Study Finds Beard Waivers Slow Promotion, Mostly Affecting Black Airmen

shaving waiver course at Beale Air Force Base
Airman raises his head as flight surgeon chief of medical staff inspects his neck and face during a shaving waiver course at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., March 15, 2018. (Colville McFee/U.S. Air Force)

A new study has found that U.S. Air Force personnel may not be promoted as quickly as their peers if they decide to seek a shaving waiver to wear a beard while in service.

The findings, published in the journal Military Medicine last week, surveyed thousands of airmen to examine whether their careers were in jeopardy because of their appearance. The study sought to find out whether Black airmen were disproportionately affected in their careers by having a shaving waiver, the authors wrote.

The researchers found a direct link between those airmen who requested a waiver for a longer period of time and how fast the Air Force moved them up in the ranks.

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For years, airmen have been able to request a shaving waiver on a case-by-case basis, but the Air Force's surgeon general last year approved a new five-year dispensation authorizing male airmen with a chronic inflammatory condition to keep their beards.

One of the conditions, known as Pseudofolliculitis Barbae, or PFB, causes razor bumps and painful ingrown beard hair -- and it commonly affects Black men. The change meant that airmen no longer needed to request an exemption on an annual basis.

The report concluded that the promotion system is not inherently biased based on race, but biased "against the presence of facial hair which will likely always affect the promotions of Blacks/African-Americans disproportionately." That's because Black airmen would more likely need to request a waiver over their white counterparts.

Beards are off-limits in more high-profile jobs, such as the military Honor Guard, recruiting, military training instructor, and even the Thunderbirds F-16 Fighting Falcon demonstration team.

More than 9,000 airmen completed a survey about their experience, with an overwhelming majority within the E-5 and E-6 ranks. The recent report follows a preliminary study released earlier this year.

The study was divided into two groups. One was made up of 8,200 members who had never received a waiver; the other group of 1,139 had received a waiver for at least one year at some point during their career. The majority of the waiver group was Black/AfricanAmerican.

Researchers said the interaction between race and waiver status was "not significant" because the results indicated shaving waivers are associated with delayed promotion "in individuals of all races." That said, 64% of the waiver group was made up of Black service members, despite making up only 12% of the entire cohort study.

By comparison, 76% of the no-waiver group was white. Besides rank, race and ethnicity, other factors weighed in the study were level of education, professional military education and disciplinary action.

The cumulative time an individual had requested the waiver mattered substantially.

For example, those promoted to staff sergeant or technical sergeant who had a shaving waiver for more than eight years saw promotion delayed by about six months to a year.

The waiver group also experienced more disciplinary action, according to the surveys the researchers analyzed.

The waiver group, predominantly made up of Black service members, had a rate of disciplinary action of roughly 19% compared to the no-waiver group at just 11.5%.

In December, the Air Force released the findings from its first-ever racial disparity review, which compared the experiences of Black service members with those of their peers. That six-month review concluded that Black airmen are nearly twice as likely to be suspects in a military criminal investigation, apprehended by a base patrol, or involuntarily discharged based on


The Air Force Inspector General's office received more than 123,000 survey responses from active-duty, Guard and Reserve members and conducted 138 group interviews -- ranging from 12 to 50 service members, officer and enlisted, per group in two-hour discussions -- to understand where Black airmen are at a disadvantage.

While the review confirmed racial disparity exists across multiple areas, including military justice and career development, it could not define the root causes, said Air Force Inspector General Lt. Gen. Sami Said in December after the first review's publication.

For some key findings, "we're not implying that [either] racism or bias is the causal factor of such risk disparity," Said told reporters at the time. "That requires more detailed assessment and analysis. When we say 'disparity,' it doesn't imply, immediately, racism, bias or otherwise."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: New Air Force Survey Investigates Justice Disparities in Asian, Hispanic, Native Communities

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