Defense Secretary Mark Esper

Defense Secretary Mark Esper Dana M. Clarke

Pentagon to Employees: How Can We Boost Diversity?

The request is part of Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s overhaul of personnel practices.

The Defense Department is asking all employees to provide feedback on how it can improve diversity and inclusion among its mostly white, male workforce.

The department’s Board on Diversity and Inclusion on Tuesday reiterated its callfor suggestions by October 16 so the board can incorporate them into a report to Defense Secretary Mark Esper by December 15. The board is one of two Espercreated in June to foster an “enterprise-wide, organizational and cultural shift.” Although the Pentagon has made some inroads on diversity over the years, the Defense workforce (civilian and military) in 2018 was 82% male and 71% white, according to the department’s most recent report on its Military One Source website.

“Hearing from our service members is critical in helping the Department of Defense make lasting changes to our military culture,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Troy Dunn, the board's senior military member. “All members of the Department of Defense are invited to join this important conversation. Since solutions will not come from the Pentagon alone, we offer the milSuite link to seek your feedback through open and honest dialogue on diversity and inclusion.”

The board is reviewing the military’s policies and practices and studying best practices from non-Defense organizations to develop new policies to ensure that “our ranks reflect and are inclusive of the American people we have sworn an oath to protect and defend,” Esper said in announcing the board. The report to the secretary will include recommendations on recruitment, retention, promotion, workplace culture, professional development opportunities and inclusion of personal and cultural identities in grooming, hair and dress standards. 

According to the Military One Source report, the percentage of women on active duty increased from about 14% in fiscal 2000 to nearly 17% in fiscal 2018 (enlisted women and female officers were just under 15% and 14%, respectively, in 2000 and 16% and 18%, respectively, in 2018). The report noted that non-Hispanic racial and ethnic minority representation in the military remained steady between fiscal 2010 and 2018 (it increased slightly from 30% to 31%). The report did not break down changes in the civilian workforce over time, however the department’s civilian human capital plan for fiscal 2020-2021 published in October 2019 identified improving diversity in the workforce as one of its goals. Many agencies struggle to meet diversity goals, including the State Departmentand law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI.

Esper said in June that while the department rejects discrimination, hate and bigotry, “we are not immune to the forces of bias and prejudice,” which “has [a] direct and indirect impact on the experiences of our minority members.” 

The impending changes at Defense come after a summer of protests for racial justice and debate over the removal of statues and monuments dedicated to racist and segregationist public officials—something a number of senior Defense officials have publicly supported. In July, Esper effectively banned the display of confederate flags at military installations.