Warrior Braids and the Air Force Women’s Initiative Team – The Invisible Labor behind Diversity, Inclusion, and Institutional Change

  • Published
  • By Maj Kelly Atkinson, USAF and Maj Alea Nadeem, USAF

Cast your gaze across the faces of US Air Force servicewomen in the days after 10 February 2021, and you cannot help but notice the joyous reaction to the service’s recent change in its hair standards for women.1 Ponytails are swinging free, braids are cascading down backs, and servicewomen are excelling in their military duties with a new edge of confidence. Amid all the fanfare and media blitz for this long-awaited and much-anticipated change in hair standards, it is easy to focus solely on the results and fail to examine the years of painstaking, process-oriented work that generated this change.2

Therein lies the problem: ignoring the work that supports diversity and inclusion efforts within bureaucratic institutions renders that work invisible. This process-oriented labor is far from glamorous and becomes ripe for co-optation by those who fail to recognize the effort, advocacy, and alliance-building necessary to enact institutional change from within.3 If individuals, groups, and populations can see and understand the processes that lead to successful transformation within existing institutions, they can employ and reinforce those mechanisms to promote continued advancements of diversity and inclusion in those institutions. Just as you can’t be what you can’t see, changing an institution from within becomes easier and more effective when you have a plan to follow.4

Ponytails, Passion, and Process: Changing the Air Force from Within

What exactly are the challenges involved in changing an institution from within? “The labor required to effect hair policy change was research, data, knowledge of processes and policy, individuals willing to commit to the cause, leadership support, and persistence,” says Major Alea Nadeem, US Air Force Reservist and Team Chief of the Air Force Women’s Initiative Team (WIT)—the group responsible for bringing the hair standards change to fruition.5 In order to make this important labor visible, she graciously agreed to detail the labor involved in the five-year effort that the WIT undertook.

According to Major Nadeem, the WIT’s journey was comprehensive and consuming. “The WIT had to research the safety, medical, and operational aspects of the proposed hair change. The team had to gather data from servicewomen through qualitative (experiences) and quantitative (surveys) methods while ensuring the data was credible. We had to get the research and data into the view of the policy owners who owned hair policy and those with the influence and power to make the change. For example, Airmen could have presented the research and data to their Wing, Group, or Squadron Commanders, but none of these commanders own hair policy for the Air Force. Working within a bureaucracy unfortunately requires massive coordination and multiple stakeholders, but we followed the bureaucratic process the institution values to show we wanted a real bite at the apple on making institutional change.”

Emerging efforts within the US Air Force and the Department of Defense (DOD) more broadly reflects the growing recognition that diversity and inclusion are necessary to the success of the military mission and US national security.6 Within this laudable framework, it is critical to recognize, appreciate, and elevate the labor that generates inclusive change within institutions. The members of the WIT who volunteered for years to create and implement change within the Air Force serve as the model for how individual agents can instigate change from within organizations.7 For the US Air Force and the DOD, recruiting with an eye towards diversity is not enough to effect lasting change. The presence of diversity within organizations is one critical step towards building inclusive environments, but the actions of members within the organization generate the possibility for true institutional change. When we experience a success in the realm of diversity and inclusion (such as the hair standards change), it is not enough to celebrate the outcome—we must celebrate the change agents who toiled to produce this outcome.

Of course, in addition to celebrating the change agents who transform institutions from within, we must also recognize the costs they pay. “Due to the WIT being all volunteers, all the work involved depended on Airmen being willing to honcho these extra duties in addition to their full-time duties,” says Major Nadeem. “Not only did we spend hours on this, but some of us also had to expend ‘political’ capital. As many folks were supportive, there were just as many folks who were not supportive.”

On a personal level, Major Nadeem shares the mix of achievement and exhaustion she feels at the end of this journey. “I am ecstatic for this change! I am prior enlisted, so thinking about Airman First Class Nadeem influencing hair policy change is unfathomable. I am energized seeing servicewomen wear their hair down, and all the posts on social media solidify we did the right thing for women and we were on the right side of history. I am proud of the Air Force for making this bold step and leading the way among other services. I am also worn out because I also have a full-time job as a Congressional Budget and Appropriations Liaison for the Secretary of the Air Force Financial Management. I recognize in order to make change, sacrifices have to be made and I’m okay with that. I will leave the Air Force better than I found it and I only have so much time to do that, so I would rather be worn out and make change in the Air Force than complain about it.”

The exhaustion Major Nadeem feels is understandable. Institutions function to constrain behavior, and when any individual or group works against this functional constraint they must do so with focused intention.8 In this way, successful change agents are strategic and harness available tools to pursue their transformational goals.9 Major Nadeem highlights this strategic intent: “we realized early on we were never going to break through the naysayers, so we used a top-down approach. We went to senior leaders in positions of power such as Major Command (MAJCOM) commanders and Wing Commanders for Letters of Support so when we experienced barriers at the bottom and in the middle we could point to senior level support within their commands. For those trying to influence change, you will never get everyone on the plane, so you have to go with what you have and make a decision that you can make it with what you have. This plane took off and we never looked back. Those who did not want to join our efforts were extended every opportunity to be on the right side of history (herstory).”

