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Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks Remarks and Fireside Chat at the Pentagon International Women's Day Ceremony March 8, 2023

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for coming and joining us both in person and virtually to celebrate International Women's Day.

The idea behind International Women's Day began in 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York demanding shorter work hours, better pay and a right to vote, and it was a day that was officially sanctioned 67 years later by the United Nations. International Women's Day serves as a day to celebrate women's achievement, educate and raise awareness for women equality and call for positive change in the advancement of women. 

This year, in honor of International Women's Day, I am pleased to welcome our special guest. Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the 35th deputy secretary of defense, Dr. Kathleen Hicks.


DEPUTY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE KATHLEEN HICKS: Hi. Well, please sit down. Good afternoon. Thank you to Tahina and thanks to everyone for joining us here today.

Since day one, Secretary Austin has been focused on three priorities. You could probably all repeat them. I hope you can, but I'll give them to you here: defending the nation, taking care of our people and succeeding through teamwork. Over the past two years, we've taken significant strides in advancing the Secretary's priorities, and it's because of our people, our uniformed and civilian workforce, who work tirelessly to overcome challenges day in and day out, no matter their magnitude.

Today, as the department observes International Women's Day and Women's History Month, we celebrate the tremendous talent and expertise that women bring to the table each and every day. We are advancing the Secretary's priorities. We are making contributions that make the world a safer and more secure place. 

This year is especially meaningful because Women's History Month and International Women's Day also coincide with significant anniversaries, including the 50th anniversary of the All-Volunteer Force and the 75th anniversary of the integration of the Armed Services. Though met with resistance, taking these historic steps have only made our military stronger and more effective, and the success that we've had over the decades that followed these major milestones serve as proof that we are at our best when we draw on the talents of every American who desires and is qualified to serve in this department, regardless of gender, race or identity.

Yet as we reflect on the progress the department has made to swing its doors open to women, to expand opportunities and to achieve gender equity and equality, we also acknowledge that there is more work to do, more barriers to break down and overcome, and a new, younger generation rising through the ranks that is watching us and deserves to inherit an even better workplace and world, just like prior generations ensured for us.

Not long ago, I was walking into a meeting, and a colleague joyfully pointed out how many senior military aides that were waiting outside in the hallway were women. That wasn't always the case. The department has come a long way in terms of diversity and inclusion, and it's visible in this building's busy hallways and corridors. It's something to be proud of, and we should be. I know I am.

Yet, as much as I want to see accomplished women in these plumb aid assignments, I want even more to see them inside the meeting rooms seated at the table, and I especially look forward to seeing more women at the head of those tables, leading and making decisions. And let me assure you, if we want to attract a new generation of talent, this is precisely what they expect to see: an environment where their work is valued, where they feel appreciated and empowered enough to pursue their goals, and where they can see themselves at the head of the table.

So, thank you for those of you tuning in and those of you here live. I look forward to the fireside chat and a vibrant discussion during the question-and-answer. 


MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Secretary Hicks. First (inaudible).

DR. HICKS: (Inaudible)

MODERATOR: But I wanted to thank you, and especially because as a first-generation Colombian-American and as a Air Force reservist, I can promise you not only could I have never imagined a seat at the table, but definitely not a chair up on this stage, that’s for sure…


MODERATOR: So thank you for that, and thank you for your welcoming remarks about making sure there's a space for everybody who wants to serve and who's qualified to serve.

I want to start hopefully not with an easy question, because I know you don't need easy questions, and you are...

DR. HICKS: I don't mind easy questions. That's OK. Full stop. No problem.

MODERATOR: But I wanted to start with a little about your personal experience. How did -- what did you aspire to be when you were growing up? And how does that align with where you are now?

DR. HICKS: Sure, well, I'll -- I won't go all the way back to the beginning, but I'll say when I was in college, I was really debating between, did I want to be a professor, or did I want to do public service? And as I was finishing up college, I actually applied to graduate programs in both history -- professor is what I was thinking at the time, or public policy schools. And you know, as I kind of weighed that through in my head, I really thought the call to mission was very important. 

