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The Challenge to Be Different Together
Keynote remarks prepared for delivery by Sheila E. Widnall, secretary of the Air Force, the Spring Conference of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, Vienna, Va., , Thursday, April 27, 1995

It's a pleasure to be here today to speak to this distinguished group. I've had many dealings with a number of you on the committee, and it's always refreshing to work with such dedicated professionals on the vital issues that make up your agenda.

On behalf of [Secretary of Defense] Dr. [William J.} Perry, I'd like to give a special welcome to the 16 new members of the committee. You have an exciting three years ahead of you and an opportunity to make lasting changes to the United States military services and the nation.

It's interesting that an Air Force representative can help kick off this Army-sponsored conference. For those of you who've been dealing with these issues for some time, however, it's actually quite natural. In fact, my presence here recognizes the jointness of our national defense mission and highlights the singleness of purpose in all our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard personnel.

Obviously the DACOWITS [Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services] helps support that singleness of purpose. Since you are diverse in composition, you're attuned to recognizing similarities in concerns and issues, despite differences in individuals. In fact, I'd like to focus my remarks today on the management of that diversity, since it's one of your focus goals for the year and, incidentally, I've been spending some time on it lately. In a sense, the subject underscores many of the other issues you'll be addressing, since most are related to appreciating and valuing the contributions of every member of the team and dealing with their quality of life concerns.

Diversity comes with a variety of variables: race, gender, religion, age, socioeconomic backgrounds, national or regional origin. All of us have associations that define who we are. We have a set of understandings drawn from geography, race, religion and gender. We naturally identify easily with people who are like us. For example, I have a natural affinity for people from my home territory of the Pacific Northwest, but I have never understood Texans!

Diversity is facing our reactions to differentness and the discomfort it sometimes causes. It involves taking a look at why different holidays, practices, values or language make us feel threatened and build walls between us. It means looking at the world and our actions from someone else's perspective. According to George Bernard Shaw, one of the greatest comic geniuses of all time, the Golden Rule may have a caveat: Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you; their tastes may be different!

Some would say that this counters the effort to be color- and gender-blind. That's not true at all. The notions of color-blind and gender-blind never did call for ignoring the reality of differences. They simply insisted that we not discount or disadvantage a person because of his or her differences. In other words, neither color nor gender determines a person's worth.

In the military we recognize that diversity management is becoming increasingly important as we experience changes in the American work force. It's even a logical extension and evolution of affirmative action as the work force becomes increasingly diverse.

And how much are we changing? A report published by the Hudson Institute called Workforce 2000 estimates that by that year almost two-thirds of new entrants into the work force will be women, and almost 30 percent will be nonwhite. This could have a profound effect on our recruiting, our retention and our readiness.

If people of varying backgrounds find a hostile or unsupportive working environment in the military services, they won't perform to their full potential. If they find prejudice, discrimination or other subtle barriers to performance, they won't feel like part of the team. Unit cohesion will suffer. Unit morale will go down. Polarization will occur. We will be creating work for social actions and the IG [inspector general] system and innumerable headaches for our commanders as well as possibly giving the media a field day as they find that, once again, the military services have failed to live up to our lofty principles. They will, of course, only present one side of the story -- that makes it more interesting. But if that happens in the military, we'll have failed. We'll have failed in our duties to our members and in our responsibilities to the American people.

So far we're doing pretty well. We've had our fits and starts, but for the most part we're a pretty good model for other American businesses and institutions. An interesting article in this week's Newsweek claims that the United States military is the one institution in the nation that has most successfully implemented affirmative action.

The author explains that by practicing inclusion instead of preference we've ensured that quality is never sacrificed for diversity. The importance of our mission guarantees that. He goes on to observe that in the military, rank is more important than race. In fact, rank is more important than anything.

William Galston, one of [President Bill] Clinton's White House aides who served in the military, notes that when he showed up for basic training there were two drill sergeants -- one black and one white. According to Galston, "Their race was irrelevant. I was equally terrified of both!"

In fact, the composition of the U.S. military is a statement about what is possible in a multiracial, multiethnic society. Most nations are multiracial, and many nations are divided along lines of race, religion or language. But when the U.S. military is deployed, whether for war fighting or peacekeeping, it displays the possibility of overcoming those sources of division. It shows that diversity can be a source of strength.

Yet as good as we are, we must be prepared for future challenges. The projected changes in demographics are substantial. Since military populations directly reflect changes in society, we realize we must react to this news and be ready for the changes. If not, we risk becoming isolated from the people we've sworn to defend. By welcoming the change, by offering a face that looks like America, diversity helps retain the trust of the American public.

Now let's talk about what this really means. Managing diversity does not mean changing valid expectations and standards for women and minorities. It simply recognizes the fact that some groups react differently to different situations, and we should try to reduce the frictions that may result.

It's a logical extension of the work we're doing battling sexual harassment, which, by the way, should in no way take a back seat simply because we're setting our sights today on a broader subject. Most of you know that I co-chair, along with Edwin Dorn, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, a task force on discrimination and sexual harassment. Our job was to evaluate our existing practices, establish some basic principles for handling complaints and recommend whatever changes we see fit.

The task force held formal meetings from May to November and received a series of briefings from representatives of each of the military departments. We heard from subject matter experts and advocacy groups. We reviewed over 50 documents, policy papers and pertinent studies. After much discussion, we came up with a report which, after Dr. Perry's review, will soon go to Congress. That report includes our findings and recommendations. Although I understand Mr. Dorn will give you a detailed accounting of the specifics, I'd like to share a few generalities with you.

