By Ram Reddy
I am an Air Force officer, a man of Indian descent, a pilot, and a member of the majority in a typical Air Force flying squadron. Throughout my career, there were only a handful of women in my units. Gaining an understanding of what it feels like to be a woman in a male-dominated career field was not easy and I never took the time to ask a female colleague about her experiences. Worse, I never recall a time when I sought out a female service member’s perspective before making a decision that could affect her differently than her male counterparts.
I have read in leadership and management articles that women may not feel comfortable speaking up during a meeting when they have something to contribute. I have also heard women may feel intimidated stepping into a meeting full of men. Even though I could not relate, I believed these feelings and perspectives were real and I worried we could be missing valuable insights if our female Airmen were not speaking up.
I have also heard men say, “Why do they feel uncomfortable? Just say what you need to say.” Or, “Women have been in the service for a while. It’s probably not an issue anymore.” While I never personally understood the circumstances surrounding how or why women might feel this way, I believed their opinions were valuable. In an effort to hear their thoughts, I made a conscious effort to call on female Airmen in meetings or group conversations if I noticed they were not participating. To this day, I still do not know if I was doing the right thing. Several questions come to mind: Is this still an issue? Did I inadvertently put her on the spot? Am I helping or hurting when I call on her? Am I overthinking it?
As women have advanced in the workforce, these questions have become more and more prevalent and scientists have invested extensive time and effort into determining the root cause of the disparities in treatment between men and women. A Yale University study found male executives who spoke often in meetings received 10% higher ratings on competence, whereas female executives who also spoke often received 14% lower competency ratings. (1) “Also, the more the men spoke up, the more helpful their managers believed them to be. But when women spoke up more, there was no increase in their perceived helpfulness.” (1) Another study tasked a group of men and women to make strategic decisions about a bookstore’s operations, while randomly informing one person with data about a better approach. When the member with that inside knowledge was female, her suggestions were discounted and viewed as disloyal. (1) With the deck stacked against them, either intentionally or unintentionally, it is becoming apparent why women are hesitant to speak up more.
A New Perspective
Shortly after starting my current assignment, a close female friend asked if I wanted to join the Department of the Air Force Women’s Initiatives Team (WIT). The WIT helps identify and remove barriers in Air Force and DOD policy that restrict women’s ability to fulfill the Air Force’s mission. I eagerly agreed to join without knowing what I would do or what I would learn. I was amazed by the new perspective I gained very quickly.
I walked into the first meeting with my friend and one other female Airman and we were the only people in the meeting room. I sat in a chair along the edge of the room as they set up for the meeting. More people filled the room: civilians, enlisted, officers…all female. A strange feeling came over me and I thought to myself, “Is this the odd feeling that women talk about?” I looked around and realized there was only one other male Airman in the room and, suddenly, we were the minority.
An hour later, as the meeting ended, the organizer asked, “Does anyone have anything to add or have any questions?” I wrote down a few questions and comments during the meeting, yet I thought to myself, “Hell no I don’t.” I didn’t think that I should, or could, say something. I surely did not have the experience of a woman to add value to the discussion. I also remember thinking, “How would the group react to a man saying something?”
Shortly thereafter, the meeting concluded with “Good meeting ladies!” About a split second after that, a little voice inside me said, “I’m here too and I’m a guy.” (Full Disclosure: The statement was quickly corrected to “ladies and gentlemen”) Although I did not take the initial statement personally and while I truly believe it was just a misspeak, for a second I wondered if I blended into the background and no one noticed that a man was in the room. It was then that I realized that I have never been more aware of my gender in a situation before.
Experts have suggested many techniques women can use to speak up and assert themselves in the workplace, but leaders must also create a culture that ensures their voices are heard. In another study, 68% of women stated they seldom receive feedback and a male executive admitted, “We talk about them, but not to them.” (2) Furthermore, a leader must elicit feedback to ensure they are providing the space needed to invite female participation. The same study found leaders need to actively ask women to participate. Thirty-eight percent of women said, “Ask us direct questions” or “Bring us into the discussion.” (2) One female executive discussed her experience with a male colleague who had been in a series of meetings with her and observed her discomfort in speaking up. One day he asked for her perspective in a meeting and explicitly stated not to worry about how it might be received by all the men around the table. As a result, a safe environment was created for her to speak and she has been speaking up ever since. (2) Based on these studies, leaders should conduct feedback directly with female Airman to better understand their challenges with speaking up in meetings and proactively invite women into the conversation.