I grew up in a military family. At the time, I didn't think of it in the national security sense per se. But I definitely grew up with both of my parents being very engaged in community, and in the case of my father, being, you know, active duty military career, active duty military.

So I pursued the public policy course, and you know, in that sense, was drawn pretty early toward what the life of public service could offer. I've done that in the nonprofit sector and in government. I think you can serve in lots of different ways. I've chosen a civilian path, and that's what gets me going every day. That's my passion.

MODERATOR: OK, thank you so much on that. I love that piece on being able to serve in different capacities. I myself am navigating...

DR. HICKS: Yeah.

MODERATOR: ... that as we speak.

DR. HICKS: Yeah.

MODERATOR: So thank you for speaking about that.

And so shifting a little bit towards policies and gender within the DOD, could you talk us through some recent changes that the -- or initiatives, that focus on improving the environment for the workforce as it relates to gender, and perhaps some areas that we still need some work on?

DR. HICKS: Sure, absolutely. Well, let me first say, back to taking care of people, everything we do to make the force stronger and healthier is helping the women in our force. 

So when we think about pay raises, which we've given both civilian and military, when we think about improvements that we're making in our installations, mental health -- excuse me -- behavioral health improvements, expansion of our offerings through DHA -- all of that helps women.

On the specific issues that are probably most important to women, I'd highlight a few things. First, I'd highlight the recent expansion of parental leave, which there was both a piece that was statutory, the six months of stat -- six weeks -- excuse me -- of statutory leave that we -- everyone got excited there for a minute. And then...


DR. HICKS: We added to that -- Under Secretary Cisneros added to that six, you know, additional weeks for -- so you have the convalescent leave, and then the leave for parents. So that's one good example that's very recent.

Also in the childcare vein, we've done a lot of work in the taking-care-of-people realm to make sure we can expand the offerings both through our formal Child Development Centers, our CDCs, but also off-post, if you will, off-installation, in terms of expanding access to our subsidized childcare offerings, and we're doing more there. There's a childcare crisis throughout the United States. We certainly are a reflection of that, but we have world-class childcare in DOD. So we're looking to expand our offerings while keeping that really high quality of care. And you'll see some other things. We have a budget coming out in just a few days. You'll see some other initiatives that I can't preview here that are along the same lines. 

There -- you know, even though those are some recent items, there are some things that I think are worth mentioning that go back a little longer, because we've had such success with them, and the most obvious is the work that then-Secretary Ash Carter, who's recently passed away, undertook to open all combat roles to women. 

And so about eight years into that effort, we in fact have seen the expansion of all combat roles to women. All who are qualified can serve in those roles, and I think it's incredibly important to our longer-term success to make sure we can get women to the top, you know, and that's a clear requirement on the military side, is to have those combat MOSs available to them.

MODERATOR: Yeah, thank you so much. I love that you brought up the parental leave policy cause even -- I have two children and what a drastic difference between when I had my first one and when I had my oldest one. And I also really like the parental policy because it's something that addressed -- that opened the doors for men, right? As far as taking leave, and it shows an example of how advancing policies for women also opens up the doors for men as well. And so I really appreciate -- or parents in general, right? Cause it includes people who are adopting. And so I really -- I think that's a really great example ... 

DR. HICKS: Yeah, and I'd just add on that -- if you look at, you know, what -- the generation we need to bring into our civilian and military ranks, what they value, what they care about, it is much less than it would have been in previous generations about which gender you are. 

It's about what the institution values, it's about your ability to manage life and to do so successfully, and I think we bring a lot to the table there. And to your point, that matters a lot to the men who we are looking to recruit and retain as well.

MODERATOR: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much. So now I wanted to shift to one of my favorite topics, Women, Peace and Security. It's a framework that acknowledges that women and girls need to be at the table and they need to be the part of the decisions that are being made and that they need to, in order to achieve international peace and security. And the four main pillars focus on protection, prevention, participation, and relief and recovery.

Could you talk us through the importance of Women, Peace and Security, the department's strategy of implementation, and where you believe we should focus?

