In 2015, at about the same time that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg made the above statement about the best number of women on the Supreme Court in an interview, Air Force Secretary Deborah James began her Diversity and Inclusion Initiative; a call for all MAJCOMs (Major Commands) to participate in a week long discussion on diversity and barriers to diversity in the AF.
This was an opportunity of a lifetime for me. I was at HQ staff, the only female aviator among 5 male generals, and I was in the room as our commander, Gen Hawk Carlisle, began discussing it with his staff. What a surreal moment. I wish I had read Justice Ginsburg’s quote before the discussion, because after we broke from that meeting, mind numbing analysis of numbers and percentages of women vs men in every career field in every year and every circumstance subsequently ensued unbridled among his staff and I was caught up in the flurry. I wish I had her perspective- that we will not really achieve true diversity until we have all women or all minorities as the majority (and therefore reducing how taboo the idea of women in the military is)- I would not have wasted so much time analyzing statistics as I would have focused on simply increasing the numbers because 20% is still not enough.
After I participated in our whirlwind of panels, and after the intense momentum for diversity waned, a coworker asked me to talk to him more about my thoughts on how to tackle diversity. This wasn’t just any coworker, this was Gen T. Michael Moseley’s son, Col Greg Moseley, a great American and aviator whom I respect and admire, and someone I believe will one day have enterprise wide effects on the Air Force. He asked me how I thought the AF should increase diversity, I was flattered and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to give him my thoughts.
He asked if I thought we should use a top down or bottom up approach to recruit more women? And, thinking of Justice Ginburg’s quote, I said “we should use a bottom up, top down and from all the sides, any way you can squeeze new thinkers in kind of approach”
Of course he thought I was joking, but I wasn’t. I was serious. Why not put a whole lot of women all over the ranks to diversify how we think?
Later, a brand new Lt that I had worked with as a Staff Sergeant said she was asked a similar question at a panel our A1 (personnel branch) held. When she was asked what approach the AF should take when it came to recruiting women, she told me she said “we have to select the best of the best women because we don’t want to fail”.
I laughed and asked why? Why do we as women put so much pressure on ourselves not to fail? It’s like we all think being a woman is a handicap.
In a half joking way I said, “let’s get em all in, who cares? Our recruiters accept males of all creed, efficacy level and competency, along with the best of the best men, why should we limit the women we accept arbitrarily because we are some minority? She was taken aback, I challenged the status quo and I don’t think she was ready for it : ) but my point was made.
We will never know the barriers women face in the military if we keep choosing women that are strong and resilient and over achievers. These are the women who are willing to push through unequal treatment, bad jokes, and road blocks to meet their goals. They graduate at the top of their classes and far outperform their male peers and the public is surprised and impressed. But we never accept or understand that the institution chose women who will not fail. These women hardly complain- because they are the best of the best and they know they cannot fail.
The women who stay and “tough it out” eventually burn out though. We need women who will fail and fail hard, but not just from the bottom up but from the side and at the top so it becomes less scandalous, less sensational, more realistic, and more acceptable to actually analyze the institutional issues instead of scrutinizing the women who are trying not to fail.
This is what was great about Shannon Faulkner’s fight to enter (and later quit) the Citadel in 1993. Sometimes it is okay to fail in order to bring attention to milieux that are not accepting to minorities. And attention did follow Ms. Faulkner’s case, the Citadel was forced to truly reckon with its discrimination policies. I dislike how much society made her a scapegoat, but her decision to quit changed history.
I think about the pressure women feel to be perfect and not fail with every female Airman I meet. Do I bond with them, do I champion for them, do I provide not only a role model but also an advocate for them? Am I creating the environment that makes them feel like we are a team and accept them as my sisters? Admittedly, I pretty much come short every time. But as I work toward improving myself, I work towards growing out of the minority group think and into the majority, not only in my workplace but in my perspective. I think that, once we grow out of the minority mindset and accept that we will one day be the majority, our perceived barriers will tumble down and Judge Ginsburg’s idea will become reality. And as I share my message, I realize more and more each day that I am not alone in this vision.
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