Air Force leader: Military should talk about service differently to recruit more women

Air Force leader: Military should talk about service differently to recruit more women
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Tuesday the military needs to change the way it talks about the idea of service if it hopes to recruit and retain more women.

“We’re, I think, trying to change a little bit the way we talk and think about who the protectors are in this country, because I think sometimes the way in which we talk about the services may appeal more to boys than to girls,” she told the House Armed Services Committee. “And that’s important, the way we talk about these things."

“If I asked everyone in this room to think, just close your eyes for a second and think about the most protective person you know in your life, someone who would do anything to keep you safe,” Wilson continued, before pausing. “Half the people in this room are thinking about their moms. We are the protectors. That’s what the military does. We serve to protect the rest of you, and that’s very natural place for a woman to be.”

Wilson, who served in the Air Force after graduating in 1982 from the U.S. Air Force Academy’s third class to include women, was responding to a question from Rep. Susan DavisSusan Carol DavisSupporting the military means supporting military spouses Sinema, Gallagher fastest lawmakers in charity race Republican's campaign accused of racism for referring to Palestinian opponent as a 'national security threat' MORE (D-Calif.) about how to better retain women in the military. 

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Davis said memos from the services to Congress discussed retention and recruitment, but did not address specific challenges in retaining women.

“More women than men, as we know, leave the military at various career points, so concerns persist that this attrition will result in a disproportionate impact to mission readiness if left unresolved,” Davis said.

In addition to changing the discourse about military service, Wilson said the Air Force Academy expects its highest percentage of women to enter the academy this year and that the Air Force is looking at ways to make it easier to leave based on life circumstances and come back without detriment to careers.

Army Secretary Mark Esper and Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, who were testifying alongside Wilson, likewise said their services are working to make it easier to leave the military to do something like start a family or get a degree and come back without penalties.

“Going forward, rest assured the Navy is really looking at this,” Spencer continued. “It’s game on because all three of us fish from the same pool and that pool is getting smaller and smaller both by qualification and by demographic size. We are going to be competing with the private sector. As the economy increases, we’re going to see more competition there. We’re going to use every single tool available to us.”

Esper also said a higher percentage of women are being accepted to the U.S. Military Academy.

He and Spencer also highlighted the opening of all combat jobs to women, which was done in 2016.

“They are doing very well,” Esper said of the women entering those jobs in the Army. “I’ve had the chance to visit with them, the units they’re in in both the National Training Center and at Fort Bragg. And at this point, under the 'Leaders First' policy, we have dozens of leaders in these battalion size units. So a lot of expansion happening there.”