December 10, 2019

Increasing Diversity in the Military: Recruiting and Retaining Talented Women

Testimony before the HASC Subcommittee on Military Personnel

By Kayla M. Williams

I. Boots-on-the-Ground Assessment

Chairwoman Speier, Ranking Member Kelly, distinguished members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to discuss a topic I believe is of vital importance to the long-term strength of United States military. I want to begin with some personal examples of what drove me to enlist in the Army in 2000 – and then to not reenlist when my term was up in 2005.

A combination of factors inspired my military service. I grew up with a single mom; our precarious financial situation meant we were occasionally on food stamps and I got free or reduced price school lunches. The anxiety and shame of growing up in poverty was coupled with gratitude that the nation had invested in me. As a young adult, the military not only offered me enhanced financial stability, through both military training in valuable skills and access to higher education in the civilian sector via the GI Bill, but it also provided a way for me to repay the country for the lifeline it offered when I was a child. My deep appreciation for the social safety net has guided me toward a life of service and deepened my commitment to equality for all.

Luckily, I was able to meet accession standards for enlistment, something that today only 1 in 4 young people can do. And because the key disqualifiers – obesity, lack of a high school diploma, and criminal backgrounds – are more prevalent in poor communities, those who would potentially benefit the most from the military’s promise of a pathway out of poverty are least likely to be able to join. This is reflected in the socioeconomic backgrounds of those who serve today: those in the lowest income quintile are underrepresented compared to those in the middle class.

During my five years in the Army, which included a year-long deployment to the Middle East during Operation Iraqi Freedom, I acquired both tangible skills such as knowledge of Arabic and life-saving first aid, and invaluable intangible attributes such as perseverance and confidence. The latter, unfortunately, were often developed at great cost; the stresses of military life can enhance long-term resilience. Two particularly challenging areas that contributed to my choice not to continue serving disproportionately affect women: experiencing sexual misconduct and frustratingly outdated policies.

Download the full written testimony.

Download PDF

  • Commentary
    • The Hill
    • January 21, 2020
    VA leader must demonstrate commitment to ending harassment

    Last week, news outlets reported Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie sent a letter to Rep. Mark Takano (D. Calif.), Chairman of the House Committee on ...

    By Kayla M. Williams

  • Podcast
    • January 17, 2020
    Stories from the Backchannel: Season Two Trailer

    Now more than ever, Americans are interested in the people working behind the scenes on consequential national security decisions. In Season Two of Stories from the Backchanne...

    By Ilan Goldenberg, Richard Fontaine, Susanna V. Blume, Kayla M. Williams, Price B. Floyd, Kurt Campbell & Kara Frederick

  • Commentary
    • The Washington Post
    • December 24, 2019
    America never committed to training Afghan forces. I know because I tried.

    I first met Maj. Sboor in 2009 as he waited to take over his own Afghan army battalion. We were working together as operations officers of partnered Afghan and U.S. infantry u...

    By Dr. Jason Dempsey

  • Commentary
    • December 16, 2019
    The ACFT and the Problems with the Military's Cult of Physical Fitness

    A new hurdle for U.S. Army recruitment and retention is coming in the form of the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), scheduled to become the Army's physical test by October 2020...

    By Emma Moore

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia