PERSPECTIVE: I am the Majority

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. 

Gaining Perspective

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.

References

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.

Your marriage matters; can women have a successful military career and a family?

By Jessica Ruttenber

A call to service is a call to sacrifice. Frequently, it is the family that makes the greatest sacrifice so that a loved one may serve. Their lives are filled with long separations and awaiting the inevitable move associated with a change in duty station. Often this is just after the family has finally settled in from the previous assignment. Their lives are filled with uncertainties; new schools, new jobs, friends left behind. Spouses are the glue that keep the family together when the challenge of service calls once again. There is no doubt our families are the true unsung heroes behind each successful service member.

Active duty members in a dual-military marriage face unique challenges balancing their careers with family. The armed services make an effort to match assignments for these couples when available. Unfortunately, given the member’s career field and available leadership opportunities, joint assignments may not be compatible with both members’ career goals. To continue serving, they may be forced to take separate duty stations with the “hope” of reuniting in their next assignments. Often these couples find themselves having to make the difficult decision of choosing whether to progress in their careers OR be stationed together.

Unfortunately, dual-military marriage is predominantly a “female issue.” In 2018, of the 671,591 married active-duty members in the Department of Defense (DoD), 12.9% were in dual-military marriages. Only 7.6% of men serving made up that dual-mil statistic. Almost half (44%) of active duty married women were dual-military.

That is not to discount that either gender may have a professional civilian spouse who has also influenced the family’s decision on whether to continue serving. Identified in their exit surveys, a spouse’s career path has been shown as causal to many members leaving the service. In Heather Penney and Miriam Krieger’s 2015 study, The Millennial Imperative, they state:

“Personnel management practices are predicated upon an outdated, 1950’s nuclear family model; the full-time domestic support of a portable, stay-at-home spouse is a necessary condition for most Airmen to be able to serve and promote without limiting factors on their career. Female officers are rarely partnered with such a spouse and thus often must sub-optimize their career, becoming less competitive for promotion and retention as a result.”

The study goes on to say American society no longer reflects the traditional nuclear model–women are a leading indicator for future retention problems in the millennial generation.

But let’s take a step back from the dual-military spouse and reflect upon who we marry. For both spouses to have successful careers with children, the parental responsibilities must not default to the woman. Your attitudes about family planning and equitable parental responsibilities will determine your success regardless of profession. We need to be more honest and have these difficult and less romantic conversations with our potential future spouse. Or, perhaps you are already married, and the complexity of work-life-balance is hitting you like a train. It’s never too late for your marriage to evolve and grow. Sheryl Sandberg discusses this in her book Lean In. She describes this search for balance in a chapter titled, “Make your partner a real partner.”

“According to the most recent analysis, when a husband and wife both are employed full-time, the mother does 40 percent more child care and about 30 percent more housework than the father. A 2009 survey found only 9 percent of people in dual-earner marriages said they shared housework, child care, and breadwinning evenly. So while men are taking on more household responsibilities, this increase is happening very slowly, and we are still far from parity. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, same-sex couples divide household tasks much more evenly.)”

No wonder many members throw the towel in and leave military service. That pace would run anyone into the ground and is not sustainable when combined with the additional demands of service. Don’t be afraid to seek support and change the status quo.

“My advice to someone with aspirations for a successful career in a serious relationship is to ask your partner in what situation would they consider changing their current career path for a relationship heading towards marriage? If the answer is a hard nothing, then swipe left and move on with your life.”

J-Rutt

When my first child was born in 2012, my husband and I took an assignment apart to continue advancing in our careers. Our daughter lived with me. Luckily, he was only 90 minutes away attending a one year school while I continued to fly at an operational KC-135 unit. One morning my 5-month old daughter became ill, and I had to fly a mission that afternoon. I called my husband to ask him to miss school and drive up and stay with her. On the other end of the phone was silence. It just then occurred to me despite all the non-stop over planning we did for her arrival; finding the best day cares, sleep training books, best bottles to prevent gas… we never talked about or considered who would have to miss work if something unexpected came up. Like many new partners, we were naïve.

In my husband’s mind, this responsibility defaulted to the woman. He came from a background where his mother stayed at home with the children. In my mind, I was piloting a mission, and his school could wait. Either way, we both would get push back from our units. To complicate this, we did not have family around to support us because, just like every military family, we move from base to base and continuously have to start anew. I highlight this to tell you that we had to evolve and we could have avoided a lot of conflict and misunderstanding with a little more preparation and expectation management.

