Minority and female airmen and guardians face more hurdles to entering and progressing in military service compared to their white and male counterparts, and are underrepresented in officer jobs, leadership roles and in combat operations, the Air Force Inspector General’s Office confirmed in a new report on race- and gender-related career disparities in the Air Force and Space Force published Thursday.
“We have made some progress, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters. “There are a lot of disparities within the Air Force, in a number of facets of the Air Force experience.”
The deep dive, which began in February, collected more than 100,000 responses and nearly 17,000 single-spaced pages of input from female service members and those of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Hispanics, Latinos, Asians, American Indians, Native Alaskans, and Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.
The IG team also held more than 100 group discussions with troops across the Air Force and Space Force, and looked at 21 previous reports on race, ethnicity and gender in the military.
They discovered discrepancies in how minority and female airmen are treated in charting out their careers, on a daily basis at work, when being considered for key assignments and promotions, and by the military justice system, Kendall said.
“Our operations people seem to have reflected an enormous amount of disparity, and being part of that segment of the Air Force has a lot to do with how the other aspects of your career work out. We definitely need to address that,” Kendall told reporters.
The operations field has historically served as a pipeline to senior leadership — particularly for pilots, whose demographics skew heavily white and male. That has created an upper echelon of officers who often don’t look like much of the Air Force and Space Force they represent.
As of June 30, the active-duty Air Force was 71 percent white, 15 percent Black or African American, 4.3 percent Asian American, 1.2 percent Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and less than 1 percent American Indian or Native Alaskan. About 16 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino. Women comprise about 21 percent of the force.
“When considering the overall average promotion rate between 2015 and 2020, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American, and Native American officers were promoted below the average rate to [major, lieutenant colonel and colonel],” the Air Force found.
“For enlisted promotions, Hispanic/Latino members were promoted below the average rate to all ranks except E-7, Asians Americans were promoted below the average rate to E-6 [through] E-9, Native Americans were below the rate to E-5 [through] E-8, and Pacific Islanders were below the rate to E-5 [and] E-6,” the report added.
Findings on the active-duty Air Force included:
- Native American service members were 108 percent more likely to have received an Article 15 and 113 percent more likely to have faced court-martial than their white peers between 2012 and 2019; Asian American and Hispanic/Latino enlisted members were about 30 percent less likely to face those types of discipline.
- Native Americans were 74 percent more likely than white service members to be administratively discharged between 2015 and 2019, while Hispanic and Latino members were 25 percent more likely.
- Hispanic, Latino and Native American airmen and guardians were 33 percent more likely than their white counterparts to be the subject of an Office of Special Investigations criminal case, and more likely to receive Security Forces citations.
- Of the percentage of Asian Americans in the U.S. who are eligible to serve in the military, about half joined the Department of the Air Force as officers.
- Asian-American officers and civilians and Pacific Islander civilians who joined the Air Force between 2005 and 2010 were more than 10 percent more likely to have separated within 10 years of service than their white peers.
- Asian Americans are the least likely to hold leadership positions, making up nearly 3 percent of active-duty colonels but less than 1 percent of wing commanders from 2015 to 2020.
- Women were “equally represented for command positions within their career fields, but the low representation of females in operations career fields coupled with the large number of operations commands resulted in their overall underrepresentation in [department]-wide leadership positions.”
- Seventy percent of female respondents said balancing work and personal lives adversely affects women more than men, a sentiment shared by less than 30 percent of male airmen and guardians.
About 40 percent of racial-ethnic minority and female service members said they felt they had to act more like white, male airmen to be successful in the Air Force and to show they were good at their job, according to more than 100,500 people who responded to an IG survey.
That’s compounded by workplaces in which airmen and guardians can feel uncomfortable due to sexual harassment, maternity bias and other disparaging remarks. One out of three uniformed women who responded said they had experienced sexual harassment during their careers.
“Airmen and guardians of all races and ethnicities expressed concern that discriminatory and racist remarks directed towards their specific group are not appropriately addressed by their chain of command, thus decreasing the internal trust of their unit,” the Air Force added in a release.
Kendall pledged to take action to address those gaps once the Air Force has finished sorting through the data.
“These disparities and gaps in trust affect our operational readiness — we don’t have time or talent to lose,” Air Force Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones said in a release. “We will actively work to rebuild that trust and ensure Department of the Air Force members, the ‘One Team’ our nation needs to protect our interests in air and space, can serve to their full potential.”
The Air Force conducted its first racial disparity review last year to explore the ways in which Black and African American airmen and guardians are treated differently from their white counterparts. It followed the death of George Floyd, the Black man who died in Minnesota after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in May 2020 and galvanized a new chapter in the fight for racial equity in the United States.
That study found Black and African American airmen and guardians are 72 percent more likely than their white peers to receive non-judicial punishments from their commanding officer, and 57 percent more likely to face court-martial.
Disparities in the military justice system were less prevalent in the second review, but the Air Force found room for improvement in minority officer accession and mentorship was a common theme across both reviews, Air Force Inspector General Lt. Gen. Sami Said told reporters.
The Air Force stopped short of citing racism, sexism or other discrimination as the root cause of the issues, cautioning that they may also be the unintended ripple effects of earlier policy choices.
Air Education and Training Command and staff in the Pentagon will continue digging into the underlying causes, Said said. The department hasn’t decided to launch any further reviews into the experiences of other demographic groups, like religious minorities or the LGBTQ community, he added.
Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.