New policies make it easier for military women to serve and be moms

Air Force Major Lauren Daly landed a dream job on an aircraft that flies top government officials.

“Our top five is our primary customer and why we exist. So that’s the first lady, the vice president, the chairman of the joint chiefs, the secretary of defense, and the secretary of state,” said Maj. Lauren Daly.

At home she has a different title: mom, juggling life with newborn, Hope, and toddler, Jacob.

“When I first got into the military 10 years ago, there were not a lot of females in the higher ranks. And the ones that were did not have children or did not choose to have a family — to make it to where they were. And now you’re kinda starting to see, like, more women in the wing commander positions and squadron commander who have done it,” said Daly.

That’s helping to shape new policies, such as one enacted in 2019 requiring nursing mothers have access to private and sanitary lactation areas.

“Policy sets culture, so that’s a significant win for us,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Jessica Ruttenber. “I think change takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I’m very optimistic.”

The recent progress was not in place when Lt. Col. Ruttenber was pregnant with her first child, nine years ago. She realizes now she had been experiencing pregnancy bias.

“Conversations went away from, ‘would you like to take this more competitive job that is more demanding to accelerate your career,’ to ‘would you like to separate at the end of your service commitment or take this less demanding job to be home more with your children?'” described Ruttenber.

“They didn’t ask my husband the same question … and that’s when I started realizing that motherhood sometimes had a little bit of a barrier in the institution,” she said.

The mother of three who is married to a fellow Air Force pilot says the military is taking steps to combat pregnancy bias including a memo from former Defense Secretary Mark Esper last year that said, “The Department will update its military equal opportunity policy to prohibit pregnancy-based discrimination.”

Another key change is increased maternity leave to 12 weeks across the joint forces, and a one-year deferment from deployment and physical fitness testing in the Air Force.

A new bill proposes to increase leave to 12 weeks for both parents and also aims to make postpartum policy uniform across the branches.

The War Department was designed ”for sort of a 1950s model, right, for a male and a stay-at-home wife. And that has changed now,” said Major Alea Nadeem, who chairs the Air Force Women’s Initiative Team. “So, we’re still working through those changes. But every day, it’s getting better.”

The group’s not-so secret motto is “get stuff done.”

“I am super proud of that because we don’t just talk about it, we actually do it,” said Nadeem.

That includes getting hairstyle standards eased. For years, servicewomen said having to wear their hair in tight buns, especially under helmets, caused headaches and hair loss.

Now, ponytails or braids are allowed. Another recent development was maternity flight suits, the prototype tested just last year.

Major Nadeem says the changes will make the military stronger. 

“We know women, at the ten-year mark, get out at higher rates than their male peers. Why is that? And we did some research. And one of them is family planning; lack of access to child care.”

It’s been a slow climb to top leadership levels. Retired General Ann Dunwoody became the military’s first four-star female military officer in 2008.

The list of four-star females in military history is less than ten so far: Gen. Dunwoody, Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, Adm. Michelle Howard, Gen. Lori Robinson, Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, Gen. Maryanne Miller, and Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost who is currently serving. In June, Adm. Linda Fagan became the first female four-star Admiral in U.S. Coast Guard history.

In March, President Joe Biden nominated General Van Ovost and Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson to prestigious four-star commands. If confirmed by the Senate, they will be just the second and third women to lead U.S. military combatant commands.

Lt. Col. Ruttenber says female representation and leadership will help retain more women and moms in uniform.

“If you want to keep women in the military for a full career cycle, 20 years, you’re going to have to accept that they’re going to want to have children at some point. Most of them are,” said Ruttenber.

“The second reason is I think it’s essential for our national security to have a more inclusive military. I think it makes us more lethal.”

Service members including Lt. Col. Ruttenber and Major Daly are rising the ranks and realizing motherhood has not grounded their careers but rather has made them better leaders.

“So now people my age and younger are kinda seeing like, ‘maybe I can do both. I don’t have to make a choice and get out when my commitment’s over or when I want to start having a family,'” said Daly.