Fast forward 8 years, we have three children and both of us managed to keep promoting. My husband is an incredible father and, on more than one occasion, has pulled more than his weight when I handed him our children and deployed. Perhaps, being the primary and only caregiver of our children for long periods of time led him to the realization of the true workload of parenthood and gave him confidence. It also taught me I could let go of trying to do it all and my husband was more than capable of adapting to a more modern day role of fatherhood. Before he left command in 2018, he changed his unit’s weekly meeting to begin no earlier than 8:00 AM. His unit was 95% male and he made this change purposefully. The primary elementary school in the area started at 7:45 AM. As the commander, he did not want to push the burden of school drop-offs to spouses when such an easy adjustment could be made. He also created a playroom for the children in the unit and encouraged his squadron to bring their kids to work on school half-days instead of assuming their civilian spouse would automatically have to cover the logistics of those days. I’d like to say these types of considerations and acceptance is common, but it’s not.

At that same base, there were times on rare occasions, when I would bring my children to work when I was not flying and care was not available. I wish I could say that I was met with acceptance and support, but to be honest with you, I was not. There was a clear double standard for me. Some men missed work just as often, if not more so, to take their sick child to a doctor or a reoccurring appointment. My husband routinely took the lead and brought our oldest daughter to a weekly re-occurring medical appointment without adverse comment. Despite my average 50+ hour work week, I was counseled “out of concern” because I was occasionally coming in later in the morning. I made sure to never miss any important engagements and more than made up the time I was delayed due to supporting my children. But it was the “appearance” that concerned them. The men who missed work for their children were not counseled.

The priorities our leaders enforce are just as important as their leadership and acceptance. What kind of message are we sending to service members with our own policies? We have policies that allow women, but not men, to separate from service for having a baby. In Air Force Instruction 36-3208, Administration Separation of Airmen, it states, “women may find pregnancy and the expectation of motherhood incompatible with continued service.” The DoD also allows primary caregiver leave (6 weeks) and secondary caregiver leave (21 days) after having a baby. The female is almost always assumed to be the primary caregiver (after her 6 weeks of convalescent leave). Men often find resistance from their leadership when they try to become the primary caregiver. This mindset is effectively saying the responsibility of childcare is a women’s responsibility.

When our second child was born in 2014, my husband and I were stationed overseas. During this time, men were given seven days of leave for the birth of a child, I was given a total of six weeks. Having a newborn with an 18-month-old at home while overseas without support from extended family was challenging. My husband went to his leadership and asked if he could take 3 weeks of additional leave to help me out and was outright denied for no other reason it had never been done before. I ended up asking for 6 additional weeks of leave and was approved with no questions. Upon returning to work, I was re-qualified in the aircraft and was back accomplishing the mission.

Balancing raising children with a highly demanding job is difficult at the best of times. I love my children and desired to spend time with them, but I also found great satisfaction and fulfillment from my career and serving my country. However, with the lack of support and empathy, postpartum depression slowly crept in. It was a depression that I hid from others in part due to a growing fear that maybe I had dedicated my life to an institution not designed for me. Could I have avoided that depression had we been better supported? I can’t say for sure, but I know it would have helped a lot. All I knew at that time was I was coming up for a Lieutenant Colonel promotion board and I didn’t want to show any signs of weakness or be perceived that I had taken my foot off the pedal. I had already experienced being disadvantaged and discriminated against due to having a child. I was selected to interview for the executive officer position to the wing commander. It was canceled because I had just had a child, despite making it known to my leadership that I was willing and still wanted to compete for the opportunity. The interview I had scheduled for was canceled without my consent or consideration. The uphill battle of the addition of a new child, my spouse not being supported by his leadership to assist more, and my own experiences of the system prematurely denying me progression opportunities because of a newborn was a struggle to say the least.

Did I sacrifice alone? I did not. As my marriage evolved, my husband, a “fast-moving officer” selected early for promotion, started to make sacrifices to his career as well to keep our family together. No longer was my career the assumed back burner as it had been before. Although I am by no means destined for general officer, we have both been highly successful in making a positive impact on our Airmen and to the nation. We are both Lieutenant Colonels working in the Pentagon with three happy and healthy children. Who knows where we will be next. I would like to say our story of success is commonplace rather than the exception, but based on DoD retention and promotion data, it is not. My current boss is incredibly supportive of my family, and I hope with more supervisors like him and my husband, it will get even better.

