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​Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James addresses an audience at the Center for New American Security's women and leadership in national security conference in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 2015. CNAS photo.

Amy McCullough

March 4, 2015: Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James on Wednesday announced nine new initiatives aimed at attracting and retaining women and minorities in the service.

Although the Air Force leads the Defense Department in the number of serving women, she said it falls somewhere in the middle as far as ethnic diversity is concerned.

"The question is: Are we spending as much time, resources, and energy thinking about the next generation of airmen as we are the next generation of aircraft?" asked James during her keynote address at the Center for New American Security's women and leadership in a national security conference in Washington, D.C.

The first initiative looks to improve the Air Force mentoring program. The idea, she said, came from an airman first class at the Air Force Personnel Center who suggested creating a Match.com-like capability that would match airmen and mentors.  As a result, the Air Force has reconfigured its web-based Air Force Career Path Tool, enabling airmen to request mentors as well as chat live.

Second, both James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh will ask USAF development teams, which meet twice a year to identify potential candidates for critical positions, to analyze barriers that could prevent airmen from reaching top performance levels, said James.

Third, in addition to "seeking officers demonstrating commitments to the welfare of our airmen and to our core values," James said she also has instructed board members "to find officers who have demonstrated that they will nurture and lead in a diverse and inclusive Air Force culture."

The fourth initiative is the career intermission program, which James announced last year. The program allows up to 40 Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve members to take up to three years of partially paid time out of uniform. A total of 32 airmen took advantage of the program in 2014, said James, who noted USAF would again select up to 20 enlisted members and 20 officers across the three components for the program in 2015.

The fifth initiative looks to bolster the female officer applicant pool to 30 percent, up from the 25 percent today. James said the Air Force hopes to accomplish this goal by adjusting its recruiting strategies to attract talented female airmen. In addition, USAF will partner with organizations that mentor and advocate for women.

Sixth, USAF will establish the ROTC Rated Height Screening Initiative, which will make height waivers for ROTC cadets more accessible. James estimated the initiative would enable some 900 additional women to compete for pilot slots over the next five years.

Currently, in order to fly in the Air Force, candidates must meet a standing height of 64 to 77 inches and a sitting height of 34 to 40 inches. The standard ensures pilot candidates can qualify in all USAF aircraft. James said waivers already are available for Air Force Academy cadets, but not as accessible for those in ROTC.

Under the seventh initiative, USAF leaders will look for and encourage motivated enlisted airmen to get their commission through Officer Training School. 

The service also will extend the post-pregnancy deployment deferment from six months to 12 in an effort to stop mid-career female airmen from opting out of service.

Finally, said James, the Air Force will standardize diverse civilian hiring panels for GS-14, GS-15, and equivalent positions.