Furthermore, if she is interrupted, ask her to finish her thought and make it clear that everyone gets a chance to voice their feedback and opinion. (3) Equal speaking time in a group would suggest that each person in a group of five has 20% of the time to speak. However, a Brigham Young University study found a group required not just a female majority, but a supermajority (4 women out of 5) in order for women to retain equality in talking time. The study also found in groups with only one female, women garnered many interruptions, of which 70% were negative and not in support of her comments. (3) How a leader reacts to situations and supports their subordinates reinforces the culture of the organization and allows everyone to contribute to better the unit.
My “ah ha” moment came at the end of that first WIT meeting. Everything came together. Being in that room, I realized what I was missing all these years. Being in that room let me experience a tiny fraction of what our female Airmen experience daily in our male dominated service. It made me understand, with experiential evidence, the truth behind these thoughts and feelings and gave me a new perspective. My behavior has changed significantly since that first meeting due to my interactions with the WIT and the feedback I received. Members of the WIT actively sought out my perspective during discussions and I was encouraged to speak up. If I missed the mark, I was provided feedback for improvement and professionally challenged to broaden my problem solving skills. These interactions reaffirmed that my opinion was valued and motivated me to participate more. I now manage the WIT Air Force Portal webpage and assist in Lines of Effort to help remove barriers for our service women.
I acknowledge all women may not share these experiences. There may be female Airmen who are not afraid to speak up regardless of the perceived consequences or others who work in an environment that encourages them to speak up without hesitation. However, evidence shows that at least some women continue to hold back or are held back and we should work to eliminate such cultures and barriers from manifesting or persisting in our units.
A former Commander once told me to always fight for perspective. His intent was for me to understand the viewpoint of our passengers in order to better support them during the deployment. I wrote those words down in my notebook as a reminder to try to see things from different angles. However, at the time, I did not realize those words would ring true for many different situations. There are many majorities and minorities and, therefore, many perspectives. They can come in the form of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. They can also be more subtle, such as operations vs. support, service vs. service in the joint environment, single vs. married, or old heads vs. new hires. These are just a few, but each group has different experiences and different perspectives.
This experience made me realize that I should take the time to learn from people different than myself and strive to see situations from different perspectives. I believe making this conscious effort will help me understand our Airmen better and help me understand the barriers they may face, so I can lead better. Doing so will also help me build teams comprised of diverse thought so we can develop creative solutions to the complex problems we face.
It is not easy to gain new perspectives, but it is not impossible. Educate yourself by reading books, listening to podcasts, or just having deliberate conversations with those who are different than yourself, conversations which may be awkward for both sides. I never asked the women around me if the environment was hindering their ability to serve, but I should have. I challenge our Airmen to do the same. If you are looking for a starting point, read the articles referenced below. If you feel ready to undertake a more difficult challenge, seek out a situation where you become the minority to experience what others may be feeling. I, unknowingly, found myself in that position and it has made me a better Airman, leader, and person.
Ram Reddy is an officer and pilot proudly serving in the US Air Force.
1. Grant, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant on Why Women Stay Quiet at Work. The New York Times. [Online] 01 12, 2015. [Cited: 08 08, 2020.] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/opinion/sunday/speaking-while-female.html.
2. Katheryn Heath, Jill Flynn, and Mary Davis Holt. Women, Find Your Voice. Harvard Business Review. [Online] 06 2014. [Cited: 08 08, 2020.] https://hbr.org/2014/06/women-find-your-voice/.
3. Rogers, Brittany Karford. When Women Don’t Speak. BYU Magazine. [Online] Spring 2020. [Cited: 08 08, 2020.] https://magazine.byu.edu/article/when-women-dont-speak.