DR. HICKS: Yes, so such an important initiative, worldwide initiative. I just have -- actually have come from the White House for the First Lady and the Secretary of State to give the Awards of Courage to women who are, you know, in different conflict zones around the world, really standing up for women and girls. So important portfolio.

There is an external-facing piece of it, I would say, for the department, and an internal-facing. So sticking with the external, as I just talked about, there are specific effects of conflict on women and girls, and one of the major initiatives the Secretary has had is his Civilian Harm Mitigation Plan. That work is ongoing. We're standing up a Center of Excellence. The Army's been assigned that responsibility. 

We're expanding -- we have the billets and the dollars to expand training across the whole force -- this is called CHMR-AP, so on CHMR-AP -- and those efforts, alongside what was already existing in terms of our, you know, gender advisors throughout the force, this is really empowering them to start to have the resources they need to look at the effects of civilian harm, look at the effects on -- particular on women and girls in conflict-- and to make sure our force understands that piece of it, as well as the value that women bring to the negotiating table. So if you're looking at conflict resolution anywhere that we are in the world, and we certainly have been through 20 years where that's been really important, we need to be able to bring women to the table.

Looking inward, I think the most significant thing we have done is begun the implementation of the more than 80 recommendations of our Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault -- Countering Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment and Domestic Violence. That work is ongoing. There is [sic] thousands of prevention workforce employees being hired on as we speak. 

There is significant work throughout -- I really give hats off to Beth Foster and her team, the P&R team, for the work they are doing to really get that underway. That will have -- speaking of effects beyond women, that -- yes, that helps us on our Women, Peace and Security because what we're trying to do is make sure we are a good employer for women, and that of course means we have to counter this scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment, also an issue that affects men in our force, and it's also a case where that prevention workforce will help us on things like suicide prevention, alcohol/drug abuse, et cetera. 

So there are a lot of effects that go beyond the specifics of Women, Peace and Security but it shows you how, when you invest in those areas, it can really grow, again, from externally, in terms of developing peace solutions in a conflict, to here in our own institutions, really just creating a healthier workforce and a healthier workforce environment.

MODERATOR: Yeah, I think what you touched on is exactly what I was thinking, is that everything is tied in together so much, right? And so if you address one component, it kind of helps address multiple areas where we can improve on.

And then also, thank you for touching on the piece of both focus internally and externally. A conversation I was having earlier today focused on, you know, when it comes to Women, Peace and Security, should we be looking at policy or culture, and the answer's really both, right? You have to do -- they're two different things but they're both equally as important when pushing this agenda.

And then the last thing I thought of was I always have a hard time coming up with an example of conveying how Women, Peace and Security looks like when implemented well, and thankfully, a good example I have now is Operation Allies Welcome, where it's the first example where gender fulcrum points and gender advisors were intentionally integrated into welcoming refugees from Afghanistan, and I really do think it contributed to its success but I do think it has to become more of, like, the norm versus the exception. So ... 

DR. HICKS: Yeah, that's so true. When I visited -- I think it was Fort Monroe in in Virginia, and you know, saw the value of the gender advisors helping just to make sure, for instance, that the line for personal goods, which could include feminine products -- could include lots of things but there was a separate line for women. That was the gender and culturally-appropriate approach to welcoming, you know, our allies there. So that was a great -- I think you're right, a great example for us overall.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Now I'm going to touch on something maybe not -- or a little bit of a challenge but recruitment, right? We've all heard a lot about recruitment recently. And as you mentioned in your opening remarks, we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of the All-Volunteer Force, which is great, but as we all know, it comes at a time where recruitment is becoming intentionally more difficult or a little bit more of a sticking point.

What are your thoughts on how we begin to bridge the civilian/military gap that exists? And what do you -- what is being done to improve it?

DR. HICKS: Sure. So the first thing I'll say is let's come back and talk about retention. So we'll come back on that, which is a good news story.

On recruitment, we have a dynamic unlike any we have seen since the beginning of the all-volunteer force. We've had a pandemic that's kept folks out of school and most specifically have kept our recruiters, therefore, further away from the target audience high-school aged children.

