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Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks Remarks for the Joint Women's Leadership Symposium (JWLS) Arlington, Virginia (As Delivered)

Good morning.

Thank you, Lieutenant Commander Strand, for the warm welcome from you and the whole team. And thank you to Rear Admiral Chatfield, Lieutenant Colonel Cullen, Commander Humphries, and the entire Sea Service Leadership Association team—thank you for organizing this year's Symposium and for inviting me to speak.

And what an impressive group we have assembled here.

I'm doubly honored to be joining you today—for this event and to celebrate the 40th anniversary of SSLA.

SSLA may have been founded to support women in operational jobs on ships, but as the operational needs of the military have demanded more joint capacity, SSLA has expanded to support women well beyond the sea.

Today, SSLA is focused on so many important issues that matter to women in uniform, no matter their rank. Physical and mental wellbeing. Networking. Mentorship.

The attendance at today's symposium is both a testament to the fact that the work that you're doing is in high demand, and that it's making a difference. So congratulations on four decades of educating, supporting, and uplifting women in the armed services.


Since Day One, taking care of our people has been a top priority for Secretary Austin and the entire Department. From ensuring competitive pay to improving access to healthcare to preventing harmful behaviors—advancing this priority is integral to our military readiness and mission success.

And as it turns out, addressing issues that disproportionately impact women—for example, increasing access to childcare and caregiving leave, enabling spousal employment, and preventing sexual assault and supporting survivors—not only leads to improvements in the quality of life and quality of service for women in the military, but for everyone. And I mean everyone.

It contributes to increased financial security for those who serve.

It contributes to stronger, healthier families and safer communities.

And it contributes to a more resilient and ready fighting force—one even more capable of ensuring our national security.

Everyone benefits.

That's why, at the most senior levels in the Department of Defense, we're prioritizing those issues.

Along those lines, we're also always thinking about how we can recruit and retain more women to serve in the Department, including in the military.

Last year, the Department commemorated three major milestones: the 50th anniversary of the All-Volunteer Force, the 75th anniversary of racial desegregation of the armed forces, and the 75th anniversary of the integration of women in the armed services. In fact, last Friday marked the 76th anniversary of women's integration in the armed forces.

Recruiting, retaining, and expanding opportunities for women across the force is not merely a nice thing to do. Albeit, it is the right thing. But it's truly an operational imperative.

We learned that in Afghanistan, where female service members were vital to special operators on the battlefield—trained and deployed in cultural support teams.

The need to understand and address gender dynamics in conflict helps the United States sustain peace and international security to this day. It allows us to look at conflict and crisis more holistically, informing our operations, activities, and security assistance.

More broadly, we simply need the best talent—of any gender—if we are to ensure that America has the world's most capable military. And we're doing all that we can to ensure that you know that your talents are not only welcome at DoD, but essential. Women are equally capable of flying command missions or serving on Navy combat ships or leading ground forces—we need you.

Maintaining the world-class force that we have today—one made up entirely of volunteers—requires us to reach and attract people across the breadth of talent this country has to offer and who have the desire and ability to serve. And that naturally includes women.

The reason for that is two-fold: number one, it yields the most capable force. And number two, because our republic rests on the principle that a military should reflect the society it is called to defend.

And no one would seriously question the dominance of the All-Volunteer Force that the United States has built based on that principle.

Many of you in this room have been eyewitnesses to the progress we have made in recognizing the strategic advantage of fully integrating women into combat roles. In fact, many of you have been instrumental in advancing that progress—whether that be through your time volunteering in this organization, or the work you did in your command, or through the trails you have blazed along the course of your own military career.

The Department has come a long way in terms of diversity from when I first started as a career civilian in 1993. It's visible in the increased number of female generals and admirals, senior military aides, and women in senior enlisted ranks. It's visible in my presence before you here today.

At the end of today, you'll hear from the CNO, Admiral Lisa Franchetti—the first woman to hold the post. And I look forward to seeing more accomplished women taking leading roles, leading conversations, in plum command and senior enlisted adviser assignments, and in highly-decorated roles, seated at the head of the table—making the tough calls.

And there's more to do yet there. We're focused on distinct lines of effort that support expanding the talent pipeline, recruiting and retaining top talent, and promoting qualified women to the highest ranks.

For the vast majority of you, since you began your career, your life circumstances have changed—as is inevitable. You might be at an inflection point.

You might feel a little stuck in the middle—in the middle of the ranks... in the middle of your career... in the middle of some significant change. And you might be weighing or balancing a host of major life decisions.

You might be considering whether to re-enlist or take the next assignment or post.

... Whether to start or expand your family.

... Whether to pursue that professional military education.

... What pressing challenge you want to focus on solving.

... What to have for dinner tonight—chicken or fish.


That last one is obviously not as crucial as the others, but the decision fatigue that might make even that feel like a tough call is real. Meanwhile you continue to make those difficult decisions, and you continue to serve at the same time. And I thank you for your commitment.

But it's not all on you.

Through our taking care of people initiatives—and by implementing policies to ensure an environment where women are treated fairly and equitably—we hope to make those choices feel less conflicted.

