US military draws a line: No more bias against pregnant soldiers

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An Air Force officer had been voted by her unit as the No. 1 person they’d like to go to war with. She was told she was next in line for an instructor pilot upgrade – an important career step. But when her commanders found out she was pregnant, they took her off that list. 

“They didn’t even ask me,” says the lieutenant colonel, who asked not to be identified by name because of the potential impact on her career.

Such stories are too common in the U.S. armed forces, according to a Government Accountability Office report this year, concluding that pregnancy is one of the top reasons enlisted women leave the service.

This month, however, the Department of Defense banned discrimination against pregnant service members. The question moving forward is how to advance the culture so that military women – and men – can transform the workplace for the better.

“I feel a duty to make the Air Force stronger before I leave,” says Lt. Col. Jessica Ruttenber, who serves on the Air Force’s Women’s Initiative Team at the Pentagon.

One day shortly after Lt. Col. Jessica Ruttenber went back to work as an Air Force pilot following the birth of her first child in 2011, the controls on her jet started malfunctioning – an in-flight emergency. Unable to safely land, “I had to go up really high and start trouble-shooting for hours.” 

As the flight commander, she was well trained to solve complex problems in air. What was new was that back at home, she was breastfeeding and needed to pump regularly during the workday – an exigency she skipped during that flight. 

Ultimately, she touched down safely, “and as I relaxed, the milk just started flowing out of me,” drenching the front of her flight suit, she says. There were emergency responders, as well as the squadron commander, standing by on the flight line to meet her. “Luckily, I had a flight jacket on.” She zipped it up, greeted her colleagues, finished some paperwork in the office, and went home.

The incident could have convinced her to embrace formula. Instead, she realized it was important to be more “unapologetic” about the requirements of breastfeeding. “Even women that don’t have a job with four walls and a predictable schedule need to make their physiological needs a priority,” she says. “Had I communicated better with my crew and been more directive – instead of worrying about the stigma that comes along with lactation breaks – I would have pumped before walking out to the aircraft.” 

Moving forward, that’s what Colonel Ruttenber did – and she pumped on the aircraft as well when she needed to. 

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In the years since, the Pentagon has acknowledged the call to make life more equitable for pregnant service members. In 2016, for example – five years after Colonel Ruttenber had her first child – the Defense Department mandated that the military create lactation spaces for women. 

Major step toward equality 

One year ago, the Air Force updated a policy for remotely piloted aircrew expecting babies. Previously restricted from flying drones, they can now continue to work without a special medical waiver. 

It was only this month, however, that the Department of Defense banned discrimination against pregnant service members outright – a major step toward equality for women in the armed forces, advocates say.

A report last year from the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) had sounded the alarm against the “continued persistence of negative attitudes towards pregnancy and pregnant servicewomen in the military” and warned that these troops often experience “negative impacts on their career.” A study released in May from the U.S. Government Accountability Office bears this out, concluding that pregnancy is one of the top reasons enlisted women leave the service.

Now that the policy leap has come to pass, the question moving forward, advocates add, is how to advance the culture so that military women – and men – can transform the workplace for the better.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that this ban on discrimination means that those in senior positions are paying attention to the work of DACOWITS into things that aren’t working very well for women, for families,” says Kayla Williams, director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. That said, she adds, “As in so many policy changes, the devil is in the implementation – local commands need to take it seriously.” 

“They didn’t even ask me”

One Air Force lieutenant colonel, who didn’t want to be identified because of the potential impact on her career, says she found that her commanders were not ill-intentioned. Quite the opposite, in fact. They were often kindly solicitous – and that’s where the problems started. 

When she became pregnant, she applied for and received a waiver to be in the cockpit during her second trimester. Her boss, however, refused to let her fly. “His wife had a difficult pregnancy, and he was protecting me. He’s a great guy, but he kind of removed my choice there, right? I wanted to fly, I wanted to contribute, but he took my choice away.” 

A 2020 Ph.D. study from Maj. Cary Balser, who works in the Air Force’s plans and programs office, found that removing pregnant women from the workplace – even if well-intentioned – will have negative impacts on their military careers.

The Air Force officer had been voted by her unit as the No. 1 person they’d like to go to war with – a notable nod in a male-dominated squadron. She was told she was next in line for an instructor pilot upgrade – an important step in her career. But when her commanders found out she was pregnant, they took her off that list. “They didn’t even ask me,” she says. 

After she had the second child, she asked for the upgrade again. “I said, ‘Here’s my mitigation plan. I have an on-call nanny. My husband and I share the load 50/50.” Their response: “‘A mom needs to be with her baby. You should take more time to recuperate.’ My supervisor told me, ‘My wife didn’t think straight for a year after she had a baby.’”

Ultimately, she decided to leave active duty and is now flying planes for a major airline, while continuing to serve as a reservist. And when she learned she was pregnant with her third child, she saw some considerable differences in how her two workplaces handled the news. The major airline congratulated her and told her they would make sure she didn’t have any routes that flew through zones with outbreaks of the Zika virus.

In her reserve job, meanwhile, she had been asked to be director of operations for her unit. After learning of her pregnancy, her supervisor continued to support her for the job – but his boss did not. “He said, ‘I’m a hard no against her [getting this job], because she’s going to take so much time off for maternity leave.’ My squadron commander, to his credit, was like, ‘I don’t think you can say that.’ ”

Up until this month he could – but not any more. “If that had happened today, I would have been able to say, ‘This is discrimination.’”

Colonel Ruttenber now serves on the Air Force’s Women’s Initiative Team at the Pentagon, where she is heartened by the strides the service has made in requiring lactation spaces and time to pump. She has considered leaving the service, too, to take a civilian job with better pay and more family time, she says. “But I feel a duty to make the Air Force stronger before I leave.” 

That may mean thinking more creatively to meet the challenges female troops face. The Coast Guard “sets a great example,” Colonel Ruttenber says, by paying to ship breast milk home when the member is at a temporary duty location. Bases could buy portable lactation pods for nontraditional work spaces, “like on the flight line,” she says. Public health troops could also do something as simple as track lactation spaces on bases and give the list to pregnant service members. 

Colonel Ruttenber thinks back to the early chats she had with her bosses about breastfeeding. “I was super uncomfortable, a little insecure, and a little emotional about it,” she says. But those feelings also brought to mind the challenges, embarrassments, and triumphs of the military women who paved the way for her and for her female colleagues, she says, citing the Maya Angelou quote that each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women. “That’s what I’m trying to get at.”

By being “brave enough to have an awkward conversation, you’re normalizing this conversation,” she adds. “You just made it 10 times easier for the woman coming in behind you.”


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