Military diversity bill codifies commission's findings

Monday - 5/21/2012, 1:09pm EDT

Retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles

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Democratic lawmakers are pressuring the military to speed up the process of diversifying its top ranks.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced legislation (S. 3181) that would require the Pentagon to develop benchmarks for hiring and promoting women and minorities at the senior level.

The new legislation is based, in part, on the findings of a report issued in March 2011 by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC).

"It is important that more progress be made on the recommendations of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, including steps to increase transparency in the promotion process for leadership positions," Cardin said in a press release. "Diversity among the ranks of our fighting men and women is a strength that needs to be similarly reflected among the military leadership."

Retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles

Retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles, who led the MLDC, told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp his commission found that minorities and women were under-represented in the military's top ranks. To address those deficiencies, the report set down two broad recommedations:

  • The military services must establish a "demographically diverse leadership," reflecting the forces it leads and the public it serves.

  • The armed forces must also develop a "broader approach to diversity," drawing on a range of skills and backgrounds to enhance performance.

"The Pentagon has made great strides both as an organization, from the Secretary of Defense on down, and certainly within each one of the individual services," Lyles said. "I think one of the best indications of that has been recent promotions to three-star and four-star leadership positions in the services, many of which were made for women and minorities, I think, at an unprecedented level."

Despite these positive steps, Lyles acknowledged that some of MLDC's recommendations were more long-term in nature and will take time to adopt.

"One of our recommendations is that diversity become a core competency for the military," he said. This means that as individuals are recruited into the military, diversity should be a normal part of leadership training.

By doing that, Lyles and his colleagues on the MLDC hoped that the culture within the military would be changed for the future, so that addressing the topic of diversity will no longer be an issue. "It will just be accepted as a normal part of leadership for this great military we have in the United States," he said.

The greatest challenge the military faces in implementing these changes will be one of culture. "Changing the minds and mindsets of individuals, just to make sure they fully understand the benefits of diversity in the workforce," he said.

For those who might balk at all this diversity talk and say that the only thing that matters is whether someone is the best qualified for the job, Lyles said that it's still important for the senior staff to be reflective of the public it serves and the forces it leads.

"It's more than just gender," Lyles said. "It's more than just race. It's skills, in some cases, language skills. Other skills that you can bring to the fight, if I can use that terminology. The skills that are necessary to help the military accomplish the many missions that it has."

Lyles pointed to IBM, General Electric and Sudexo as examples of companies that have reaped the benefits of successful diversity programs. "Each one of them has shown that they have become more successful and better organizations by being more diverse," he said.

Lyles sees Gillibrand and Cardin's bill, as well as similar legislation introduced by Rep. Elijiah Cummings (D-Md.), as enhancements of MLDC's recommendations.

"The best thing that this proposed legislation will do is to help to codify and institutionalize the things that we recommended in our report," Lyles said. "Just as it has been in history, from desegregating the military back in the late '40s, I think DoD will be a leader in the area of diversity. Notwithstanding, what some other businesses have already done, I think the nature of our business and the fact that it's such a serious one — national security for our country — we will always strive to be the best that we can be in any endeavor."

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