Major Nadeem continues that, “with senior level support, we also had a secret weapon: Lieutenant General Mary O’Brien, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Cyber Effects Operations. She is a WIT champion. As you move things through a bureaucracy, many stakeholders have the opportunity to say no or stifle it. Lt Gen O’Brien, a three star and with sincerity, removed barriers we faced by the ‘no crowd.’ It is easy to say no to a Major, but harder to a three star. I recommend if Airmen are championing a cause, get someone at the general officer or senior executive level to sponsor them. Our team of four never flinched when we heard no…we kept going until the person with the authority to say no could say no. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force who had the authority to say no didn’t say no, and in fact he said yes.”

Building a Culture for Change – the Role of Visibility

In the important and necessary goal of recognizing and elevating the change agents and their unacknowledged labor bolstering not only institutional change but institutions themselves, history and society are against us. An extensive body of sociological and feminist research on the invisibility of women’s work points to established trends within Western institutions and global markets that ignore or devalue the labor of non-monetized tasks.10 Even when working within formal economies, women and other minorities often face systemic barriers and additional hurdles to achieving full recognition of their contributions.11 Harvard Business Review hosts a Women at Work podcast that addresses the litany of challenges women experience in the formal workforce, from the second shift of reproductive labor that women often fulfill at home to the dynamics of minority representation within homogenous work environments.12 Against this cultural backdrop, recognizing and championing the work that individuals undertake to dismantle discriminatory barriers within institutions offers not only a moral imperative but also a functional value for advancing diversity and inclusion initiatives more broadly.

When considering the outcome of this change, despite all the resistance and challenges, Major Nadeem is clear: “women didn’t ‘get something’; we received parity. When I see news articles on the hair policy change and in the comments ‘what about beards’ is the first response, in my opinion that is part of the cultural problem. Servicewomen have had a standard that did not meet operational needs of wearing a helmet or a gas mask, caused medical issues of hair loss, and lacked inclusivity for various hair types for seventy years. Instead of celebrating this moment with us, all one can do is say ‘what about me? I want my beard.’ I will be the first one to help you organize and make your case, but you have to do the work, like the WIT team did. We won’t do it for you.”

Ultimately, visibility is key. Knowing how institutional change occurs and who leads these internal efforts are critical components of bolstering ongoing and future diversity initiatives. For example, when it comes to the new hair standards the lack of visibility leads to reductionist assumptions about how such a momentous policy change unfolded. When asked about the rumor mill whispers that these changes are simply the result of the whims of the first female Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Chief JoAnne Bass, Major Nadeem is quick to retort: “I really wish this was the result of one leader’s whim! It would have saved us so much time, energy, and sanity. I do have to note, CMSAF Bass was extremely supportive and granted us a meeting with her to propose the idea. I would like to start a #ThePeoplesChief to honor CMSAF Bass because she really is open and willing to listen to Airmen—it’s phenomenal and what our Air Force needs.”

In considering the structural invisibility of the WIT’s work, Major Nadeem offers insightful critiques into how our institutions announce changes of this nature. “I also have concerns of how we as an institution communicate with Airmen through public affairs. When we only announce a policy change is made and don’t tell the story behind that, it does us no good. It is not about receiving ‘credit,’ it’s about showing and highlighting to Airmen they have a voice and they too can facilitate change. I’ve been making jokes: what do you get when a Major, Captain, Lieutenant and Master Sergeant walk into a bar? Hair policy change! The team that made this change is simply incredible and one of the most diverse teams I’ve been on. One member does not even have long hair, she keeps it short, another is a male Airman, and another was disqualified from pilot training due to migraines and one of the factors was her hair being pulled [tightly into a bun]. I want to make sure these Airmen are highlighted for the work because they did this heavy lift for the Air Force.”

What Can New Hair Standards Tell Us About Advancing Diversity Initiatives?

In the end, what lessons can we learn and apply from the success story of the WIT? Based upon the public reaction to the hair standards change, three paths are evident: we can complain, critique, or continue. Complaints about the standards change will surely continue from a variety of sources, but those concerned with furthering the cause of diversity and inclusion can prudently ignore those complaints in the hope of conserving their energy for worthwhile causes. The critics are more troublesome, since they are the voices throwing barbs at the accomplished achievements for not being inclusive enough. My fervent hope is that such critics do not remain simply critics but rather continue the WIT’s momentum for diversity and inclusion advocacy. Recognize that policies may still fall short of achieving complete inclusivity but then take up the mantle and change the system from within, just as the WIT did.

