When Fox News host Tucker Carlson called military efforts to better integrate women a “mockery” of the warrior ethos, pointing out a new pregnancy flight suit and more flexible hairstyle rules, Pentagon leaders mounted an unusually sharp public counterattack.
Gen. Paul Funk II, who oversees Army training activities, said women in uniform “prove Carlson wrong through determination and dedication.”
But despite the expressions of support, female service members continue to face an array of systemic challenges, including underrepresentation at the military’s highest levels; widespread sexual harassment and abuse; and pregnancy-related career impediments.
Although the military has taken steps in recent years to accommodate pregnant and postpartum troops, women report ongoing stigmatization and obstacles to promotion associated with childbearing, both of which contribute to the military’s female retention problem.
Government studies show that women, who represent only about 16 percent of the overall force, leave the military at significantly higher rates than men, often citing the toll of sexual assault and the challenges of balancing family and military life.
The backlash over Carlson’s remarks this month comes as scrutiny of women’s experiences in uniform intensifies as part of a larger reckoning with the military’s legacy of racism and bias. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the country’s first Black Pentagon chief, has vowed to confront sexual assault and increase diversity in the ranks.
The situation is vastly different from what it was before 1976, when pregnancy resulted in automatic discharge. In recent years, officials have lengthened maternity leave to 12 weeks and introduced polices aiming to ensure nursing mothers can pump breastmilk on the job.
The military now also prohibits pregnancy-based discrimination. Some services give troops a year after childbirth before they have to resume fitness tests, which also provides more time to meet weight standards.
“We still have a lot of work to do to make our military more inclusive, more respectful of everyone, especially women,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in response to Carlson’s remarks. “What we absolutely won’t do is take personnel advice from a talk-show host.”
But pregnancy-related policies vary between the services, and decisions that can shape careers are often left to individual commanders.
Moreover, some female troops see a disconnect between the high-level support women receive from some military leaders on social media and more problematic views they say are common in the rank and file.
“There is a very big difference between what those generals are espousing and what you hear down in the ranks,” said one Army officer and mother, who, like other troops, spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid views. “Out in the ‘normal’ Army . . . the sentiment is more along the lines of, ‘Oh, women get pregnant on purpose to get out of things.’ ”
Those feelings are in part grounded in requirements that can take pregnant service members, depending on their duties, out of their assigned positions, which can mean hassle or extra work for their superiors or peers.
Military rules that restrict pregnant troops from taking part in certain activities, such as working around chemicals or on a weapons range, can affect careers, too. Missing a deployment or major exercises could affect a unit commander’s evaluations and chances for promotion or premier assignments.
In the Air Force, where women account for 5 percent of pilots and just 2 percent of fighter pilots, safety rules surrounding pregnant aviators can often translate into career deceleration.
Although recently relaxed regulations allow pilots of non-ejection aircraft to fly from 12 to 28 weeks of pregnancy under certain conditions, prohibitions on flying during the first and third trimesters can mean they lose their flight qualifications and fall behind their peers. To fly during early pregnancy, many female aviators hide their pregnancies. Drone pilots can fly throughout their entire pregnancies.
Pregnant pilots are also barred from most formal training programs during pregnancy, even if the training occurs mostly in a simulator, meaning they can miss out on follow-on jobs important for their careers.
“I think our leaders would be supportive” of more flexible rules, one female Air Force officer said. “They just haven’t thought through all these policies yet and which ones should change.”
Female troops say unconscious bias pervades treatment of military pregnancies. When the female Army officer, then a company commander, finished leading her first major exercise, her second-in-command praised her, saying she had exceeded his expectations. When she had been assigned to lead their unit, he told her, he thought she would quickly get pregnant and dump her duties onto him.
Sometimes, male superiors pass over pregnant troops for some activities because of well-intentioned safety concerns or assumptions about their priorities after they give birth.
Megan McFarlane, an assistant professor at Marymount University who studies military maternity issues, said that stigma and a host of systemic obstacles mean service members have to approach pregnancy with extra stress and the feeling they need to work harder to prove their worth.
That can translate into what she calls “macho maternity,” in which pregnant troops respond to bias by concealing their pregnancy for as long as they can; turning down privileges, such as wearing tennis shoes as they grow heavier; and working during bed rest.
During the Obama administration, maternity leave was lengthened to up to 12 weeks, still short of what some studies suggest it could be without straining the force.
A 2020 study by the CNA research group showed that greater maternity leave time improved female retention in the Navy.
Bishop Garrison, a top Pentagon adviser for diversity and inclusion, said the department continually reviewed its policies to promote readiness and morale. “No one in the Department should have to choose between family and career,” Garrison said in a statement.
Some women continue to face issues with weight and body standards after giving birth. Members of a grass-roots Marine Women’s Initiative Team are advocating revision of outdated body-fat standards they say make it harder for women to remain in the force. One problem they identify is that the standards date to the early 1980s, when there were few postpartum women in the force, meaning the standards don’t reflect body changes that can occur during pregnancy and after childbirth.
Securing adequate time and space for new mothers to pump breastmilk is another challenge. Despite rules requiring larger installations to have suitable pumping areas, women at smaller facilities sometimes have to pump in bathrooms. Some women face pressure from colleagues for missing work time to pump, leading some to abandon breastfeeding earlier than they otherwise might. As it does with related issues, a woman’s experience often depends on the attitude of the local commanders.
For enlisted troops, especially junior ones, pregnancy can be even more of a significant career setback, partly because they have less ability to opt into jobs compatible with pregnancy and new motherhood, and partly because they may feel less empowered to advocate for themselves. Women who become parents without a spouse or partner also face additional hurdles.
Such challenges lead to what McFarlane calls “hyper planning” — women seeking to meticulously sequence their assignments and pregnancies to minimize the effect on their careers and detriment to their growing families. Sometimes that strategy works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
“If you’re pregnant and it’s assumed to be unplanned, it’s: ‘Why didn’t you do better pregnancy planning?’ If it was planned, it’s: ‘Why did you plan it right now?’ ” McFarlane said. “They can’t win.”