Air Force takes steps to clear path for women’s advancement

When Alexandra Jackson joined the West Virginia Air National Guard in 2018, she was looking forward to becoming a pilot with the 167th Airlift Wing, like her father. But at 5-foot-1, three inches shorter than the minimum standard, Jackson soon learned she would need a waiver to fly her unit’s C-17 transport plane and one of the two trainer aircraft before that.

a person sitting in a car: Alexandra Jackson

Alexandra Jackson

Jackson applied for the waivers but was denied. “It was heartbreaking, to say the least,” she said.

She then sought a different exception that sometimes is granted if pilot candidates can pass a separate measurement exam conducted in the aircraft cockpit. Her superiors in the Air National Guard had never conducted such a test for the C-17 and had to work with Air Force officials to create one. She eventually passed and recently learned she can begin officer training school next year.

Jackson was elated but also frustrated by the delay. Had the cockpit been designed to accommodate a wider range of body sizes, she would be in the final stages of training, or perhaps already flying. “Hopefully I’m just paving the way for people to come,” she said.

Now, the Air Force is discarding its decades-old height standards, which have disqualified nearly half of female candidates and had a particular impact on women of color. The new standards are part of an effort to eliminate often overlooked obstacles to the advancement of women in a service whose leadership and pilot corps are overwhelmingly male.

The plans, which are in development or beginning to take effect, also include the first-ever flight suit for pregnant aircrew and a design contest for devices that would allow female aircrew to more easily urinate in flight.

Service leaders say there is new urgency to securing a larger pool of qualified pilots and aircrew — a challenge that will require more eligible women — so the United States can compete with China’s larger, quickly modernizing military.

Even as Pentagon leaders call for an end of racial and gender discrimination in the military following the upheaval that gripped the nation this summer, other barriers for female advancement persist across the Air Force and other services.

Those include a problematic record on responding to sexual harassment and assault; pregnancy bias, which a new Pentagon policy listed as a prohibited form of discrimination for the first time; and a host of smaller challenges that can make it harder for female service members to advance or that lead women to view military and family life as incompatible.

The military has taken significant steps toward eliminating the second-class status of female service members, such as opening ground combat positions to women, said Kayla Williams, an Army veteran who directs the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Still, “having to consistently navigate a cultural environment full of implications that you do not belong and are unwanted is exhausting,” she said. “Rooting out deeply entrenched cultural norms and stereotypes will

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