From Assimilation to Pathfinder: A Personal Evolution in Advocating for Women’s Issues in a Male-Dominated Field

By Jessica Ruttenber

It was the first woman Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who said, ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.’

With the passion I had advocating for women in military service at the end of my career, one might think I had always been this way. But in truth, I was not. One could argue I may have even been the worst towards my fellow gender. In my early twenties and incredibly early in my career, I often judged other women in my field, especially if they did not fit the typical aircrew mold. I desperately wanted to fit in as “one of the guys.’ But in reality, I was in survival mode in a male-dominated career field. Some men instigated rivalry among women. ‘Queen bee’ syndrome often occurs when there is a low percentage of women in a group, leading to the perception that there can be only enough room for one seat at the table.

Later in life, I spoke at a men’s group, and an audience member asked me, ‘What do you think about transgender individuals in the military? Don’t you think men trying to become women are taking up your space at the table?’ I paused momentarily and then responded, ‘Sir, there is plenty of room for everyone at the table.’ With that response, I recognized I had undergone a transformation.

One of the first things that surprised me when I was socializing recommended policy changes to senior leadership in the Air Force was that even women at the highest ranks do not necessarily support women’s issues. What is even more alarming is that if that senior leader is in a room full of men making decisions about policies for women, I have witnessed the group default to the opinion of the only woman present or that the younger women in the room will take their cues from the senior female and make them their own. This behavior aligns with a “it was hard for me, so it should be hard for you” attitude.

After observing and gaining the confidence of many female generals during my 25 years of experience and research, I have formulated a theory. There are four phases in which minorities within a group can find themselves. It is important to note that this does not apply to everyone, and the sequence is typically chronological when there are barriers. Additionally, some individuals may inhabit multiple phases during their career or even shift contextually. Or one may skip a step.

The Assimilator

Assimilator traits can include denial that barriers exist or resistance to anything perceived as a ‘female’ issue. Individuals in this phase often adopt the sexist ideology as their own and may become more critical of other women. They may not have personally experienced discrimination.

When individuals do not naturally fit the image of the organization’s or subculture’s dominant majority, they often employ coping strategies to achieve success or fit in. Occasionally, this results in adopting an organization’s culture that aligns differently from their beliefs. Over time, the individual begins to internalize this new way of thinking, believing that this is how the world should operate.

Covert Supporter

Often empathetic towards women’s issues and is likely to share firsthand experiences within a close-knit circle. Utilizes their position to assist others while avoiding direct attention on gender-related matters for themselves.

In this context, some individuals might perceive the workplace as unwelcoming to those who advocate for inclusivity, especially concerning race and gender. They believe they have limited political capital to expend publicly before facing potential consequences such as being labeled as a feminist or encountering stereotypes. There is a prevailing perception that those who advocate for gender-related matters are deemed less competent than those who do not.


A Pathfinder is a proactive advocate for women’s issues who openly works to eliminate barriers. They leverage their position and resources to advance initiatives or support individuals. Many covert supporters transition from the Pathfinder role towards the end of their careers when they perceive lower penalties, are no longer interested in playing the game, or have finally achieved a position enabling long-lasting, meaningful change within the organization.


These individuals may appear as covert supporters but are incredibly selective when openly addressing gender-related issues. They exhibit keen judgment in strategically utilizing their political capital. Notably, they adeptly counter sexist remarks, often from men, who accuse them of being overly “emotional” about inclusion. Instead, they emphasize that focusing on the organization’s success makes these necessary changes a sound business strategy. I found Snipers one of the most intriguing roles I have observed.

I have recognized aspects of these categories in my behavior at different points in my journey. Sometimes, I displayed various traits simultaneously, depending on the issue. However, a deeper understanding of these dynamics can enhance our self-awareness and strive for personal growth.
The overarching goal is to create an environment where minorities who think differently than the majority are not constantly on the defensive and are free to express their thoughts openly, benefiting the organization.

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