Please excuse this frog in my throat. 

In addition to that, you have the hottest economy, lowest unemployment rate in a generation, which make it harder in general for anyone to recruit. It's hard for any company right now to recruit.

If you layer onto that some trends we're seeing societally, we're seeing gaps-- speaking of trouble hiring and recruiting-- for doctors, for nurses, fire fighters, law enforcement, AmeriCorps, Peace Corp., and of course now we know the military.

So there's work to be done there. I think there is a basic civics problem that I would nest this in, sorry. And that's really around, you know, why don't we have a generation that sees public service as valuable and then military service within that.

And I failed to even mention the most obvious, which is we have fewer veterans in our population and they will continue to decrease as a percent of the population over time. So there is less familiarity with the military. So I think there is a national call to service that's required.

The secretary has really laid that out for the Defense Department and I think he's joined by the -- you know a variety of other actors, the National Commission on Public Service, for instance, which is a few years old, noted this problem.

So there's a lot that has to be done there. What can we do here inside DOD? Well, first we can make sure we put a good value proposition forward. So that's get to a lot of these taking care of people issues, which we is talked about in the retention piece we're going to talk about in a second.

But it also means that we need people to be able to hear the call to service and that means we need voices making that call. Little stories tell the big story. Individual cases of why did you join either to join the civilian workforce or the uniform workforce, our contractors or the folks in the industrial base who are working with DOD. You know that's a choice. Why work with Defense? Why is that a value proposition? It's about what we think -- how aligned we are to the values of this nation and how we defend them.

And I think we need everyone out there telling that story. 

Practically speaking, we're also going to spend more. I am the Deputy so it comes down to money at some point. We're going to spend more on the efforts that we have underway. Folks may know the Army, for instance, just released yesterday their new be all -- their all-new retro Be All You Can Be campaign. I think you're going to see each of the services taking their own spin on how they're going after recruiting challenges.

But that's a little bit of how we're looking at it. A lot of focus.

MODERATOR: Yeah, there's a lot of space to do a lot of great things but the way I see it even for our service members here today that are wearing the uniform, you guys are like one of our best marketing tools walking around and I know that I didn't see myself in uniform. I didn't even know that was a possibility for me until I saw someone in uniform. So I think very small steps can make big differences and thank you for touching on that.

And you wanted me to bring up retention.

DR. HICKS: Retention.

MODERATOR: Yes. And so I will bring up retention. But it's a good point, like you said.


MODERATOR: It's -- our retention is higher. I think a lot of people couple recruitment and retention together but they are different -- slightly different approaches and as you mentioned with recruitment we're not doing so well but with -- retention is doing well. However, it is -- retention is not as high for women as it is for men.

DR. HICKS: Correct.

MODERATOR: And so what are working to -- what are we doing to close that gap?

DR. HICKS: Sure. Well first, let me tell the good news story, which is that every service is above its -- for 2022, was above its retention goals and it's the highest retention, again, in, I'm told, 50 years, by the Joint Staff . Across all of the services, we're doing very, very well.

So we -- at the same time that we're looking at our -- the “whys” on recruiting, we want to really understand the “whys” on retention cause you know, where we're doing things right, we want to make sure we're taking the right lessons away.

I think one of the right lessons is that readiness is pretty good right now. We're hearing from commanders that the readiness funding is relatively robust -- if you have the tools to do your job, you're trained and equipped -- and these taking care of our people initiatives are underway. 

You know, we're not a perfect workplace but we're a workplace that recognizes our challenges and goes after them, and there's something to that. There's an ability to trust. So those are some of my intuitions about what we'll find in that.

You are absolutely right that women and minorities, by the way, are not retained at the same percent -- or at an equal percent with others in the force. One of those reasons is of course the promotion rates, and that's something we look very hard at. We now collect data, I think, very effectively, and that includes not just by rank but also by MOS, officer and enlisted of course, and we know where those, you know, leveling off points, those knees in the curves are for women, and we're starting to look at how do we go after them?

