Can Space Force Be the First Military Branch Built for Women?

For nearly 250 years, the U.S. military has designed its machines, career paths, and uniforms through a male lens. Now, the Space Force has a chance to make history as the only military branch built with women in mind from the start.

The Space Force, created in December 2019 to manage military satellite and radar operations and rocket launches, is the sole branch of the armed forces in which women have held equal roles from the beginning. In the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, women have spent the past few centuries gradually integrating into a lifestyle and workplace created largely by men, for men.

The Space Force knows it is unique. It’s by far the smallest armed force, as it looks to grow to about 7,000 people by next fall. It’s an apparatus dominated by computer workstations, not artillery. And while those can be assets to women looking for military careers, female service members say the Space Force can pursue a more equitable force through changes to recruitment, policy, professional development, and infrastructure.

“We need those people at the table,” said 1st Lt. Hannah Garcia-Park, orbital analyst officer in charge at the 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. “Rich diversity of thought, that rich diversity of backgrounds, that’s what’s going to bring it to the next level.”

At the beginning of 2020, women comprised 22 percent of officers and 21 percent of enlisted members in the Department of the Air Force, which oversees the Space Force. Nearly 30 percent of its civilian employees were women. The Space Force did not provide service-specific demographic data by press time.

Women have broken all but the four-star glass ceiling in the Space Force so far: its chief and vice chief of space operations are both men. Of the six uniformed members in headquarters leadership, one is female: Staff Director Lt. Gen. Nina M. Armagno. She is the only woman promoted to three-star in the Space Force so far.

Other women are spread across the service’s general officer ranks, like Maj. Gen. Kimberly A. Crider, mobilization assistant to the Chief of Space Operations; Maj. Gen. DeAnna M. Burt, operations and communications director at Space Force headquarters; and Brig. Gen. Jody A. Merritt, mobilization assistant to the head of U.S. Space Command’s Combined Force Space Component Command.

The Space Force has played up milestones like Armagno’s promotion and the first time an all-female crew managed a GPS satellite as part of the 2nd Space Operations Squadron. It has also begun welcoming its first female chief master sergeants, noting that the Air Force took 13 years after its creation in 1947 to do the same.

“We have a lot of women on the operations floor,” said Garcia-Park. “A lot of the time when I’m pulling shifts, we’ll have a female crew commander, I’ll have another female orbital analyst with me, I’ll have another conjunction assessment female. It is awesome to see how much diversity there is already, and then also in our leadership, too.”

It’s inspiring to see women in those top posts, said Space Force members who spoke to Air Force Magazine. But there’s more work to do before the service can pat itself on the back.

As Space Force recruitment gets up and running, service officials are pushing for more female and minority prospects. A new commercial launched in late October, titled U.S. Space Force: Origins, prominently portrays the role of women in the new service. They’ll particularly look for people with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

That worries 1st Lt. Emily G. Remeta, chief of standardization and evaluations at the 7th Space Warning Squadron at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. The aerospace engineering major and Reserve Officer Training Corps graduate believes focusing recruitment efforts solely on people with STEM degrees can lead to underrepresentation of women in the force.

STEM fields are still overwhelmingly male: women earned about 19 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in physical sciences like chemistry and physics, 21 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in engineering, and 42 percent of bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and statistics in 2016, according to the latest data compiled by the National Science Foundation.

In addition to targeting groups like the Society of Women Engineers, Remeta suggested the service should recruit members more broadly, then introduce them to aerospace studies through avenues like the Community College of the Air Force.

Garcia-Park wants to overcome the imbalance by encouraging girls in grade school to pursue those careers. Proponents argue that the Space Force and the new space age will spur more girls to look into technical fields as well.

For recruitment to succeed, the Space Force has to be something worth joining. Some of what it inherently offers can have an outsized impact on female recruitment and retention.

Space jobs are largely located in the continental U.S., with most military space ops personnel spread across Colorado, California, and Florida. Compared to the other services, the smaller number of bases with space missions makes it easier to establish a home in one place instead of enduring frequent moves.

Unlike flying planes in combat, much of the space mission relies on control consoles and launch ranges that remain in the U.S. Because most of that work can happen from home station, the Space Force expects to deploy less often than the other services. That can appeal to women who might forgo military service for a less transient life that makes it easier to start a family, or who may find it difficult to meet the physical requirements of combat or special operations jobs.

“It saves female service members from having to make huge sacrifices early in their career, so they can serve more if they want,” said 1st Lt. Katelyn Curley, 18th Space Control Squadron weapons and tactics chief of exercises at Vandenberg. “A lot of them do want to serve longer, but … they also want to have families.”

