A Closer Look at the SecAF’s Diversity Initiatives

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James speaks at the Center for a New American Security's Women and Leadership in National Security conference. (Photo: U.S. Air Force, Scott M. Ash).
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James speaks at the Center for a New American Security’s Women and Leadership in National Security conference. (Photo: U.S. Air Force, Scott M. Ash).

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James published two service-wide emails this past week (found here and here) detailing a comprehensive set of new initiatives designed to enhance the Air Force’s diversity and inclusiveness. In her message, James aptly proclaims that the future strategic agility of the Air Force is keyed to the variety of ideas and perspectives accessible within its leadership class.

Her announcement comes on the heels of remarks delivered at the Center for a New American Security Women and Leadership in National Security conference on March 4th, words later captured in an Air Force Times article essentially mimicking James’ email to airmen. Her premise is that bold new action is required to ensure a viable future service reflective of the society it defends.

There’s much to admire in James’ proposals.

Relaxing height restrictions for female Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets applying for pilot training is a no-brainer that will result in significantly greater numbers of female pilots and greater overall competition for pilot slots. This will boost the quality of each pilot candidate selected for training.

A program focused on finding strong officer candidates from among the enlisted ranks is also a positive means of strengthening the officer corps, though it’s not immediately clear how this particular initiative will increase diversity.

Perhaps most ingenious is James’ approval of a three-year sabbatical program that will allow a small number of officers to temporarily leave the service and rejoin a few years later without losing competitiveness. Such a proposal could dramatically enhance the attractiveness of a long-term career for those struggling to balance family timing — especially childbirth — with the intense and fluid demands of service. This is also a great way to allow officers to build some mid-life perspective in the private sector, which can then be recapitalized into the service’s intellectual base. This is a great idea that will hopefully be maximized.

That said, James’ list is arguably not all good. Her plan contains a few potential pitfalls, and some of the logic behind it creates reason to question whether her ideas live up to the standard of boldness James set for herself and the Air Force in this policy area. Three of her initiatives are particularly worthy of further debate. Each concerns disparate treatment on the basis of diversity criteria.

One of James’ policy changes doubles the current post-pregnancy deployment deferment period from six to twelve months. The goal of this change is to reduce the burden on “some of our talented airmen [who choose] to leave the Air Force as they struggle to balance deployments and family issues, and this is especially true soon after childbirth,” James said.

Pursuit of this change is rooted in a sound intuition that the nature of modern service life places an unsustainable burden on families, often pushing family-minded people out of uniform. But implementing this policy in an Air Force under the crushing strain of a chronically high deployment tempo will create new consequences, including resentment at unit level when the burdens of deployment fall unequally.

Leaders — especially those in high-tempo squadrons — already struggle to balance the existing policy against the enduring need to place the burdens of service fairly and equitably upon the backs of all airmen, and it is inevitable that some will manipulate the new policy by timing pregnancies to tactically avoid deployment. Thusly exploited, this sort of policy exception can lead to debilitating breakdowns in unit cohesion.

This is not to suggest that James should build her policy around the lowest common denominator. She’s right to see this initiative as critical to retaining more women (and family-focused men) in the future.

But the bold answer is not to modestly calibrate existing policies within a climate of unacceptable family strain. The bold answer is to reduce strain on the force.

Many deployments remain on the books that are unnecessary. Airmen continue to come home from their tours reporting that they added scant value to any discernible downrange mission, and performed tasks that could have been done from a computer terminal anywhere in the world (if those tasks required an airman or even an American adult human in the first place).

To cultivate a strong future by giving airmen the ability to better balance mission and family, the truly visionary move would be for Secretary James to use her authority to order a service-level audit of all deployments. She should then remove support for those that don’t require airmen, can be done without physical presence, or are otherwise unjustifiable on the cost/benefit merits.

This approach would help return tempo to a sustainable level, giving commanders the flexibility to accommodate pregnancies and other family considerations when constructing deployment plans. Commanders already want to give new mothers at least a year after childbirth before deployment vulnerability. They want to give new fathers the same thing. If the goal is to retain not just more women per se, but more men and women who are sensitive to the demands of new motherhood, enabling more latitude across the board is how James should attack. As it stands, her proposal is a well meaning half-measure rather than a bold choice.

