An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

NEWS | Nov. 21, 2023

Equal opportunity 160 years later: Still a pillar in our society

By Carrie K. Baker, CDP, Ph.D, Air Force Civilian Appellate Review Office

While President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address only lasted two minutes, the impact of his words lives on. November 19th marked both the 160th anniversary of that iconic speech and the 67th year since President Eisenhower, in collaboration with the National Urban League, connected those famous remarks to what we now celebrate as Equal Opportunity Day. As far back as the 1800s, and again in 1957, Lincoln and Eisenhower encouraged our great nation to join in the effort to abolish all discrimination. They recognized that discrimination hinders the right of each American to advance in accordance with their merits as a human being and their capacity for productive work.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act, also referred to as the Equal Opportunity Act, essentially codified Lincoln’s intent by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age (age 40 or older), pregnancy, genetic information, or retaliation. Laws alone do not transform society; human action is the critical element to societal change. The practice of equal opportunity as a way of life is a growing challenge. As we witness actions of less respect and tolerance for our individual differences, we see an increasingly divided society and the currency of trust is evaporating which prompts the question 'is this the new normal?'

From my lens as an equal opportunity advocate, I believe what occurs in our society on a local, national, and global level also has an impact in the workplace. To assume when we arrive to work everything is left in the parking lot and all is forgotten is far from the truth. The impact shows up in latent forms and if discounted or ignored, creates a gateway that fosters a toxic workplace culture. Whether watching it on the news, or experiencing it in our own environments, accepting such behavior as normal is not the answer.

However, I do believe there are still people in our communities, and society at large, who value the ability of every individual to have an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents. We all have a responsibility to shape our environment. In the context of the workplace, waiting on a leader, group or organization to model particular behaviors and engage in inclusive practices ultimately deflects our individual roles and results in us sharing culpability in the existing reality. 

Fortunately, the Air and Space Forces have taught us we are all leaders. With that role, it is vitally important we continue to do our part to bend the arc of justice to dismantle archaic policies and glass ceilings to advance the tenets of why we have an Equal Opportunity Day. The following are a few examples of timeless principles that can be applied to successfully bring about the changes our society needs to reunite.

Adaptive leadership

In the book "Practice of Adaptive Leadership", authors Ronald Hiefetz, Alexander Grashow and Mary Linksy identify the ability to adapt to change as a difficulty leaders face today. Being adaptive requires a mindset shift that includes the willingness to remain inquisitive, open and exploratory to address all challenges to include talent management disparities.    


Growth in technical knowledge is often lauded, however, the most effective leaders also have the trait of self-awareness. Confidently embracing their strengths, they balance this with humility while intentionally acknowledging the strengths and contributions of others. These leaders realize real authority or power is not regulated to a duty title, but is based on the ability to engender trust, respect, and inclusion.

Demonstrated ability to engage others

In my experience, some leaders use the leading by walking concept to engage with their team. However, if dialogue is brief and superficial with certain team members and more substantive with others, this disparity is noticed. An inclusive leader possesses a flexible interpersonal style to adjust their engagement approach and addresses the needs of the moment all while consistently employing tact, decency, and diplomacy.

Stay Relentless

Strategies to increase retention and representation in the workplace, even at the senior leader levels, continue to be challenging to implement. There are various reasons for the limited yields, and this alone underscores the critical need to stay relentless in the pursuit of, and access to, equal opportunity for all.

Staying relentless to infuse equal opportunity into the culture facilitates healthy norms that result in consistent, respectful, transparent, and open communication minus micro-aggressions. It also minimizes in-group and out-group behaviors. The outcomes create a better experience for everyone to feel they are seen, belong and supported.

The success of our efforts is measured by the numbers yielded on retention, recruitment and advancement. Quantitative data continues to be the gold standard to measure effectiveness of practices, policies and workplace culture.

Few of us will make historic speeches honoring those who sacrificed their lives to preserve the Union and ensure freedom and equality for all. However, reflecting on the origins of Equal Opportunity Day can be a time when we unite and rededicate ourselves at home and work to take action to fulfill the promise that we are indeed all created equal.