Women could also see more job flexibility through the Space Force’s future version of the Reserves, and through other policies the service enacts to more fluidly share workers with the private sector.

Past what’s already baked into the service, members see opportunities for changes that can keep women in uniform longer.

They pointed to insufficient maternity leave and child care options as top concerns. Department of the Air Force members can receive six weeks of medical leave after giving birth, and another six weeks of leave to care for a child after a birth or adoption. Leave for fathers or other secondary caregivers can last three weeks.

“Most bases try their best, but child care is really tough to come by,” Remeta said. “If both parents are working, it can get really expensive really fast, and it can get to where it’s just cheaper for someone to either retire from the military or not work, and one parent stays home.”

Some hope having more women in leadership, who know the challenges of juggling family and the office, will lead to a healthier work-life balance and broader representation. They also want it to spur more intentional efforts to point women toward the highest echelons.

“Walking through the radar, we have a lot more women today than we did when I was a young Airman 10, 15 years ago,” said Master Sgt. Nadia P. Segovia-Spehar, who is taking over as superintendent of Beale’s 7th Space Warning Squadron. “That’s exciting. I just feel like there’s some things that are missing.”

She wants to see a program to foster leadership potential in young women and provide the resources they need to succeed. The unique challenges of female service members and working moms aren’t talked about, she said, and empowerment should mean more than an occasional female leadership luncheon.

In the past, she’s felt that the Department of the Air Force has overlooked women for promotion because of motherhood. Not only should the Space Force help women decide that they want a military career, Segovia-Spehar said, but it should help them explore options for how those paths might progress.

“I feel like some of the opportunities are missed,” she said.

Mentorship has taught Lt. Col. Teina Stallings-Lilly, commander of the Air Force Reserve’s 4th Space Warning Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo., how to empower her team so they can meet the missile warning mission while she juggles responsibilities as a single mother.

Women should reach out to their superiors, male or female, for guidance so they can be mentors themselves someday, she said. 

Good Space Force leaders should model healthy work hours and recognize when their employees are burning out, particularly those who have a lot going on at home, Segovia-Spehar said.

Younger space professionals said they value the different perspectives that female leaders bring to the workplace. For one, Stallings-Lilly said her life experiences as a Black woman have shaped her into a coalition-building boss.

Garcia-Park said her superiors have encouraged her to aim for a competitive spot in a leadership school, while also teaching her how to help others and proving that “you can be married, you can have a family, … and also serve America.”

With more women in the ranks, leading to more dual-military relationships and civilian husbands, people sometimes point out that military society can do more to recognize those changes.

“Whenever I go to his unit’s functions, I always get approached about if I want to be a part of key spouse functions and that sort of stuff, which are phenomenal programs, but they’re generally for civilians … and specifically, the majority of them are for wives,” Remeta said of her husband, an Air Force maintainer. “That’s never really been offered to him for my unit. … People kind of raise their eyebrows. They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ when they hear that I’m also in the military. … No one ever assumes it.”

Technology and infrastructure modernization can move forward with women in mind, too.

Beale Air Force Base’s massive early-warning radar known as PAVE PAWS, which tracks satellites and ballistic missile launches, was designed years before female personnel got there. Women who run it now say it’s lacking in equal accommodations, particularly for working moms.

There’s no dedicated spot with a door where women can breastfeed or pump milk at the radar, other than the shower in a shared bathroom, Segovia-Spehar said. 

It’s a 40-minute roundtrip drive between the radar and Beale’s main buildings where someone could pump more privately for an hour, the mother of two said. That’s untenable for a process that needs to happen every few hours.

Feminine hygiene products like tampons aren’t available in their bathrooms, either. “That’s something that, as a woman, you have to plan for,” Segovia-Spehar said. “You’ve got to be prepared at all times.”

Remeta noted that more women’s bathrooms and showers and larger locker rooms on base would be nice.

“There weren’t women in here until like the ’90s,” she said. “A lot of these buildings are just old and, frankly, weren’t designed with females working there and thinking about stuff like that, so everything’s been repurposed. … As new buildings are built, of course that’s factored in, and for the larger units it’s factored in, but a lot of these space units are pretty small.”

Female space operators don’t want preferential treatment—but they do want the military to acknowledge ways in which gender matters.

“I just saw the first maternity [Official Camouflage Pattern uniforms] like, last week here on base. It’s just little stuff like that.” Remeta said. “I don’t want to say it makes you ‘other,’ but you know in your head that you’re different. You’re not fully part of the team quite yet. It’s nothing anyone does directly, but you can tell.”

But women are optimistic that leaders will take advantage of the Space Force’s newness to move toward a more equitable service.

“It’s not just a boys’ club anymore,” Remeta said. “We’re here at the beginning and we’ll always be here.”