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Another initiative seeks to raise the percentage of female applicants for commissioning opportunities from 25% to 30%. This could be seen as a genuine attempt to raise the representation of women in the future Air Force to a level more closely mirroring society at-large, and can be taken as a welcome discarding of the tired idea that military service is or should be inherently male-dominated.

Says James, “I’m one who thinks we ought to be able to do better. Let’s go for it. Let’s try. So we are setting an applicant pool goal of 30 percent.” This seems unassailable at first glance.

But a more critical read is that James’ approach here is mostly political, designed to map out a modest and achievable objective that can be held up as a perceptual victory. Her approach tracks closely with a recent German parliament negotiation advancing a 30% minimum female board representation among 108 of the country’s listed corporations. Opponents of the measure argued that it was more appeasement than substance, and didn’t go far enough.

In carefully circumscribing her objective, James reveals nettlesome logic. Setting a 30% applicant pool metric for women means, by definition, setting a 70% applicant pool metric for men. This, by definition, advantages men in the application process by attuning far more of the service’s officer recruitment resources to the pursuit of male candidates than that committed to the pursuit of female candidates.

Quota systems such as this one could be found legally problematic if substantially challenged. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that gender be irrelevant to employment decisions, a principle upheld in the landmark Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins Supreme Court decision in 1989. Since James’ initiative involves the shaping of the recruit pool rather than specific recruitment decisions, it probably steers clear of illegality, even if it does thwart the intent of gender-blind employment opportunity by affirming an unequal focus on male recruiting.

But even if it’s not unlawful, this proposal comes up well short of the boldness to which James aspires. A truly visionary move would be to set a goal for 50% of the applicant pool to be comprised of women. This would shape officer recruitment to accurately reflect society while giving women and men an equal opportunity to maneuver into contention for Air Force commissioning opportunities.

Would the service fall short of a 50% goal? Almost certainly, at least at first. The ingrained norm of male-dominant military service will take time to unravel, even if it hasn’t been justifiable for a long time and least of all in the Air Force. But that’s part of what boldness is all about: being willing to set goals beyond easy reach in order to force the entire institution into a genuine stretch play capable of changing its fundamental character.

Recruitment pool objectives, and the quotas they generate, are vestigial anachronisms ripe for discarding. But if they must remain as a means of ensuring legacy barriers to female representation are kept lowered, they should be set at levels that reflect truly equal opportunity.

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By far James’ most problematic proposal is one that threatens to warp promotion boards into factories of inequitable assessment, which would forcefully upend her stated objective of removing barriers to equal opportunity.

James says she will issue instructions to officer promotion boards to “find officers who have demonstrated that they will nurture and lead in a diverse and inclusive Air Force culture.”

This is problematic for a number of reasons, most of all the potential to confuse the critically important work of promotion boards. Her words are quite vague, but James seems to be referring to qualities already expected of every Air Force officer. If this is the case, her instruction carries no meaning, and thus does no constructive work in the promotion process.

However, the potential malignancy in this setup is that board members are not free to assume James’ instruction means nothing. They will struggle to subjectively impute meaning into her words, and to find performance data that gives operative usefulness to her words in the board process.

To the extent the concepts to which she refers are discernible, it’s difficult to imagine how board members could be capable of determining which officers demonstrated those qualities. It’s even more difficult to think that such demonstration would be annunciated in a way that allows performance to be differentiable. In other words, board members won’t have sufficient data to make the judgment she seems to be asking them to make.

How will board members compensate for problems of vagary, data insufficiency, and confusion? They’ll likely apply a background rule to make their best effort at discharging the Secretary’s intent, and it’s reasonable to predict that the chosen default will be to assume “diverse” officers are best qualified to “nurture and lead in a diverse and inclusive Air Force culture.” In other words, James’ instruction invites promotion boards to make diversity factors relevant in employment decisions.

Whether this is a problem or not depends on what is meant by “diversity.”

Oddly, James herself has not defined the word in any of her recent public appearances or written communications. She has applied the term as though her audiences already understand what it is, compounding the vagary problem detailed above. But judging her words by the company they keep, we can conclude she’s pushing for, inter alia, greater gender equality, having focused several of her proposals specifically on women and having premiered her ideas at an event focused on the critical role of women in national security.