Some of the things, we already talked about -- parental leave, childcare, we have -- Air Force has an initiative -- or a policy change in terms of the ability to continue flying while pregnant, in consultation with your doctor. You know, things like that that make it possible to continue to progress in your career. That helps us retain people.

The other thing that helps us retain people is having people at the top who want to make sure that you are retained, and I think you have to be able to see yourself, if you're looking from the bottom up, and believe that you have a pathway. 

We now have a Service Secretary who's female, we have three combatant commanders who are female, we have -- the VCNO is female, the Commandant of the Coast Guard is female. This matters. I guarantee you it matters. And as somebody who's often at the heads of tables, it makes a difference to be able to have, in any conversation where you're making policy decisions, you know, that diversity of voices to bring lots of different perspectives.

And lots of different ways to measure diversity. It's not just in gender, but the gender piece has made a difference, and I think when women are making a choice of "do I stay or do I go," where it's a -- you know, if they're points are “were we are not equitable,” that's on us and we have to work on that, and then if we're -- if they're points were women are choosing to leave and part of that choice is because they can't see themselves advancing, I think we need to show them that pathway.

MODERATOR: Yeah, I -- a slight add, if I may -- we also have a Deputy Secretary of Defense that's a woman.


So thank you for showing us an example of what we can be and especially about -- one of the things that I thought of -- a lot of times, the military's viewed as an alternative to education, and for me and maybe for a lot of my colleagues that are still serving active duty, it's a pathway to education.

My parents could definitely not afford to send me to college, which is why the Air Force opened so many doors for me, and I'm very proud to say I'm very thankful that because of it, I now have a Bachelor's, two Master's, and currently pursuing my Doctorate at Georgetown, all on the DOD. So thank you -- thank you -- thank you ... 


... thank you. So yeah, just finding ways to show that it's a pathway to education and not an alternative.

DR. HICKS: Yeah.

MODERATOR: And then if we have time -- oh, we're going to wrap it up. We have -- I have time ... 


This one's a little bit of the harder question. 


MODERATOR: You mentioned budget earlier, so it's related to National Defense Strategy. We recently marked the one year anniversary of Russia's war against Ukraine, and what are key lessons learned that are informing your perspective of how future wars will be fought and won? Have they shaped your investments on forthcoming defense budget, or whatever you can share with -- about that -- and such as investments focused on the PRC pacing challenge?

DR. HICKS: Sure. So they definitely are influencing -- shaping the investment choices we're making. I do want to say, you know, I'm cautious about lessons-learned – lessons-learned processes because you often need a little more time and distance to make sure you're pulling the right lessons.

So we are actively engaged in taking on the lessons of Ukraine and using them to think through, for instance, a Taiwan crisis or other potential crises of the future, but we're also trying to make sure that that's an ongoing process, that there's, you know, serious work that's happening, whether it's in the war colleges or elsewhere through other parts of the department that are working on lessons learned. I think that's important to say.

So what are those out of the gate lessons that we're definitely already working off of and taking away? I would say first is, you know, as we have long known, readiness matters. I said before we're a ready force, we're a capable force, we're a force that has operated, and the Russian force was large and not effective, and even to this day, continues to be quite ineffective -- not well trained, not well organized, has not moved away from an old Soviet model for how they train, they don't have the same NCO corps approach. 

There's a lot that they're missing and we think that others will see -- whether it's in North Korea, you know, or PRC, they will see that the U.S. is quite capable. And we have been training -- we, the West, have been training the Ukrainians since 2014 in a Western model of warfare and they are focusing -- they, themselves, are focused on training.

That also gets to the second piece, which is that partner matters a lot, the will of the people matters, their invest -- the degree to which they are invested in their self-defense matters, and we think that's an important lesson, both for aggressors to understand that a -- you know, a seemingly less-capable neighbor, you know, with a lot of will and gut and determination and support, can make it very -- can give you a big headache. That's an important lesson. And it's also good for us to know that, you know, helping in that way, helping with equipment, helping with other non-lethal support makes a big difference to those societies.