An overarching consideration in the entire process was that many of the organizations in DoD are already committed to eliminating discrimination and sexual harassment, and they have a variety of programs in place. Our challenge was to keep the best of the current systems and fix what didn't work.

As we were briefed by the different service representatives, we came to realize that as each military service is unique, each service's complaint system has evolved into a unique process. We decided that although general principles and standards should be shared across service lines, the simple substitution of one service's system for another's would be both undesirable and unworkable. We refused to construct and impose one "ideal" system on all services, because there is no ideal system.

But for DoD there are two goals. The first is enhanced unit effectiveness, and the second is fairness to individuals. Trust, fairness, high morale and cohesion spell success for military units. The military team succeeds only when all members are accepted as equals. To fulfill these goals we identified several basic principles that are necessary for a successful equal opportunity system within the military. They are: first, command commitment and accountability; second, distinct service systems; third, clear and concise policies; fourth, effective training; and fifth, prompt, fair handling of complaints.

Throughout our deliberations we discussed the importance of leadership visibility and initiative. We recognize that without the unequivocal support of the commanders, recommendations of any task force are meaningless.

Our final report to DoD and the Congress will contain over 25 recommendations for the improvement of the services' equal opportunity programs and discrimination complaints systems. The military services are responsible for incorporating these standards into their existing equal opportunity systems. I'll let Mr. Dorn explain those requirements in detail.

Obviously our ideal is an organization where all members are valued, respected and treated fairly. Sexual harassment and discrimination create mistrust and destroy unity and esprit de corps. We need clear rules and effective programs to ensure that we investigate and deal with any unfair treatment.

Such considerations also extend more broadly to issues of diversity. We need to make sure our members understand that over the next few years the people they work for, with and supervise will be increasingly diverse. They must also understand that this is a good news story. Because what we know about diverse groups is good. First, they look at situations from all angles. They are more creative and productive. When people of varying age, race, values, background and training join together, they inevitably find innovative solutions to problems.

It's been said that "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." How true. And if we're all of like mind, we'll never see the flaws in our arguments.

Criticism, although sometimes painful, is extremely valuable for any organization. People who think alike don't criticize each other. John Gardner, former secretary of health, education and welfare, said, "In the absence of criticism, every organization ends up being managed for the benefit of the people who run it." Since diversity guarantees criticism, because of differing opinions and viewpoints, it fuels the vitality of an organization.

Another obvious benefit is the effect of a positive working environment on productivity. Service members who enjoy coming to work, who are relaxed instead of defensive or stressed in their work setting, are going to do a better job. People who feel valued and competent are going to be happier and perform better for their units.

They're going to commit to the organizational goals and do their best for the team. In that sense, diversity is a readiness issue. We owe it to the American people to do the very best that we can, to use the strengths of all our people.

We are finding a correlation between units that win Air Force and DoD unit quality awards and units that have a good human relations climate. In fact, if I could give military members a single piece of advice, it would be improve your skills at leading a diverse team. The impression that stays with me the longest after a visit to an Air Force base is how caring the commander and other leaders are toward all of their people and how proud they are of their accomplishments. Building teams is a way of life in the military. Bottom line is: Take care of the people and they will take care of the mission!

Diversity is also a recruiting and retention issue. If we're known as an organization that treats all individuals fairly, if our reputation is to value each member's contribution, then more people will want to join the military. The more applicants we have, the more choosy we can be about who gets in.

Along the same lines, service members who are valued and challenged are less likely to leave the service. Since they remain in the military longer, they increase our overall experience and keep us from having to recruit and train higher numbers of new members.

Finally, the best argument for diversity management is that it's the right thing to do. It's fair to ourselves and to the American people. They expect the very best from us. We will be creating a more open, flexible, responsive and responsible work environment, where people can be fulfilled, not just more efficient or productive. On a broader scale our efforts and successes will serve as an example to help solve the problems that plague organizations and society at large.

Of course, diversity is neither a new nor primarily American concern. Thirty-three years ago President John F. Kennedy said during a commencement address at American University, "If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity."

And if you look around the globe today -- at Rwanda and Yugoslavia -- you can see that diversity is a long way from being safe in many areas. It's obvious that societies that cling to their separateness and ethnicity are far from stable. In fact, they're extremely unstable. They're so intolerant of other people's views, so afraid of outsiders, that they are willing to kill for their cultural identity.

In contrast look at the variety that makes up American culture. The durable types of Americans who have come from other places -- Anglo-Saxons, Africans, Scandinavians, French, Irish, Jews, Germans, Italians, Russians, Arabs, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans and so many others -- are the essence of America.

The challenge is how to be different together. Perhaps the answer is in your wallet. If you pick out a coin or two, look at the tail side and read the motto "e pluribus unum," which means "out of many, one." What's so special about America is the idea that people of many kinds and colors can govern themselves without deciding in advance which type may hold any particular public office.

In too many countries there is still a fundamental assumption that one group or section of the population is anointed to be in charge. Yet in the United States during the 20th century we've elected an Irish Catholic as president, chosen several Jewish Supreme Court justices, and racially and "genderly" integrated the armed forces and its civilian leadership, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of the Air Force.

So I applaud your focus on diversity as an issue for 1995. As I said before, in a sense that focus underscores most of your other concerns for the year. They are all somehow related to treating each other with respect and dignity, dealing with quality of life concerns and appreciating and valuing the contributions of every member of the team.

In closing, I salute all of you as members of this important committee. It's a powerful tool and a valuable resource for feedback and change within the military services. You should feel proud and privileged to have been selected to serve. ...


Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at