Major Nadeem is more measured in her optimism, and for good reason. She spent five years fighting for institutional change from within the system, and she knows the barriers in place to advancing diversity initiatives. “I wish I could say I was optimistic about future diversity and inclusion efforts in the Air Force and Department of Defense, but I’m not. I see a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion and doing more training or adding advisors, but I don’t see any real, tangible actions. I’m optimistic about the WIT because I know we tackle change through tangible means. We don’t admire the problem, we action it, but I don’t see the Department of Defense and the Air Force doing that. I hope there is a time where we can get to that. I’m hopeful, but until I see it and it’s a repeated process will I be optimistic. I guess you could call me a realist.”

In offering insight into how the services and DOD could strengthen their diversity and inclusion efforts, Major Nadeem returns to the idea of visibility. “Any Airman can do what we did. It takes research, data, time, leadership, knowledge, and grit. I hope the Department of Defense and the Air Force recognize that good ideas of what Airmen want do not come from the top—they come from the tactical level. I’ve been in so many meetings regarding diversity and inclusion and zero Airmen are at the table. It’s all senior leaders. I hope we start to really engage and listen to our Airmen on what they need to be successful to do their duties.”

Ultimately, this solitary change to hair standards for Air Force servicewomen does not solve all disparities within the service, but this case establishes a viable approach to instituting change successfully from within the existing framework of military bureaucracy. Knowing how the WIT accomplished this feat enables other change agents to use the team’s model when tackling additional systemic and institutional barriers. Making such invisible work visible is a critical step to the success of future diversity and inclusion efforts across the DOD and clearly aligns with current Air Force senior leaders’ efforts to reduce bureaucratic processes to enable innovation.13 In the words of Major Nadeem, “change in an institution is hard, but not impossible. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to initiate the process, move it through the institution, and don’t just talk about it—action it.”

Major Kelly Atkinson

Kelly Atkinson is a major in the U.S. Air Force and a career intelligence officer. She is an alumna of the Air Force Chief of Staff’s Strategic PhD program and holds a PhD in political science and women’s studies from the Ohio State University. She is married to fellow Air Force officer Andrew Atkinson, and they have two amazing children (Jamie and Bridget). She’s thrilled to be friends and colleagues with Alea Nadeem, an incredible leader and advocate for change.

Major Alea Nadeem

Alea Nadeem is a major in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and an intelligence officer. Last year she served as a Defense Fellow for Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska and currently serves as a Congressional Budget and Appropriations Liaison for the Secretary of the Air Force. Alea holds a Master’s of Social Work from the University of Southern California. She hails from Toledo, Ohio and Mosul, Iraq, where she spent time growing up before enlisting in the Air Force. She believes it takes a village to make change and is happy Kelly Atkinson is part of that village.


1 Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, “Air Force to Allow Longer Braids, Ponytails, Bangs for Women,” 21 January 2021, https://www.af.mil/.

2 Jessica Ruttenber, “Hair Power: How Four Airmen Changed Policy,” Hidden Barriers, 22 January 2021, https://hidden-barriers.org/.

3 Stephen Losey, “Air Force to Ok Braids, Ponytails for Women — But No Beards for Men,” Air Force Times, 21 January 2021, https://www.airforcetimes.com/.

4 Alaa Murabit, “You Can’t Be What You Can’t See,” United Nations Chronicle, 19 September 2019, https://www.un.org/.

5 US Reserve Command Public Affairs, “Reservist Leads Air Force Women's Initiative Team,” Air Force Reserve Command, 24 August 2020, https://www.afrc.af.mil/.

6 Department of Defense, “Diversity and Inclusion Final Board Report,” US DOD, 18 December 2020, https://www.defense.gov/; Rachel S. Cohen, “Brown: ‘Shame on Us’ If Military Diversity Efforts Falter,” Air Force Magazine, 22 December 2020, https://www.airforcemag.com/; Heather Hurlburt and Tamara Cofman Wittes, “The Case for Gender Diversity in National Security,” Brookings, 10 July 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/.

7 Bo Joyner, “Behind the Braids: Reservists Play Key Role in First Women’s Hair Policy Change in 70 Years,” US Air Force, 10 February 2021, https://www.af.mil/; Fred C. Lunenburg, “Managing Change: The Role of the Change Agent,” International Journal of Management, Business, and Administration 13, no. 1, 2010, https://naaee.org/.

8 Elinor Ostrom, Understanding Institutional Diversity (Princeton University Press, 2009).

9 Sanderijn Cels, Agents of Change: Strategy and Tactics for Social Innovation (Brookings Institution Press, 2012).

10 Susan Ferguson Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction (Pluto Press, 2019).

11 Sarah Coury et al., “Women in the Workplace 2020,” Kinsey & Company, 30 September 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/.

12 Amy Bernstein et al., “Women at Work Conversations about Where We’re at and How We Move Forward,” Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/; Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung, The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home (Penguin Books, 2012); Cary Funk and Kim Parker, “Women and Men in STEM Often at Odds Over Workplace Equity,” Pew Research Center, 9 January 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/.

13Air Force News Service, “CSAF Releases Action Orders to Accelerate Change across Air Force,” US Air Force, 10 December 2020, https://www.af.mil/.