Air Force Secretary Says Women Should Register For the Draft
For Air Force Secretary Deborah James, there should be no limit to equality in the armed forces, even when it comes to the draft.
On stage at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women Summit on Tuesday, former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren asked James about her personal views on whether or not women—like men—should register for the Selective Service at age 18.
James, who was installed as the branch’s 23rd secretary in 2013, doubled down on a position she’s stated before: “Very recently, we brought down all remaining gender barriers to all roles in the armed forces. We have equality in armed forces… so it is time for young women to register in the database.”
Under the Obama administration, the Pentagon has worked to fully integrate women into front-line and special combat roles, from which they were previously barred. “As long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in 2014 as he announced plans to open combat positions. President Barack Obama has heralded the effort as a chance for the military to draw from an even wider talent pool.
Subscribe to The World’s Most Powerful Women, Fortune’s daily must-read for global businesswomen.
After James voiced her support for including women in the draft, Van Susteren turned the tables, asking the secretary if she’d enter the armed forces now if she was 18. (James, the Air Force’s top civilian official, has no record of military service.)
“I would seriously consider it,” James said, citing the military’s “unparalleled” educational, travel, and leadership opportunities.
Those benefits are vital tools to fixing what James refers to as the Air Force’s “people problem,” which she identified as one of her top priorities—and what should be a big concern of whoever becomes Air Force secretary in the next administration. “We need to continue to attract from the widest [talent] pools available to get great, new young people through our doors,” she said.
Retention is the next challenge—one James says can be met by developing recruits, inspiring them, and creating a culture of “dignity and respect for all.” The Air Force needs to continue its fight against sexual assault, she said, and ensure proper pay and benefits that are comparable to those offered in the civilian labor force.
While James emphasized the Air Force’s efforts to be more inclusive, she stopped short of supporting a change to the very title that identifies its members—airmen. “Airmen is generic term,” James said. She said she has not heard complaints about the title internally and is therefore not pushing for a tweak. “There are bigger fish to fry, in my judgment,” she said.