And I think the other big, big takeaway of course is the value -- the asymmetric value to the United States of Allies and partners. We have been able to put together for Ukraine, alongside, you know, our NATO Allies and the Ukrainians themselves, a substantial international coalition that's making sure that aggressors around the world understand we're going to create economic consequences, your conflicts are going to be protracted, they're going to be long, they're going to be unpleasant and bloody, and that's a difficult pill to swallow if you're an aggressor who wants a really quick win, you know, for your domestic audience, for instance.

So those are all things we're taking back with us and are in fact informing what we invest in.

MODERATOR: Those are a lot of lessons learned.


DR. HICKS: Yeah -- yeah.

MODERATOR: And -- and the ... 

DR. HICKS: That was the short version.

MODERATOR: I was going to say I'm sure that there's a lot where that came from. 

And in the interest of time, to be able to give the audience the opportunity to ask questions, I'd just like to personally thank you, before we open it up to the floor, for your time today, for talking to us about your personal experiences and policy and retention and recruitment. 

But I wanted to open it up to the floor. And do we have any questions? Oh, only one question -- oh, I see the first hand go up right here, second row.


Q: Hi, ma'am. Colonel Lesley Kipling, National Guard Bureau. Many of the Taking Care Of People initiatives really focus on active duty or resources at a military base. How are the -- how is the reserve component being taken into consideration for these initiatives, as well?

DR. HICKS: Sure. The reserve -- the total force is really our focus for all the Taking Care Of People initiatives. So I think I would say -- I believe we have done a good job all the way through in each of the initiatives. It probably depend on what you're thinking of if you think there's a difference there. I would simply also add that for the Deputy's Workforce Council, which is where we sort of work through this issue set, and then a layer below that, the WMG, the Workforce Management Group, maybe, which is run by the Under Secretary for PNR, the National Guard Bureau is an active participant in both of those -- at both of those layers, and General Sasseville is a great representative for all the needs of the National Guard. The Reserve component -- the R.C. piece of the RC is the services are also bringing that forward in their representation. But we do work very hard to make sure we are applying our solutions against the total force.

MODERATOR: Thank -- oh, we do have one more. Oh, yes. Thank you. Anyone else? 

DR. HICKS: Just one, yeah.

MODERATOR: Right over here, third row.

Q: Thank you. So we know retaining female leaders is a key readiness issue. How can the department converge and work jointly to improve command climate? And particularly, how do we integrate the gains that we've made in our people priorities into readiness, or our conceptions of readiness?

DR. HICKS: Yes, I mean I absolutely think we need to understand, and I think good leaders already do throughout the department, that readiness is about, you know, in the fire, you trust who's on your left and who's on your right, and you can operate together effectively as a unit, right? And to operate effectively as a unit, you have to, again, trust each other and building that trust is what this is all about. If we're going to have the advantages that we can from the U.S. workforce and we have a huge demographics advantage over competitors, we have to actually tap into that demographic -- women is the focus today. There are lots of other demographic factors we have to be thinking about.

So we want to tap into the broadest-possible pool, right? That means when you're building a team out of the broadest-possible pool, there's so much opportunity in that, because we already have plenty of business school research that tells us diverse teams are stronger teams. They give you better outcomes, better investments, better every -- better decision-making -- lots of study on that. But you have to then, of course, go through the part of building readiness that is building that diversity into a team.

So as I said, I do think good leaders throughout the department understand that and have long understood that, but we have challenges, and it's about making sure that we continue to advance leaders who have that mentality. There are initiatives underway throughout the department. I will point to one, which is the Army has an evaluation approach they are using now for officers, and it's been adopted in some ways by some of the other services. There are versions of this in the services. But they are looking more holistically at leadership capabilities and capacities so that we, indeed, are advancing leaders who understand how to make the most out of a unit, and that is readiness.

MODERATOR: Well, I think that's all we have time for for today. I'm personally thankful that you, ma'am, had to answer those questions, and not me.


MODERATOR: Thank you so much for taking your time to celebrate today.

DR. HICKS: Absolutely.

MODERATOR: And thank you all for being here to celebrate International Women's Day.

DR. HICKS: Yeah, happy International Women's Day.



MODERATOR: Yeah, appreciate it. Thanks so much.