walters said.
The groups also work with other service counterparts to share experiences, solutions and best practices.
One example was that body armor — designed for men — is not a good fit for women. Another was the requirement for women to wear their hair in a bun. Pilots found that having a bun made the helmets fit poorly, impacting safety, Walters said. These grooming changes made their way up the food chain, and Air Force leaders approved them last year.
The height/weight requirements are another area under scrutiny. The groups are looking at the reasons behind some of these requirements. Women are generally shorter than men. "If there is a mission requirement driving the height restrictions, that's fine," Biles said. " Our analysis provides recommendations to evolve requirements that were developed 50-60 years ago, which were based on anthropometric averages from a different demographic than currently serves today. The result of not updating these policies is an artificial limitation regarding recruitment potential into key military positions."
Pregnancy is another area of discussion. At one time, if a woman became pregnant, she was involuntarily discharged from service. Now, of course, women can continue to serve while pregnant. But there are still limitations pertaining to pregnant aviators that the barrier analysis groups are examining. Previously, if a woman became pregnant, she was automatically taken off flight status. "Now we've opened the aperture so that you can fly during the second trimester," Walters said. "But we're looking at [Federal Aviation Administration] practices and what commercial airlines do. They allow women to fly through the majority of the pregnancy without placing the mothers or the missions at risk."
The Air Force is now investigating the possibility of allowing aviators with doctor confirmed "uncomplicated pregnancies" to continue flying longer, which would increase readiness and positively impact culture.
Tied to this is the issue of breastfeeding. Most obstetricians and pediatricians recommend mothers breastfeed their babies. If they are home stationed, women can use a breast pump to feed their children while at work. The problem comes when mission requirements drive temporary dislocation. The groups are looking for ways to ship the breast milk home.
There are undoubtedly other areas where there may be barriers to women's service. These barrier analysis groups will continue to work to enable women to contribute to national defense.