As a young cadet under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—the former U.S. policy that restricted LGBTQ+ Americans from openly serving in the military—Gina Ortiz Jones was forced to hide her identity as a lesbian. Jones, who now proudly serves as Under Secretary of the Air Force and is the first woman of color in the role and the first out lesbian under secretary of any military branch, spoke on Tuesday at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. about her goal of making the armed forces more inclusive, “ensuring our folks can serve to their full potential.”
Jones says those early experiences “knowing that your leadership team could not have been fully committed to your success because that was the policy” shaped how she leads. As the second highest ranking civilian leader in the air force, she prioritizes surrounding herself with people who have different perspectives, and is committed to addressing head-on the challenges that disproportionately affect women and people of color, which in turn “impact readiness and retention.”
“If somebody cannot in their day focus 100% on the mission, then we need to fix that, right? I need folks focused on the mission, not on childcare, not on other things that are distracting, that we can, frankly, invest in and make sure that we’ve got adequate resources for. Because at the end of the day, if we’re leaving talent on the table, we’re leaving lethality on the table,” she says.
Jones has also been committed to addressing the longstanding problem of sexual assault in the military, and has directed the colocation of support services to make it easier for victims to find resources when they need them. “One, it minimizes the retraumatization; I don’t want somebody having to tell their story four or five times if they don’t need to,” she says. “Secondly, this also allows for better data collection …. which will ensure that we better support the survivor as well as ensure that we can inform our prevention efforts.”
She has also leaned on data to help highlight other “acute challenges” around race, gender, and ethnicity that persist in the armed forces and to counter earlier reports that showed women in the military on the whole were doing well. “When you looked at the intersection of [race, gender, and ethnicity], you actually saw that the progress of white women was masking the lack of progress of women of color,” she says. “And so having that data allows us to be clear-eyed about where we have some unique challenges, how we might scope some efforts to ensure that we recognize the problem, and then can adequately address those things and in a holistic manner.”
The daughter of a Filipina immigrant who came to the U.S. as a domestic worker, Jones says she’s aware of how lucky she is to have the opportunity to serve. “So you better believe every day I walk into the Pentagon, I pinch myself, and make sure that I’m the under secretary I wish I would have had when I was that young officer.”
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