Understanding the importance of taking the first step in building a more positive culture.
By Jessica Ruttenber
So how do you change an institution steeped in bureaucracy? An institution that has long since accepted the seemingly impossible mantra of, “that’s the way we have always done it.” To effect change in such a challenging environment, I would like to present three ideas for consideration.
Immediately upon entering the service, we begin to assimilate its values. To a significant degree, they become adopted as our own. A service component’s core values are essential for a strong sense of organizational identity, resulting in an overall positive outcome.
Air Force: Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.
Army: Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.
Coast Guard: Honor, respect, and devotion to duty.
Marine Corps/Navy: Honor, courage, and commitment.
Each service has its own unique culture at large while simultaneously fostering smaller subcultures within different career specialties. When an individual does not naturally reflect the images of the organization’s or subculture’s dominate majority, they often resort to coping strategies in order to be successful or fit in. Occasionally, this results in adopting an organization’s culture that does not align with their own beliefs. Overtime, the individual begins to internalize this new way of thinking, believing that this is how the world should work. My first challenge to you is to stop taking on values that are not your own and start standing up for yourself. It is a rational safeguard if your initial response is to avoid “rocking the boat.” But consider the resounding impact this first step can make for yourself and others.
Maya Angelou once said “each time a women stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.” I challenge you; be brave enough to take that first step and stand up for yourself and what you believe it. I do not believe this will be easy, quite the contrary. I believe in you and the difference you can make. As I reflect upon a full career closing in on 20 years, I cannot convey strongly enough the influence that you have over those who are observing you without your knowledge. Think of it as the butterfly effect—one small change now can have an enormous rippling impact on the future. Every time you downplay a particularly difficult experience, you make it that much harder for those coming behind you who are experiencing a similar situation. Stop minimizing your challenges.
Next, be brave enough to stand up for others. You need to encourage each other. This will help break the cycle of feeling alone. It starts with one person pushing the preverbal boulder up the hill, but it takes a team to get it to the top. You can be that person who begins the boulder’s momentum. Oftentimes, struggles exist due to the majority not considering the perspective and needs of those that are not like-minded or have dissimilar experiences. It is natural and more comfortable for us to gravitate towards likeness and those who are similar to ourselves. Therefore, when you are able to help others, I urge you to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. You do not have to understand someone’s struggles or have experienced their challenges to make a difference of helping them excel.
Since this article is focused on women as a minority in the armed services, I offer you this third step to educating the force. We have reached a point where there are two or more of you, start finding your voice. Our issues are not highly guarded trade secrets that we pass from one women to the next. Take the opportunity to talk to members within your community about your concerns. Stand up in commander’s calls and speak about your experience to start normalizing these “female issues” as “our issues.” Start educating current and future leaders, both males and females alike. You will find that people want to help, but they do not understand the complexities, the unknowns, or perhaps misunderstood the real concern. Get smart on the topic and lead these conversations yourself.
From these three considerations I leave you with this: STOP HIDING IN THE DAMN BATHROOM, both in reality and symbolically! The Air Force outlined procedures and requirements to establish private, secure, and sanitary locations (not a bathroom) for the purpose of breastfeeding or expressing breast milk for our nursing mothers. The Air Force also outlined reasonable lactation breaks and a space in close proximity to their work location. Not only is this necessary for the member’s sense of inclusion and to continue to support nursing, but it is imperative to prevent conditions such as mastitis that can be very painful and cause high fevers. If the policy has changed, why am I still walking into bathrooms finding Airmen in stalls with their breast pumps? Culture does not change overnight or immediately following the instance a policy is written and published. Nor does it eliminate the negative parts of a culture that stigmatizes pregnancy. But dare I say it, do we as women bear some of this responsibility?
Every time a nursing mom does not ask for the space she is entitled to, she is telling the command team and her fellow Airmen that this is okay. She is saying that “my needs are less than those of other Airmen.” The desire to be a team player weighs on everyone and we all know that space and funds are tight. It may seem easier to decide to go to the bathroom, or to your car, or drive across to another building that might have some space, but this is at the expense of yourself, your own time, and the value we place upon you as an Airman. Represent the change you want for the younger Airmen that will follow in your footsteps, who are looking up to you right now. I promise you, there is an 18-year old future mom or supervisor that has observed your actions and internalizes them as unspoken direction that the bathroom is “good enough” for them. Your actions have taught them to keep their head down. If you are just starting out or if you are in a leadership position, I challenge you to do the right thing and to stand up for yourself. Because the reality is, what you do today, is standing up for all of us tomorrow.