In the absence of a public statement to the contrary, it’s reasonable to assume James intends for her initiatives to track with the Air Force’s previously established definitions of diversity and inclusiveness. The Air Force’s official website defines diversity, quite expansively, as:

“[a] composite [sic] of individual characteristics, experiences, and abilities consistent with the Air Force Core Values and the Air Force Mission. Air Force diversity includes but is not limited to: personal life experiences, geographic background, socioeconomic background, cultural knowledge, educational background, work background, language abilities, physical abilities, philosophical/spiritual perspectives, age, race, ethnicity, and gender.”

By this definition, James appears to be telling promotion boards to make gender (along with race and ethnicity) relevant in promotion decisions. In doing so, she may very well be inviting promotion boards to violate the spirit if not the letter of federal law.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies generally to federal government employers, states in §703(a)(1) that

“[i]t shall be unlawful employment practice for an employer to . . . discharge any individual, or to otherwise discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

In the up-or-out officer promotion system, non-selection for promotion is equivalent to delayed-impact termination. Boards decide not just who will advance, but who will be discharged for failing to advance. This means promotion board decisions cannot be based upon the factors prohibited by §703, including several James seems to include in her proposed board instruction.

The Price Waterhouse decision created an expansive prohibition against sex stereotyping in employment decisions. In that case, a female candidate for partnership in an accounting firm prevailed by proving that her employer denied her candidacy because she was “insufficiently feminine.” The Supreme Court termed this practice “prescriptive sex discrimination,” since the employer insisted that the candidate possess or adopt certain traits and characteristics because she was a woman.

But the Court also identified another type of prohibited conduct, termed “ascriptive discrimination.” This occurs when an employer assumes an individual possesses certain qualities or attributes merely as a result of gender that make her unqualified for a particular position. This is the sort of stereotyping James risks creating with her promotion board edict. It’s not difficult to imagine, based on how her instruction is likely to operate, future legal complaints alleging failure to promote a candidate based on the individual being deemed “insufficiently diverse,” which would be a form of discrimination.

Can there be multiple reasons why someone is or is not selected for promotion, including a mixture of appropriate and inappropriate factors? Absolutely. In the case of Air Force officer promotions, which are based on the ubiquitous “whole person concept,” it’s always the case that many elements play a role in a given decision. But if even one of the reasons for a decision is prohibited, the decision is subject to legal attack.

And well it should be, since without a regime to police the subtle use of inappropriate rationale, boards could simply use legitimate explanations to mask illegal decisions based on pretextual reasons. In other words, letting board off the hook if it says “we didn’t choose John because he was a white male, but also because he wasn’t the best commander” isn’t enough to meet the law on its required terms. Illegitimate factors must be irrelevant to the decision altogether.

This isn’t intended as an exhaustive legal analysis or an assertion that James’ policies are for sure against the law. But it is intended to raise valid questions about how they are likely to operate, and to wonder aloud whether the service has unwittingly fielded a policy unlikely to stand the tests it will certainly face.

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Is the Air Force, for lack of a better phrase, “dumb enough” to create a diversity initiative that violates federal law? The answer is in the service’s recent track record. Just last year, the service altered the oath of office in a way that made it potentially unconstitutional, reversing under public pressure. Also last year, two different senior officers abused investigative authority to trash the careers of officers they’d relieved of command. The Air Force’s former chief prosecutor made the decision to head a nonprofit focused on reducing the service’s legal authority, based in part on his professional judgment that the service is unmoored from the law. Just recently, a 2-star general found himself under investigation for allegedly restricting subordinates from contacting Congress, demonstrating in the process a breathtaking lack of understanding of the legal rights of his airmen. So yes, it’s entirely possible that James and her staff have not thoroughly considered the ramifications of her initiatives, and that further review could lead to significant revisions.

But James could easily sidestep all of these potential issues related to her promotion board order by rescinding it and instead exercising some of the bold leadership she urges from airmen.

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The answer to question “how can the Air Force create a more diverse officer corps, in every meaningful sense of the word?” is not “by encouraging promotion boards to tip the scales in favor of diverse candidates.” The answer is to create a healthy institutional climate within which James’ admirable aspirations can effectively bloom and flourish.

James first step should be to change how she and her fellow senior officials talk about these issues — not just gender, which has been the main focus of this analysis, but race, ethnicity, age, and every other diversity factor it considers relevant. Even as she rolled out her policy, James embraced a woolly and euphemism-laden narrative, muddling her own message and leaving subordinates grappling to define her intent and expectations.