Paula Kuwaiti (Artist) @commonwildlandscape

In the last 5 years, many of our DoD policies have improved. But we still have a long way to go. Women are a minority in the military. In 2018, the percent of women by service was Army 15%, Navy 20%, Marine Corps 9%, Air Force 20%, and Coast Guard 15%. The number of women in the service needs to hit critical mass, which is defined as a sufficient number of adopters of a social system that can influence the majority before meaningful change will occur. Studies vary, but 30% is the most agreed-upon number. Our numbers are slowly rising but until then very deliberate policy changes need to continually evolve with the millennial generation. What is worrisome is the low representation of women at the highest levels of military leadership, especially women who are racial or ethnic minorities. As of February 2020 there were 38 active duty four star generals (O-10). Of that there was only one woman. Of the entire general officer population (876) there are only 7.4% women. Senior enlisted are slightly higher, hovering around 13%. Women’s retention rates are almost half of men for varying reasons, but most of them are centered on the compatibility of a family with service. Women with occupations that are more physically demanding encounter more barriers to their progression during pregnancy.

On a side note, if you are going to travel this path, I highly recommend increasing your domestic support to give yourself margin. We would not be able to do what we do today without our incredible nanny, who is essential to providing us the margin we need. I would encourage you to seek and receive help where you are able to. No one has ever become less of a parent or a leader because they hired someone to clean their toilet. Studies show it’s about quality time, not the quantity of time with your children.

Was this easy for this military mom? Hell no! Would I do it again? Hell yes! Can you have a family and a successful career in the military? Yes, you can! A lot will depend on you and your partner becoming a team with equitable parental responsibilities. Become those that share the burden to avoid being run into the ground, burned out, or eventually forced into defeat. Despite societal conditioning and policies that urge you to slow down when a man would not, resist the urge to make your career the automatic backseat when facing these challenges. Policy and culture will eventually catch up, stop holding yourself back until it does. This is hard but doable. So take a bit of advice from Sheryl Sandberg and “Lean In” ladies.

And with that, I leave you with the words a senior leader whom I look up to and admire once told me. “I can only imagine a day where our daughters will take this all for granted. That would be a fine day, don’t you think?”

Yes ma’am. Yes, it will.

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Edited by Megan Biles

Featured Photo: Lt Col Nichelle Somers with her husband Lt Col Jason Somers. From the left children Lilah (5), Corbin (7), and Jett (3). Lt Col Nichelle Somers and her husband are Air Force pilots stationed at Kadena, Japan.

***

NOTES:

Active Duty Master Personnel File, Military Academies. Defense Manpower Data Center, March 2020.

“Profile of the Military Community .” Military One Source. Department of Defense (DoD), Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy (ODASD (MC&FP)), under contract with ICF (https://www.icf.com/work/human-capital. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://download.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2018-demographics-report.pdf.

Melissa A. Milkie, Sara B. Raley, and Suzanne M. Bianchi, “Taking on the Second Shift: Time Allocations and Time Pressures of U.S. Parents with Preschoolers,” Social Forces 88, no. 2 (2009): 487–517.

Heather Penney and Miriam Krieger, “Female Officer Retention and the Millennial Imperative, 2015 unpublished study.

Melissa A. Milkie, Sara B. Raley, and Suzanne M. Bianchi, “Taking on the Second Shift: Time Allocations and Time Pressures of U.S. Parents with Preschoolers,” Social Forces 88, no. 2 (2009): 487–517.

Scott S. Hall and Shelley M. MacDermid, “A Typology of Dual Earner Marriages Based on Work and Family Arrangements,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues 30, no. 3 (2009): 220.

Between 1965 and 2000, the amount of time per week that married fathers spent on child care almost tripled and the amount of time married fathers spent on housework more than doubled. In 1965, married fathers spent 2.6 hours per week on child care. In 2000, married fathers spent 6.5 hours per week on child care. Most of this increase occurred after 1985. In 1965, married fathers spent about 4.5 hours per week on housework. In 2000, married fathers spent almost 10 hours per week on housework. The largest increase in the time spent on housework took place between 1965 and 1985. The amount of time married fathers spend each week doing housework has not increased much since 1985. See Suzanne M. Bianchi, John P. Robinson, and Melissa A. Milkie, Changing Rhythms of American Family Life (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006). Analysis done by Hook (2006) of twenty countries found that between 1965 and 2003, employed, married fathers increased the amount of unpaid domestic work they performed by about six hours per week. See Jennifer L. Hook, “Care in Context: Men’s Unpaid Work in 20 Countries, 1965–2003,” American Sociological Review 71, no. 4 (2006): 639–60.

Letitia Anne Peplau and Leah R. Spalding, “The Close Relationships of Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals,” in Close Relationships: A Sourcebook, ed. Clyde A. Hendrick and Susan S. Hendrick (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000), 111–24; and Sondra E. Solomon, Esther D. Rothblum, and Kimberly F. Balsam, “Money, Housework, Sex, and Conflict: Same-Sex Couples in Civil Unions, Those Not in Civil Unions, and Heterosexual Married Siblings,” Sex Roles 52, nos. 9–10 (2005): 561– 75.