What Does It Take for Military Women to Succeed?

Army War College

I suspect that the first rule of success for women in the military is: Do not join groups that discuss being female in the military!!

So I was pleased (and surprised) to be invited to the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., to talk to senior women about what it takes to lean in to a military leadership pipeline.

Ever since Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg noted that women must lean in to their careers, women all over the country have been examining what they do professionally and personally.

Yet I still thought military women would be a little more free of that gender nonsense. No military woman is going to hover in the intern chairs at the edge of the room. She is going to take the seat at the table that fits her current job. 

No military woman is going to worry about “dressing for the job you want”-- a uniform pretty much answers that question.

And making your husband an equal partner in the family? Somehow, deployment doth make equal partners of us all.

Yet when I spoke to these women, they were all about the strategies they have developed around their personal and professional lives so that they could pursue a military career. 

I asked them to share these strategies anonymously so that they could be as frank as possible. These are a few of the things they told me:

Sometimes it’s easier to be single. Half the women in the group were married and half were divorced. Either way, the job is so demanding that your partner gets short shrift. That is hard on a marriage. Even dual military marriages suffered because of career rivalry: Whose career is more important?

Being one of the boys is overrated. For many military women, finding a way to fit in with a mostly male group is hard. Being one of the boys is a strategy a lot of women use. “But you will never really be one of the boys,” an Air Force pilot said. “Instead, be one of the team. They need you.”

Be yourself. That’s what you are going to end up being anyway. I told the group about a young military woman I met who had tried being a sister to the guys in her unit, a girlfriend, a mom. “Has she tried being herself?” one of the servicemembers asked. 

“Were you 'yourself' when you were 19?” I countered.

“I think I was 25,” she laughed. Everyone else did, too. Even though the “be yourself” strategy takes a while to kick in, it works. Recognizing your own strengths and learning to wield them better is what makes you stand out.

Sleeping around kills your career. It may sound like sexist advice, but this seemed to be less about chastity and more about saving time. The group concurred that having any kind of romantic or sexual relationship changes the way your colleagues perceive you. Overcoming that perception takes more energy than a minor relationship was worth.

No easy time to have kids. Have kids when you are young and you will have to leave them for all the deployments and trainings at the early part of your career. Have them mid-career and you risk moving them a lot during the senior part of your career. Wait and have them when you are more senior, and you may not be able to get pregnant at all. Every age has its challenges. You are have to deal in a way your male counterpoints do not.

Understand what’s going on at the next level. Early in their careers, these women said that they were so busy learning the core competencies of their jobs, they didn’t think about the big picture. It was easy to fall into the trap of low-level tactical thinking. “Think about the unit as a whole and how you are contributing,” noted an Army colonel. “Thinking that your leaders don’t know what they are doing is an attitude you want to curtain.”

Don’t play the single parent card. Combining a military career with single parenting is tough for anyone. But these women cautioned that opportunities have a way of dissolving if people think you can’t handle it. “It paints a picture of you. People tend not to give you too much to do. They don’t want to overburden you. Your network has to be in better order.”

Marry a retired master chief. Or sergeant major. On a lighter note, many of the members of the group noted that it might be an advantage to marry someone who is near military retirement. They are already accomplished. They are already sure of their own manly place in your military world. Retirees often have the job skills that they can get a job anywhere. Maybe they were joking. Maybe they were serious.

Stand on the shoulders of giants. Like so many of their male counterparts, each of these women had the support of other adults in their lives. One colonel had a group of female peers she had known for years. After her divorce, a lieutenant colonel had her own mom move in with her to help her with the kids. An activated reservist pulled me aside after the meeting and told me, “I have an incredibly supportive husband. He is the reason I’ve been able to continue. He is willing to move and go through my deployments and take care of the kids and handle a geo bach tour,” she said. “I truly stand on the shoulders of giants.”

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