From a young age my mother always compared me to my older brother. Our grades, our abilities, even our actions were all fair game for comparison to the other. Many psychologists may cringe at this parenting tactic, but in my mother’s defense I grew up strong, independent, and believing I was capable of doing anything my big brother could do. This included attending a top tier school specializing in strict military training.
I arrived for Basic Cadet Training at the US Air Force Academy in June 2005. Before I left, my older brother who was entering his junior year at the Academy offered advice, “Don’t be that girl.” He meant don’t be whiny, weak, or cry. I tried my best not to let him down. The advice applied not only to females, but any Basic who wasn’t putting forth 100% effort. You could hear the groans from our Cadre when the weakest link pulled up in the rear, not wearing a uniform item correctly or unable to finish a set of push-ups. After six weeks of working as a team, those groans were shared by fellow Basics. You never wanted to be the weakest link. In a physical sense I knew I was weaker than my male counterparts. Also, I was surrounded by female high school varsity athletes, while I hadn’t so much as run a mile before attending the Academy, so I began in the lower tier of females as well. I determined to only move forward.
I realized I had grit: that unstoppable ambition to be better. Those of us that made it through Basic Training and eventually graduated all had our fair share of grit. We also had support and encouragement from one another. The older Cadets mentored us. I wanted to be like the fearless senior girls who led with a firm, but kind hand. I wanted to stay pretty like the nice sophomore across the hall who woke up ten minutes before mandatory breakfast to apply make-up. I knew not to mirror the junior year girl who yelled constantly and complained about everything.
The Academy served as a sort of bubble. We were part of the Air Force, but not really. We had Cadet uniforms and Cadet rules. I shared a room decorated with girly touches with my best friend in a corridor of female rooms. The smell of flowery soaps and perfumes wafted through our section of the hall, replaced by the smell of sweaty boy the further you walked down. The girls stuck together. There were about 200 in my large class of about 1500 Cadets. Even if you didn’t know every female’s name, you could recognize her face. Sure I was surrounded by males in my classes, at the gym, and in the cafeteria, but where I spent most of my time I found supportive, fun, and incredible women. This all changed upon graduation.
I became an Airfield Operations Officer, or AOF for short. My job was to manage the airfield management and air traffic control units to include the control tower and the RADAR approach control, or RAPCON (Remember the 1999 movie Pushing Tin? John Cusack worked in a civilian version of a RAPCON, known as a TRACON). For my training I had to attain basic certifications for each unit I would manage. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as difficult as learning how to control aircraft.
Most days I worked only with men. The few female controllers I’ve had the privilege to train beside or watch in action were extraordinary. I had a trainer once tell me females make the best controllers because female voices offer a sense of security and calmness during emergencies. I don’t know about the scientific truth behind that, but from witnessing radio exchanges I believe it. From what I’ve seen, women in training and knowledge intensive, male-dominated careers know they have to work just a little harder and push themselves just a little further than their male counterparts to earn a good reputation.
Having been in the gender minority for so many years, it is truly evident that we are our worst enemies. Jealousy seems to veer its head more often in women than in men. It’s easy for a female to get comfortable as the go-to girl in a work place. It’s a badge of honor: being the one with a female’s perspective on dating issues, being call the “mother” of the group, and just standing out in general. That badge can feel threatened when a new female moves in, especially one who is…smarter, faster, stronger, prettier, you can fill in the blank by assessing your insecurities. The bottom line is: women need to stick up for other women and support one another. We don’t have to necessarily like the new girl, but we should respect her. If we put each other down out of pure jealousy or flimsy revenge, we’ll never crack through that glass ceiling.
After my training was completed I took on managerial duties. I was stationed at a base for F-15E Strike Eagles and a Reserve unit with KC-10s. I dealt mostly with the F-15E aviators, who, perhaps rightfully so, could be on the arrogant side. Some were quick to dismiss anyone not wearing a flight suit, and a handful were even quicker to dismiss a female not in a flight suit. After my first few experiences of being brushed aside, I knew I had to be one step ahead of everyone I would come into contact with. In addition to knowing my job, I learned what other agencies needed to accomplish missions, what were our gripes with other agencies, what could we do more efficiently? I asked a lot of questions those first few years, but I also had a lot of solutions when opportunities arose.
Yes, I had to work harder to earn respect. Yes, I had to bite my tongue a few times, once in particular when a male aviator ignored everything I said and kept directing questions to my new male trainee. Yes, I got tired of hearing “Oh you’re actually in the Air Force?” from kindintentioned civilians. However, being part of the minority, I also was more memorable than just another man in a uniform. I had to pick my battles and end tense discussions with a smile and maybe a joke, because being a firm woman in power is a thin line away from being known as a B-word.
Within my units I strived to be approachable. My section leaders doled out discipline to our young Airmen, I didn’t need to fulfill that role with the exception of extreme cases. When I made my rounds I’d ask how everyone was doing, check on training, ask about new babies, college classes, and so forth. In return the Airmen felt comfortable telling me their ideas, worries, and observations. Every day I wondered if I was doing a good job, if I was doing my best, could I have handled a situation differently? I felt like a mother worrying about her kids, but my kids were grown men and women who facilitated the operation of multi-million dollar aircraft.
Most women have a natural nurturing ability. Combine that nurturing with relentless drive and discipline, and you have some extraordinary leaders. At the end of the day every business, military branch, and corporate entity is comprised of people. One of the best leaders I ever served under, Colonel Nicole Malachowski, drove home a simple message with her actions: People always come first. I tried my best to mirror her kindness and understanding when cultivating my leadership skills. You can thoroughly know a skill base, be efficient, organized, and a problem-solver, but if you can’t connect with your people, then you won’t be as effective a leader.
It’s been almost two years since made the tough decision to hang up my uniform for the last time. I’ve been lucky enough to meet fellow female veterans. These former B-1 pilots, air traffic controllers, and Navy doctors, along with a few professionals who left their corporate jobs, all reverberate with the same sentiment for their career changes: I wanted to live full-time with my active duty husband. We made sacrifices to build careers, then sacrificed our hard work in the name of love. I don’t know if that’s a sign of weakness, I certainly don’t see any weakness in these women.
Some of them started secondary careers, not an easy feat when you move every three to four years. They juggle work with their kids’ schedules, and even with hobbies, just like many other women not married to military men. This isn’t a surprise. Women are capable and intelligent: they can run a household, an Air Force wing, or a multi-million dollar corporation. These are all leadership positions in their own right, so why aren’t more women stepping up to traditionally male-dominated leadership roles? Maybe we just need to believe in ourselves a bit more, and support those among us who dare to try.