Said James: “[b]y affirming our commitment to diversity and inclusion, we amplify the value of our airmen and their families.” Sounds swell, but no one knows what that means except for (maybe) James herself.

This is not to suggest that talking about race, ethnicity, and gender issues is easy. These are sensitive subjects, with commanders unsure how to cultivate discussion around them without offending people or generating official complaints. This has led mostly to avoidance of the issues altogether, resulting in the service making insufficient headway in actually becoming more diverse.

But it has also led to clumsy attempts to understand and advance the cause of equality. White males are sometimes told directly or indirectly that they’re part of the problem. They’re sometimes told that they don’t understand diversity because they’re in the majority. These regrettably ham-handed attempts to broach the subject reflect a lack of example setting at the very top by James and her cohort. They also predict how promotion boards will react to a new obligation to champion diversity.

Without more clarity, openness, and candor on the subject of diversity, leaders will continue to confuse visible differentness with actual diversity, and will say and do things that create more problems than James’ modest inputs could ever solve. To change service culture in this regard, she must first shift the climate.

Trying to bureaucratically superimpose some sort of clunky diversity model upon standing processes without changing the climate within which those processes operate is not only an invitation to ethical, moral, and perhaps legal entanglements . . . it’s doomed to fail. The answer to this problem is not to tweak promotion percentages at the mid-level or upper tier of the officer corps, but to win the hearts and minds of officers at the entry level such that they build a truly diverse institution over the course of their careers. This latter approach not only gets beyond superficial tweaking and into systemic improvement, but it avoids the potentially caustic prospect of having promotions based on anything other than superior performance. It will take time, but it’s also more bold than the currently embraced alternative of “showing movement” without making sure that movement is travel toward the ultimate objective.

So how should James proceed? Fix the Air Force. Rebuild squadrons by restoring manning and organic support. Eradicate additional duties. Reduce deployment tempo. Slow down change of station cycles. Fire commanders who abuse power or demonstrate toxicity. Fire commanders who fail to take care of airmen. Promote and place into key roles those leaders who excel — out-of-cycle when circumstances warrant. End micromanagement. Hire trustworthy leaders and trust their assessments. Allow a constructive and positive climate to re-emerge and replace the currently demoralized and toxic state of many units. Understand that the sizable change sought is inconsistent with a conservative organizational climate that blocks change and abhors new ideas. Do these things, and a philosophy that ties diversity accurately to mission excellence will be warmly received and energetically implemented. With the Air Force in its current tatters, it’s tough to imagine lasting change taking root.

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Many will criticize Secretary James by saying that her diversity program goes too far. But in truth, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. By proposing achievable but conservative measures, James illustrates that there’s no such thing as a bold half-measure. Her initiatives are well meaning, but they’re expedient, designed as much to show movement as to generate change. This is a continuation of an overly political leadership culture atop the Air Force, and it can be safely predicted that such politically motivated inputs will do little good while inflicting new and interesting harms.

Diversity is important. James is spot-on about that. When too many people share too much commonality, insularity and Groupthink become endemic. This is how wars are lost. Indeed, diversity is too important to be left to politicians. Instead, James must lead and empower other leaders. Not with slick-sounding rhetoric, but with a solid example, bold change, and real resources. She made a modest start, but it’s not enough.

More important than a diverse future is how we get there. Decisively destroying barriers is critical. But attempting shortcuts to a strong culture rather than painstakingly and boldly constructing the right culture is a shortcut to failure along a road dotted with resentment, frustration, and degraded teamwork. There are few things more wrong than placing someone into a role he or she did not earn on the merits. Not only does this offend elemental fairness, it leaves the individual struggling against expectations that may or may not be warranted, likely riddled with self-doubt and confronted with suspicions from others. Performance grows from confidence, and confidence grows from knowing an opportunity was properly, cleanly, and fairly earned.

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When it comes to any important issue, false boldness is worse than real timidity. False boldness creates the insincere impression of constructive action and forward movement, causing alertness to fade and pressure to diminish. This makes the status quo more insidiously resistant to change. This is, of course, the recurring story of politics, which regularly rides the rails of false bravado. Leadership, on the other hand, creates genuine results. But it’s much more difficult, and demands real boldness.

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