DENVER (AP) — The appointment of the first woman to command the Air Force Academy marks another breach of the "brass ceiling" that keeps women from top assignments in the military, an advocacy group said Monday.
But putting women into top assignments won't by itself address unequal treatment and sexual assault of female military personnel, said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women's Action Network.
The Defense Department announced Friday that Air Force Maj. Gen Michelle Johnson has been chosen to be the next superintendent of the Air Force Academy outside Colorado Springs, Colo.
Johnson is believed to be the second woman appointed to command a service academy, after Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz became superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., in 2011. Johnson is the first woman to be superintendent at any of the three best-known academies, Army, Navy and Air Force.
"This appointment is significant for many reasons. Very few women have attained the rank of general, let alone two-star general," Bhagwati said.
"There's still a brass ceiling in the military, throughout the military — particularly in the Army and the Marines, particularly in the Marines," said Bhagwati, a former Marine captain.
Johnson's appointment comes during a time of progress and turmoil for military women. A little more than a month ago, the Defense Department announced it would remove gender restrictions on combat positions, allowing women to take on assignments considered prerequisites for some promotions.
At the same time, the military is struggling to curb mistreatment of women personnel, including sexual assaults.
The Air Force is dealing with a sex scandal at its only basic training site, Joint Base Lackland-San Antonio in San Antonio, Texas. Instructors there sexually harassed, improperly touched or raped dozens of young female recruits and airmen.
In December, the Pentagon reported that sexual assaults at the Army, Navy and Air Force academies jumped by 23 percent last year and that many victims were reluctant to ask for criminal investigations.
"I do hope that Gen. Johnson understands the severity of these issues," Bhagwati said. "Women officers don't necessarily fix the gender problems in a unit. It's really the caliber of the officer."
It's not yet known when Johnson will assume command at the Air Force Academy. Congress must first approve her promotion to a three-star lieutenant general, the rank required for the job.
Johnson is a 1981 graduate of the academy, where she was the first woman to become cadet wing commander.
She would replace Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, the superintendent since June 2009. Gould's plans haven't been announced.
Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP