Women in the Army and Air Force will soon be getting twice as much paid maternity leave, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Thursday.
“This puts the DOD in the top tier of institutions nationwide,” he said of the new policy that gives women in all branches of the military 12 weeks for paid maternity leave.
The changes are part of Carter’s “Force of the Future” initiative, which aims to attract and retain recruits by modernizing policies to better compete with the private sector.
“Fairness is important, but always, always mission effectiveness of our force comes first,” he said. “We’re not Google. We’re not Wal-Mart. We’re fighters. That does not mean we should be not be challenging ourselves just like the private sector.”
Carter’s announcement is the latest move toward gender parity at the Pentagon, following his decision late last year to open all combat positions to women.
For the Navy and Marines, the 12-week standard is actually a reduction in paid maternity leave. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who also oversees the Marines, had announced over the summer that the two branches would allow 18 weeks for maternity leave.
Carter settled on 12 weeks, he said, as he felt it balances both competitive leave and readiness. Sailors and Marines who are already pregnant will be able to take the 18 weeks promised to them, Carter added.
“Twelve weeks is extremely generous,” he said. “It puts us in the very top tier of American employers. We leaned very far forward.”
For paternity leave, Carter wants to raise it from 10 to 14 days. Changes to paternity leave will require approval from Congress.
Child care center hours will be increased from 12 to 14 so service members will have childcare from “before reveille to after taps,” Carter said.
The Defense Department will also work to be more accommodating to breastfeeding mothers by adding rooms they can use to any facility with more than 50 women.
Carter also announced the launch of a pilot program to cover the cost freezing eggs and sperm. The program will provide peace of mind for service members that they will be able to start a family even if they are injured in combat in a way that affects fertility, he said.
Service members will also be able to request to stay at a base of their choice for family reasons in exchange for an additional active-duty obligation, Carter said. Granting that request will be at the discretion of the base commanders, as will the nature of the additional job, depending on the needs of the force.
“What we do to demonstrate we’re family-friendly force is absolutely essential to our future force strength,” he said. “The stresses of military services to families are heavy and well known. Having and raising children is near the top.”