Wolf Pack Airmen “Lean in”

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Colville McFee
  • 8th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
“I prefer male leaders,” “Women are catty,” and “I did not have good female role models” are just a few statements heard during a recent Lean In Together mentoring session conducted at Kunsan Air Base on July 26, 2017.

These are commonly held beliefs about female leadership qualities. Frequently, gender bias is not manifested in crude slurs or by openly denying women jobs they are qualified to do. Gender based bias is insidious and, like many stereotypes, has wrapped its branches deeply outside of our conscious awareness. Of course, we don’t think of a simple preference, such as male over female leadership qualities, as a bias. We often don’t think of biases at all, especially when they are not about us and we don’t have to think of them. Most of our constructed reality is genuinely wanting the most qualified person for the job. It’s pretty straightforward. In that reality, we support women – they are our mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives, and, yes, leaders.

Can it be that we, well-intended service members, with integrity and no conscious gender biases, have blind spots? The famous Harvard University study about Howard and Heidi supports that notion.

Experimenters randomly assigned students to two groups and each group read an identical narrative about an entrepreneur. Group A read a story about Howard, who was highly successful because of his outgoing personality and networking skills. Group B read the same story, except, this time, the name Howard was changed to Heidi.
After reading about their respective entrepreneurs, both groups were asked to rate their entrepreneur’s personality. Students from both groups rated their entrepreneur as equally competent. That is excellent news: men and women could be seen as equally competent when it comes to work.

However, Howard was described as likable, while Heidi selfish. Students of both genders perceive Heidi, but not Howard, as “not the type of person you would hire or want to work for.”

Thus, for men, success and likability are positively correlated. The more networking and interpersonal engagement men exert, the more likely they are to be successful. For women, likability has a negative correlation with success.

Ladies, your warmth and interpersonal skills may backfire professionally.

Further, both men and women found Howard to be likable when he is successful. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less. Heidi's “aggressive” personality seemed to be an issue: the more assertive students thought Heidi was, the more harshly they judged her. This was not true for Howard.

Gender based negative perceptions have had great implications on servicewomen. Until recently, policies limited women’s roles in the military, including serving in jobs which often lead to the highest ranks (i.e., combat) and precluded them from upward social mobility, curtailing influence and earning potential.

The most recent RAND report on military women’s representation showed that female officers still have lower rates of promotion and retention, compared to male officers. Further, despite slowly opening positions to women over the previous decade, the study found that gender differences in promotion and retention had not improved since the original study in the 1990s. If anything, they worsened.

Why should we care? Women and their “issues” are often viewed as problems. What if, instead of asking, ‘how can we help women,’ we ask a more relevant question: how do women benefit all?

Women’s presence in the military spans several centuries, serving directly in combat or in supportive roles since the 18th century, and most recently in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Many died or were wounded in direct combat.

Before 1967 Women’s Armed Service Integration Act, the proportion of women in the enlisted force was restricted to no more than 2%. The number of female officers who could be promoted above the O-3 grade was capped and women were ineligible for permanent promotions to O-6 or General Officer level. Laws between 1951 and 1976 specified the discharge of women from the military for pregnancy, child adoption, or having a minor either by birth or step-parenthood in their homes for at least 30 days a year.

In 1973, a change to an all-volunteer force necessitated up to 80% of military occupational positions be opened up to women. The military needed volunteers and women were willing to serve.

Today, we make up about 17% of military force. Aside from the military needing women to fill its ranks, turnover of any capable member, man or woman, translates into a lost investment. Unique to our military organization, we promote only from within. This means when we lose a mid-career officer, the officer, regardless of potential, will likely never return to the promotion pool. We have to focus on both returning our investment, and retaining and enriching our ranks with diversity, knowledge, experience, and unique skills each of us brings to the table. As previous studies on diversity in productivity and innovation have suggested, welcoming diversity enhances the quality of any organization and makes us a more agile force.

Viewing female leaders as catty or aggressive will not advance us to become more robust or flexible. These ideas are contradictory to the image of a professional organization that cares deeply about people who serve.

Diverse talents among leadership help us all, not harm. Women are not the problem; they are a part of the solution.

Unfortunately, even our best intentions and beliefs to always treat everyone fairly may place women in a disadvantage. Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook and author of Lean In: “Women, Work, And The Will To Lead” created LeanIn. Org – space for women to understand, vent, connect, speak up, and raise awareness of a widening gender gap.

On Sept. 21, 2015, former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter expressed the DOD’s “unconditional” support for “Lean in” Circles, embracing the idea of providing space and time for service members and civilians to mentor women to be confident leaders. U.S. Forces Korea, Seventh Air Force and Kunsan Lean In Together programs use the principles of Lean In with focused circles designed to educate about biases, develop, inspire, and empower women to be the next generation of leaders.

We invite you to join the events sponsored by Kunsan Lean In, to include monthly mentoring sessions the last Wednesday of the month at 1100 in the Old Room.

For more information contact:
Maj. Anna V. Fedotova