A new Pentagon policy update aimed at tearing down practices that discriminate against pregnant service members is now complete, and will be distributed in coming days, the Defense Department's chief diversity officer said Tuesday.
The change was ordered in July by Defense Secretary Mark Esper as part of a package of changes designed to root out "discrimination, prejudice and bias in all ranks." Some of the changes were immediate, including a directive to end the use of photos in promotion boards. Others were referred to the services or specific departments with a deadline to develop policy.
Esper gave a Sept. 1 deadline for an update to equal opportunity policy to "prohibit pregnancy-based discrimination," and a Sept. 15 due date for the services to propose changes to hair and grooming standards that include racial bias.
Cyrus Salazar, director of the Pentagon's office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, told a meeting of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services Tuesday that work on the former policy is now complete.
"And everything has been fully coordinated and actually signed off on so this will be in policy in the coming days," he said. "So [this is] a groundbreaking day for the department in terms of where we have been to ensure we add the same protections for our civilian counterparts to our service members as well."
Salazar explained that previous policies protecting employees from pregnancy discrimination failed to include service members. The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 applied to civilian employees only, and a DoD directive governing discrimination extends pregnancy protections only to department civilians.
He noted that the Air Force had already approached his office in February with a proposal for change, which prompted meetings with Pentagon legal teams to ensure policy could be changed without new legislation. Esper's memo, however, was a shot in the arm, Salazar said, accelerating efforts to finalize the policy.
"So to me, it's a huge victory [against] pregnancy discrimination that we now have the same protections for not only civilians, but for service members," Salazar said.
Military.com reported last month on the reality of pregnancy bias in the ranks. Female troops recounted stories of facing professional repercussions because they took breaks to pump breast milk during the workday, and missing crucial career-altering opportunities due to pregnancy.
Air Force Lt. Col. Jessica Ruttenber, a mobility planner at the Pentagon, told Military.com she was motivated to start a website, Hidden-Barriers.org, to address the realities of pregnancy discrimination in the military. It caught the attention of a lawmaker, Rep. Debra Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, who introduced legislation in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to eliminate military career repercussions due to pregnancy and parenthood.
Salazar said he couldn't yet reveal the specifics of the new policy, but noted that it will focus on clarifying terms.
"It just defines that pregnancy discrimination, as a form of sex-based discrimination, will not be tolerated within the department," he said. "And we're leaving it up to the services then to take that language and apply it to their respective, whether it be an Army regulation, an Air Force instruction, or whatever it would be."
The services then will have 90 days to develop their own policies in line with the Defense Department instruction, he said.
-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.