The Air Force Struggles With Diversity. Can The Space Force Do Any Better? Top Space Force leaders say gender and racial diversity are a core part of the mission. But past indicators present a troubling picture.
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The Air Force Struggles With Diversity. Can The Space Force Do Any Better?

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The Air Force Struggles With Diversity. Can The Space Force Do Any Better?

The Air Force Struggles With Diversity. Can The Space Force Do Any Better?

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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The newest branch of the military just promoted its first female three-star general. The U.S. Space Force also recently appointed the nation's first all-women space operations team. Top Space Force leaders say gender and racial diversity is a core part of the mission, but as Colorado Public Radio's Dan Boyce reports, some female veterans are skeptical.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: 1st Lt. Kelley McCaa serves with the all-female Space Operations Squadron stationed at Schriever Air Force Base near Colorado Springs. The squadron commands one of the country's GPS satellites.

KELLEY MCCAA: I've obviously never gotten to work on an all-female crew before. These were women that I wanted to work with. They're close friends of mine and co-workers.

BOYCE: The work of the Space Force is almost entirely digital. Space Force members operate satellites and other national space assets from computers down on Earth. Lt. McCaa says an all-female squadron makes a bold statement for the military's newest branch.

MCCAA: I'm hoping that women will see that they have more opportunities than they might have realized growing up.

DON CHRISTENSEN: As long as they are actively seeking out the women to come there, they have a great opportunity to be the service that leads the way.

BOYCE: Don Christensen is president of the nonprofit Protect Our Defenders. The group focuses on reducing discrimination in the military. The Space Force grew out of the Air Force last December. Christensen says it's continuing the Air Force tradition of a better gender balance than the other branches, but he worries the Space Force could continue another worrisome course.

CHRISTENSEN: When it comes to racial disparity, the Air Force is the worst.

BOYCE: In analyzing military data, Christensen's team found Black airmen 70% more likely than their white peers to get court martialed or receive other punishments. The Air Force's own data shows that trend getting worse in recent years. Nevertheless, in just the last few months, a couple of milestones - confirmation of the first Black Air Force Academy superintendent and then the first Black Air Force chief of staff, General Charles Q. Brown Jr. Here's Brown's own candid assessment of the challenges ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES Q BROWN JR: I can't fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of discrimination that may have impacted members of our Air Force.

BOYCE: How much you make of these nominations depends on who you talk to.

YVONNE PACHECO: While we're very proud of General Brown, it's a joke.

BOYCE: Yvonne Pacheco is a recently retired Air Force commanding officer.

PACHECO: It's a photo-op. See? We like Black people. We like minorities. Yay. We promoted them, so don't complain anymore, OK? And we're like, yeah, OK. So what we want to see is action. What policies are you going to drive? What changes are you going to drive?

BOYCE: She argues the ways to report discrimination in the Space Force are all inherited from the Air Force.

PACHECO: And if you don't restructure it, I honestly - I don't - I'm not sure that you'll be able to restructure. I don't know. I just think they might continue to get away with it, unfortunately.

BOYCE: Pacheco says, as discrimination charges work their way up the chain of command, senior officers often suppress reports to avoid looking bad themselves.

CARRIE BAKER: They're going to be shaped to encourage honest communication.

BOYCE: The Space Force's chief diversity and inclusion officer, Carrie Baker, says they've already placed heavy emphasis on developing open-minded leaders and pushing them to learn about unconscious biases.

BAKER: Even to the point where one should be fearless enough to speak to their leadership about concerns that they have without concern of retribution.

BOYCE: Baker says the Space Force has targeted outreach initiatives to recruit women and people of color.

BAKER: Keep your eye on us. We're going to make you proud.

TANYA WOOD: Tanya Wood - I'm an IT professional, been working for the Department of Defense for about 20 years.

BOYCE: Tanya Wood lives in San Antonio, Texas. For years, she worked as an Air Force intelligence analyst, a job similar to the desk-bound roles found in the Space Force today. Wood, who's Black, says misogyny and racism were rampant.

WOOD: Not getting a fair seat at the table, having to prove myself constantly, having to prove my technical ability, trying to prove how smart I am, If you will, constantly being challenged by my male colleagues.

BOYCE: She is pleased to hear about that new all-female Space Force team. She's still not sure it's a sign of systemic change. She compares the all-female crew to the Tuskegee Airmen, those heralded Black fighter pilots from World War II.

WOOD: That was an experiment, but was it sustainable? You know, do we still have that level of diversity now?

BOYCE: She wonders, if the Space Force doesn't address fundamental challenges involving race and gender, will those experiments ever lead to anything beyond history-making headlines?

For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Colorado Springs.

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