WASHINGTON — Getting more women into military specialties may require focusing more on the protector role of troops than the macho stereotype emphasized in the past, the Air Force secretary told lawmakers Tuesday.

We’re trying to change a little bit the way we talk about who the protectors are in this country,” Heather Wilson said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing. “I think sometimes the way we talk about the services may appeal more to boys than to girls. It’s important the way we talk about things.”

The comments came in response to questions of Wilson and the other two service secretaries about gender gaps in operational specialties across the armed forces. Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., called continued underrepresentation of women in certain career fields a troubling problem that needs addressing.

“More women than men leave the military at various career points,” she said. “So concerns persist that this attrition will result in a disproportionate impact on military readiness if left unresolved.”

Both Army Secretary Mark Esper and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said officials are examining the issue, and have pushed for more career flexibility that would allow women servicemembers (and men) to take mid-career breaks to start a family and return to the ranks later without penalty.

They also said that all three service academies are expecting an increase in the number of women enrolled next fall, which they called an encouraging step toward closing those gaps.

But Wilson said she thinks fixing the problem will take more than policy changes. She suggested that the national conversation around military service needs to change to convince more women to consider it as a career.

“If I ask everyone in this room to thing about the most protective person you know in your life, someone who would do anything to keep you safe, half the people in this room would think about their moms,” she said.

“We are the protectors. That’s what the military does. We serve to protect the rest of you, and that’s a very natural place for a women to be in.”

Earlier this month, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, in its annual report, said the military needs to better tailor marketing efforts if it hopes to attract more women toward military service.

“In particular, women were more likely than men to be motivated by travel, education, and helping others and their communities,” the report stated. “Although a marketing strategy focused on patriotism may have been successful at recruiting men in the past, current data indicate that strategy does not align with the motivations of prospective female military members, and the data also illustrate more effective ways to recruit women.”

Women make up about 15 percent of the active duty force across the services. About 20 percent of the Air Force’s troops are women.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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