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Research Questions

  1. To what extent does the representation of women and racial and ethnic minorities in the Air Force, particularly among senior leaders, match the make-up of the general population?
  2. What factors led to the current state of racial/ethic and gender diversity among senior leaders in the Air Force?
  3. What roles do accessions, development, promotion, and retention play in shaping the demographic diversity of the Air Force?
  4. Why do female officers have lower rates of retention than male officers?
  5. Are female or minority line officers any less or more likely to be promoted than equally situated line officers who are white or male?
  6. Which characteristics differ along racial/ethnic or gender lines and are also important to promotion?
  7. What steps can the Air Force take to increase racial/ethnic and gender diversity, particularly among senior leaders?

Despite the Air Force's efforts to create a force that mirrors the racial, ethnic, and gender differences of the nation's population, minority groups and women are underrepresented in the active-duty line officer population, especially at senior levels (i.e., colonel and above). This report examines the reasons for this, with the goal of identifying potential policy responses.

The authors analyzed data from multiple sources on Air Force eligibility, youths' intention to serve, accessions, retention, and promotion. A key finding is that African Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented in the Air Force compared with the nation's population mainly because they meet Air Force officer eligibility requirements at lower rates (e.g., they are much less likely than whites to have a college degree). Another reason for lower representation of minorities and women among senior leaders is that, once in the military, women and minorities are less likely to choose career fields that give them the highest potential to become senior leaders. In addition, female officers have lower retention rates than male officers, and the reasons for this are not clear. Finally, the authors comprehensively examined the Air Force promotion system and found no evidence to suggest it treats women and minorities differently than white men with similar records. The authors recommend that the Air Force should seek comparable quality across ethnic/minority groups in the accession processes, since competitiveness even at this stage is a predictor of promotion success. More racial/ethnic minorities and women who are cadets and officers should be in rated career fields, which have the highest promotion rates to the senior ranks.

Key Findings

Levels of Racial/Ethnic and Gender Diversity Among Air Force Officers

  • The representation of minorities and women in Air Force officer ranks has increased significantly over the past two decades but is still below these groups' representation in the general population, at all ranks.
  • As rank increases, the proportion of minority and female officers decreases.

Factors That Explain Differences in the Representation of Racial/Ethnic Minorities and Women Among Air Force Officers: Eligibility, Accessions, Retention, and Promotion

  • Air Force accessions are less diverse than the general population in terms of race/ethnicity mainly because some minority groups meet Air Force eligibility requirements at lower rates. For example, African Americans and Hispanics are much less likely than whites to have a college degree.
  • Women have a higher rate of eligibility than men, in large part because women are more likely to have college degrees. However, their representation is lower than their eligibility rate would suggest. This is likely explained by young men having a generally much higher interest in serving in the armed forces.
  • The retention of women is significantly lower than that of men, and this finding is not clearly attributable to women's decisions about having children and other family characteristics, as it is in the civilian workforce.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that the Air Force promotion system is unfair, in that there are few large and unexplained racial/ethnic or gender differences in the probability of promotion. However, characteristics associated with certain groups of recruits, such as African Americans' tendency to have lower Air Force Academy order of merit scores, have a negative effect on promotion that builds over time. Minorities and women are more likely than whites and men to be in career fields that have lower promotion rates to senior ranks.


  • The Air Force has little influence over the background social patterns and institutions that contribute to lower education, citizenship, and health eligibility among minorities. Therefore, if the Air Force wants to draw in more minority youth, either selection criteria need to change or the Air Force will need to focus on outreach and recruiting strategies.
  • The Air Force should further investigate why female officers have lower retention rates than male officers.
  • If improving promotion prospects for minorities is a policy goal, the Air Force likely needs to begin with recruiting. The accession sources should seek comparable quality across ethnic/minority groups in their admission and selection processes, since competitiveness even at this stage is a predictor of promotion success.
  • More racial/ethnic minorities and women who are cadets and officers should be in rated career fields, which have the highest promotion rates.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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