Breaking the gender barrier

  • Published
  • By Antoinette Smith
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
A panel of female leaders discussed breaking gender barriers throughout their careers during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference Sept. 19, 2017.

The women did not step easily into their leadership positions. They faced indifference, bias, stereotypes, cultural micro-inequities and discrimination. Each one shared a significant barrier breaking story which influenced their career and molded them to become great leaders, mentors and role models.

Wolfenbarger - A leader of firsts

As the first woman in the Air Force to achieve the rank of general, retired Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, chair on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in Services, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1980 as part of the first class to include female cadets.

Wolfenbarger spoke of the gender barriers she experienced during the mid 1970s when service academies were first opening up to women. She was one of 157 women in a class of 1,500. Though Congress ruled that women could attend the institution, there were still individuals within the force who disagreed with the decision and wanted to prove their opinion right.

“My opinion is that my class of women, and those who followed us, spent four years in fact proving that women cannot only survive, but thrive in a very challenging environment of the service without having to in fact adjust standards," Wolfenbarger said.

She later said that through the stressful, but rewarding experience, she gained a confidence that she never knew existed.

Leavitt - Policy and cultural barriers

The first female Air Force fighter pilot, Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing commander at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, became the first woman to lead an active duty, combat fighter wing in 2012 when she took command of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina.

Leavitt faced two barriers as she navigated her Air Force career: policy and culture. With regard to policy, the law changed allowing women to serve in combat in 1993. Graduating at the top of her pilot training class, Leavitt was able to have her pick of aircraft. She chose to fly the F-15E Strike Eagle, but was denied due to the aircraft’s combat role. Department of Defense policy changes shortly thereafter and she was able to fly the F-15E aircraft she loved. Leavitt overcame policy changes due to changes in the law, but overcoming cultural barriers wasn’t as easy.

Being a woman working in a male dominated career had its challenges. Some of Leavitt’s male counterparts resisted her, but that did not stop her from wanting to become the best fighter pilot. Even though there were instructors who did not want to train with her, her ability, skill, competence and drive out shined any negativity or low expectations directed at her. Her goal wasn’t to be the best woman fighter pilot, her goal was to be the best fighter pilot possible.

Frey - Authenticity and ethics

The first female command chief of U.S. Air Forces Central, Chief Master Sgt. Shelina Frey, currently the command chief of Air Mobility Command, faced racism and adversity growing up in the south while attending predominately white schools. She shared a memory about racial slurs being thrown at her as she rode her bike down the street during college. She laughed in the face of her adversary and refused to let her attacker see the true effect and hurt those words had on her.  

“To be taught something and to be prepared for something is one thing, but when it truly, truly happens to you, it impacts you in a different way,” said Frey.

Later, as a newly promoted staff sergeant, she found herself in a similar situation with her supervisor. But she positively stood out to become an asset not only to her organization, but to her boss. Because her supervisor was not technically inclined, he had to depend on her and her knowledge of computers.

“I made sure that every other day he needed me, and the more he needed me and the more I helped him, the more he began to appreciate me and looked past what he called my triple negative,” said Frey.

She explained the things he hated are the very things that she represented, and she couldn't be more proud.

Penney - Find your purpose

Heather “Lucky” Penney, director of T-50A and U.S. Air Force Training systems, Lockheed Martin, was one of the fighter pilots who, during the 9/11 attack, received orders to ram her F-16 into United Flight 93 as it flew over Pennsylvania in order to stop it from reaching Washington, D.C.

Penney spoke about dealing with the big stuff, like her conflicts she had as a female fighter pilot while serving in Iraq. Her sister squadron was opposed to women pilots, and the service members not afraid to show it. They refused to acknowledge her existence so much that at times, she would sit down at a table in the chow hall and the males would move. She combatted those negatives with force of will, competence and dedication to the mission. But the little things were harder to get over because they were part of culture and everyday life.

“What we do is really what we are. You don’t fly fighters, you are a fighter pilot, and you have to adhere to all of those cultural norms in order to belong,” she said.

She also stated the true culture is about being mission focused and serving a purpose.  

Miller - Competency and confidence

Reminiscing about the start of her career in Montgomery, Alabama, Essye B. Miller, deputy chief Information Officer, Cybersecurity, DoD, not only had to endure difficulties as an African American living in the south.

She learned how to deal with the bias and stereotypes in a professional environment. She said that with exposure and maturity, she was able to understand it was her competency and confidence that would get her through. She focused on the value she brought to the table, the opportunities the Air Force allotted her and took those lessons and shared them.

These women can be described as the epitome of strength and dedication. Others can call them heroes, but today and every day they are called Airmen, who decided to take a stand and break the gender barrier.