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Air University students break down barriers for female Airmen

  • Published
  • By Phil Berube
  • Air University Public Affairs

Special Agent Alexandra Garced doesn’t have a need to wear it yet, but she knows of other female Airmen who avoid wearing the maternity service dress uniform at all costs.

The reasons for the avoidance, said the Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent, is that they say the uniform is “uncomfortable, not fashionable, don’t feel comfortable with it on, feeling like they stand out, and it’s expensive.”

“I have personally known women who purposely avoid attending Air Force functions in order to not wear the maternity service dress,” she said.

Instead of avoiding the subject altogether and letting those who have to wear the uniform deal with it, Garced has joined an enthusiastic group of fellow Squadron Officer School students at Air University dedicated to redesigning the uniform and researching other initiatives aimed at making women less inclined to leave the service earlier than planned.

She and four other classmates have been gathering regularly over the past six weeks to brainstorm options for a complete redo of the maternity service dress. Another group of five has been meeting to study possible breastmilk shipping reimbursement to nursing mothers who are on a short temporary duty assignment.

The students are doing their research as part of the Diversity and Inclusion topic in SOS’s Air University Advanced Research elective.

The topics were suggested by the Air Force Women’s Initiative Team, which is researching and promoting diversity and inclusion within the Air Force, said Lt. Col. Ginny Fausch, SOS Leadership Department director.

“WIT had two topics that they were currently exploring and wanted to solicit the ideas and efforts of SOS students to further study and pursue ways we can remove unnecessary barriers for women in the Air Force,” she said.

The WIT sits under the Air Force Barrier Analysis Working Group, which is chartered to identify and propose elimination of barriers to equal opportunity in the Air Force.

Along with displeasure with the maternity uniform, another barrier is the added personal expense of shipping breast milk back home for nursing Airmen.

Citing statistical information from a 2016 RAND Corporation study that held focus groups with 295 female Air Force officers, one of the SOS students studying this topic states that of the factors causing women to separate from the Air Force sooner than men, 85% of women cited issues related to pregnancy and how a pregnancy would fit in their career timeline.

“Furthermore, 46% of the focus groups cited issues related to breastfeeding as factors for determining their early separation,” said Capt. Tara Crouch, an acquisition officer. “Breastfeeding factors included proper facilities to pump breast milk and the ability to ship the breast milk while on temporary duty.”

Since publication of the RAND study, the Air Force released a breastfeeding facility policy in August 2019 outlining the requirement for commanders to provide lactation rooms for nursing mothers and provides guidance for lactation breaks.

With no current Air Force policy in place for reimbursing the personal costs of shipping breast milk, she said, mothers are left with three options: pump enough breast milk before the TDY; pay out of pocket for the costs of shipment; or bring the child, and associated childcare concerns, with them on TDY.

“All three options place the onus on the women and can act as deterrents for women to advance their careers, which includes having to go on TDYs,” Crouch said.

Both groups are close to coming up with possible solutions to propose to the WIT, but will graduate SOS before finalizing their research, said Maj. Jannel Black, 30th Student Squadron director of operations. The research, however, will continue with the next SOS class.

“At SOS, we ask our students to think and lead differently than they may have before in order to prevail in competitive environments,” Black said. “For the 10 students in this elective, they have absolutely done that, showing a high level of emotional intelligence in order to break down barriers for a large number of our Airmen.”