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Research Questions

  1. What are current levels of representation of women, racial/ethnic minorities, and individuals with disabilities in the Air Force civilian white-collar workforce?
  2. What are potential barriers to the advancement and retention of civilian women, racial/ethnic minorities, and individuals with disabilities in this workforce?
  3. How can changes to policies and practices help the Air Force grow and retain a diverse civilian workforce?

The Air Force experiences challenges in maintaining a demographically diverse civilian workforce. This report documents the results of a study designed to better understand the challenges that Air Force civilian women, racial/ethnic minorities, and individuals with disabilities in General Schedule (GS) (and equivalent) positions may face in advancing to higher pay grades as well as factors they consider when deciding whether to remain with the Air Force. The study analyzed Air Force personnel data to identify demographic differences in advancement and retention patterns and conducted focus groups and interviews with close to 300 participants to better understand potential advancement and retention barriers. The report describes key findings related to differences in advancement and retention and provides recommendations for potential changes to Air Force policies and practices to help grow and retain civilian talent from across all demographics.

Key Findings

Women, racial/ethnic minorities, and individuals with disabilities are underrepresented at senior civilian pay grades

Minority groups, particularly women, tend to enter the Air Force civil service at lower grades than white men

  • Underrepresentation of women in the most senior grades largely stems from this entry gap and their not being able to "catch up."
  • Black and Hispanic men enter one grade level lower than do white men, and they are 15 percentage points less likely to begin in grades 11 and above.
  • The entry-level gap is largely a function of gender differences in job series, veteran status, and work experience.

Advancement rates of women and other minority groups are similar, with some unexplained gaps

  • The most consistent cases of low advancement are for Asian males, who show slower rates of advancement after about 8 years of service.
  • Qualitative analyses found that participants identified both structural barriers (e.g., few high-level positions in their career fields) and perceptual barriers (e.g., few role models in higher-level positions) to advancement.

Statistical analyses found that gender, race/ethnicity, or disability status were not significant factors in civilian retention

  • Factors most often cited in focus groups and interviews for leaving an Air Force civilian career were compensation and lack of advancement opportunities.
  • Factors most often cited in focus groups and interviews as influencing civilians to remain with the Air Force were commitment to the Air Force mission and work, benefits, and job security.


  • Identify and address root causes for the entry-level gap for women and other minority groups in the Air Force civil service.
  • Ensure that supervisors and managers involved in hiring and promotion decisions take responsibility for the career development and disability management of their staff — they should be accountable for taking concrete steps for developing staff, understanding and disseminating disability policies and procedures, and ensuring that position descriptions for higher-graded vacancies align with the Air Force's official career field guidance.
  • Monitor the advancement and retention of civilian demographic groups that have lower-than-expected advancement or retention rates. The Air Force should also consider linking Air Force civilian retention and exit survey data with personnel records to estimate the impact of civilian perceptions regarding compensation, mission, and other factors on future retention behavior.

Research conducted by

This research was cosponsored by the Air Force Directorate of Diversity and Inclusion (AF/A1V) and the Air Force Equal Opportunity Office (SAF/MRQ) and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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