Recruiting and retaining women across the military services is as important as ever—especially given our pacing challenge.

Your skills, your perspectives, your competence—they're all critical in that competition.

A revealing report from the consulting firm McKinsey shows that companies with representation of women exceeding 30 percent are significantly more likely to financially outperform those with 30 percent or fewer.

Plenty of business school research echoes this finding, showing that diverse teams are stronger. They lead to better outcomes. And even though DoD is not a company, this lesson still applies.

Diverse teams increase the capacity to innovate.

Diverse teams accelerate problem solving.

And, they enhance morale by creating a greater sense of belonging. And I can tell you that the Department of Defense is interested in improving outcomes in all of these areas.

Take innovation, for instance. Our ability to outpace our strategic competitors hinges on our ability to out-innovate them.

Secretary Austin and I have been keenly focused on the urgency to innovate, finding ways to harness American ingenuity to deter, and if needed defeat, aggression from acute and persistent threats.

The People's Republic of China has spent decades and hundreds of billions of dollars each year to build a modern military designed primarily to overmatch U.S. military power.

It is going to take the best talent and the brightest minds to innovate at the speed and scale we need to meet this challenge.

Women have always contributed to the innovation that has ensured our global security—too often with little or no credit—from the creation of the first computer programs to the mathematics and engineering gifts they contributed in the thick of the Space Race.

No gender and no rank has a monopoly on know-how and creativity. And we know that women make up more than half of our nation's demographics. It's national security malpractice to overlook such a vast pool of talent.

At the Department of Defense, we are constantly re-evaluating how we can get the best to meet the needs of our strategy. And because our people are integral to our strategy, we are constantly thinking about how we can best support you in doing that.

We know that each of you brings a tremendous amount of expertise and perspective to any situation, any problem that needs solving. That goes without saying. But it's a rare opportunity that you get to do so in this kind of joint environment, as a community. So I hope that each of you takes advantage of this time to be open, receptive, and learn from one another.

I looked through the symposium agenda, and there's a lot of great programming ahead—so many fantastic fora for discussion and exchanging ideas.

But the title of one session in particular stood out to me. The one called, "leadership at every level." And it stood out to me because it is one of my core tenets.

I come from a military family—a family of men and women who have proudly served this nation.

Back in 1975, my father served as the action officer for the admittance of women into the Naval Academy. And the following year, in 1976, 81 women entered the Naval Academy.

In that first admissions year, Janie Mines had been accepted to every Ivy League school she'd applied to. But when the academy admitted her, she couldn't turn down that call to service. She'd been the only African-American woman admitted.

As women from that first class recall, many of the all-male upperclassmen didn't accept them or the contributions that they could make.

The academy considered itself a combat school, and women were seen as taking the seats of good combat officers—a job they couldn't do; or I should say, weren't allowed to do at the time. It would be decades more before women would be allowed to serve in combat roles.

Reflecting on her experience, Janie remembered a particular upperclassman who had given her grief. But in spite of the challenges, including those he put her through, she persevered.

She was on the fencing team.

She was a squad leader.

She was a midshipman drill officer.

And she eventually became one of the 55 women who graduated in that charter class.

On her graduation day in 1980, on her desk, she found a single rose in a vase. It came with a note from that upperclassman, which read simply, ''I'm sorry.''

Although a knee injury ended Janie's career in the Marine Corps, the legacy she built as a plebe carries on.

Janie continued to serve in roles in the Department of Defense, including as a senior advisor to the Secretary of the Navy. Not to mention, she paved the way for the more than 6,700 women who have since graduated from the Naval Academy, including her own sister who followed in her footsteps—she graduated from the Naval Academy, the very next year, in 1981.

And with each class, the number of women keeps creeping up—from 267 last year to 315 this year.

Likewise, Janet Wolfenbarger was in the first cohort of women to graduate from the Air Force Academy, also in 1980. In 2012, she entered a class all her own when she became the first female four-star general in the U.S. Air Force.

She faced similar experiences from upperclassmen at the Air Force Academy, but learned that she was more capable than she ever thought she could be—a belief that she has relied on ever since.

These women led at every stage of their careers.

I know that there are circumstances that each of us has found particularly difficult—for whatever reason. Those that test your might and your mettle. But when you're in the midst of those moments, I hope that you remember Janie and Janet, and the stories of all the women on whose shoulders you stand, and that they help you get through it—to help you realize all that you too are capable of.

In fact, it's my hope for you that none of you have to be the first. My hope is that, there are no more barriers left to break.

But we have more work to do if we want to manifest that vision. The generation coming up after you also deserves to inherit a better workplace and world—like prior generations ensured for you.

And there are plenty enough challenges left for us for to overcome—now and in the years ahead. And the truth is, by serving, you're making history every day.

As Secretary Austin has said, "we're in a decisive decade"—one that will test our rules-based international order and ensure that the values that flow from it are upheld.

And you—your expertise and your voice—are going to make all the difference. And I, for one, can't wait to hear about your accomplishments and the stories of how you achieved them.

Thank you, and have a great day.