Thousands of women across the Air Force provided feedback to the Women’s Initiative Team, playing a pivotal role in the first women’s hair policy change in 70 years. On February 19, 2021, U.S. Air Force senior leaders directed a second racial, gender and ethnic disparity review of racial, gender and ethnic disparity in the Department of the Air Force.
Empowered Airmen Can Solve Any Problem
In August of 2020, General C.Q. Brown, Jr. released a series of action orders to “Accelerate Change or Lose.” The guidance states that in order to compete with near-peer adversaries, the U.S. Air Force must re-examine which attributes the service requires to fight and win in a high-end fight. Gen. Brown’s strategic approach describes a ‘people-first’ approach that enhances the quality of life of Airmen and their families and improves the U.S. Air Force’s ability to be an attractive service for future prospects.
General Brown’s guidance reads, “We must develop leaders with the appropriate tools to create and sustain an environment in which all Airmen can reach their full potential, valuing the many aspects of diversity within our Air Force. These efforts must also enhance the quality of service and quality of life for our Airmen and their families, making the U.S. Air Force an attractive career choice for all Americans.”
Women’s Initiative Team
Maj. Alea Nadeem, a Reserve Airman who serves as the leader of the Air Force Women’s Initiative Team, has played a key role in bringing about positive changes for women across the Air Force. Major Nadeem teamed up with Master Sgt. Jonathon Lind, a fellow leader who was made aware of the issues with the female hair policy when one of his young Airmen experienced complications first-hand. Master Sgt. Lind’s wife, a fellow Airman, also remarked that she was considering leaving the Air Force due to the same issues.
Together, the Airmen were able to collect input and data from thousands of women Airmen across the force and present their findings to decision makers. With the backing of dozens of commanders and years of research and data in hand, they went on to deliver their findings to the 101st Air Force Uniform Board. Their report stated that constraints to hair grooming standards resulted in damage to hair, migraines and in some cases, hair loss. Additionally, the feedback revealed that the existing hair policy had failed to support a culture of inclusion for almost a quarter of Total Force Airmen.
On January 21, 2021, the Air Force announced that women would be permitted to wear their hair in two new styles - two braids or a single ponytail. The 101st Air Force Uniform Board sourced ideas from Airmen across the Air Force, including the thousands of Air Force women who provided feedback to the Women’s Initiative Team. The Air Force chief of staff approved the new policy after considering feedback from the force, the uniform board recommendation, and the professional image and standards of the Air Force and U.S. military.
The hard work, dedication and thoughtful risk-taking displayed by Maj. Alea Nadeem and Master Sgt. Jonathan Lind has garnered attention across the service, including top Air Force leadership. In a news release dated Jan 21, 2021, the 101st Uniform Board recognized the Women’s Initiative Team for their research and support.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass also voiced her support saying, “In addition to the health concerns we have for our Airmen, not all women have the same hair type, and our hair standards should reflect our diverse force. I am pleased we could make this important change for our women service members.”
In December of 2020, the Air Force released its first report on the findings of an Air Force Inspector General independent review into racial disparity. The IG report defines racial disparity as "existing when the proportion of a racial/ethnic group within the subset of the population is different from the proportion of such groups in the general population."
The review goes on to state that while the presence of a disparity alone is not evidence of racism, discrimination, or disparate treatment, it presents a concern that requires more in-depth analysis. Key stakeholders within the Air Force and Space Force have now been tasked to identify the root causes of these disparities.
The report also states that the data does not address why racial disparities exist in these areas, and that while the data shows race is a correlating factor, it does not necessarily indicate causality. While the first investigation was focused on Black/African American Airmen and space professionals, future efforts of the review will not be exclusive to a single minority group.
On February 19, 2021, Air Force senior leaders directed the Department of the Air Force Inspector General to conduct an additional independent review of racial, gender and ethnic disparity in the Department of the Air Force.
Senior leaders stated that “Ensuring fair and equitable discipline and development for all our Airmen and Guardians is critical. We are committed to promoting an environment free from personal, social and institutional barriers that might prevent our members from rising to their highest potential. Diversity makes us a stronger and more capable force.”
Additionally, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning Initiative Team (LIT) and the Indigenous Nations Equality Teams (INET) were formally established by the Department of the Air Force in early 2021 under the umbrella of its Barrier Analysis Working Group.
Originally created in 2008, the Barrier Analysis Working Group was dedicated to analyzing data, trends and barriers to service for the civilian workforce. Since then, the group’s focus has broadened to include Airmen as well. As of March 2021, the Department of the Air Force has established the following initiative teams:
Black/African American Employment Strategy Team, Disability Action Team, Hispanic Empowerment and Action Team, Indigenous Nations Equality Team, LGBTQ Initiative Team, Pacific Islander/Asian American Community Team and Women’s Initiatives Team.
Airmen or Guardians interested in getting involved with the Barrier Analysis Working Group should contact SAF/ODI at SAF.ODI.Workflow@us.af.mil.
Hair Regulations / AFI 36-2903: https://go.usa.gov/xsrra
Feature image: U.S. Air Force photo by Chief Master Sgt. Jaimee Freeman