I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what “Male Dominated” means when it comes to work environments. I understand it to an extent- but really reflecting on my experiences in the military reminds me of all the guys who helped me and encouraged me to get where I am at. That doesn’t feel like domination. It feels like teamwork. Why do we forget about those men when we consider our circumstances? Maybe its time we consider this term more carefully.
The guys that were in my first unit often enjoy sharing stories of “1Lt Aupke” to others who meet me now. They like to tell people about how I drove up that first day in my loud Diesel Dodge Ram 2500 that made half the smoke pit’s heads turn. And they like to describe how I walked down the middle of the hallway like I was a queen from the moment I walked in. I didn’t think anything of it but I guess it was weird? It was just the way I felt then – I was just out of pilot training and I thought I was God’s gift to the 66th Rescue Squadron – the first to graduate on time in almost 2 years. I felt pretty good about myself and was excited about the opportunity. When a former Army Warrant Officer invited me to lunch on that first day, I immediately agreed. I distinctly remember how he and the 4 other guys from the squadron asked if I was single as we cruised down Craig Avenue in his 1999 Lincoln sedan and I replied in my smart ass way “I don’t date coworkers” setting the tone immediately for the rest of my tour there – and really the rest of my career.
So, when I was sitting in my office, now a squadron commander myself, mentoring an officer trainee at officer training school recently, I was thrown off when she asked innocently – “What is it like working in a ‘Male Dominated’ world”? “Male Dominated” I hadn’t thought about this in a while. I really had to consider it.
What is “male dominated”? I rolled the question over in my head as I worked on a thoughtful response to her question. The Air Force is, after all, led by a male General and Chief Master Sergeant. And I have often hypothesized that when a woman is CSAF things might change. But in my more local experience, I don’t feel as though I’m necessarily “dominated” as the word suggests. What really defines domination anyway?
As I mull over this question- an image of a woman I saw over the weekend pops in my head. At brunch with my son, I catch a glimpse of her shirt that says “the future is female” and I can’t help but think- what does “the future is feminine” even mean? What about men? Is it possible to have a world without men? I mean, I had my son right there with me. Does the future suddenly exclude him? My son won’t be a woman and I sure as heck don’t think he has to be a girl to be powerful or influential. Why would I support such a sentiment as a mother? But on the other side, I do want to support diversity. “The future is female” as if the present is male? But both seem at odds with a goal of diversity. So I disagree. I really don’t want to be “dominated” by anyone honestly. Am I of such an agency to allow my faculty to be “dominated”? And why would I want women to dominate men? The reverse is exactly what we are fighting to change.
Oh yes, I remember I am answering a question in my office. The trainee continues to look to me for an answer. I imagine that she expects some sort of response that involves “GRIT” and “passion” and patience or something with feminist “woman power” undertones. Instead, I respond with this same kind of confused response – “what do you mean, male-dominated”? And then it is her turn to look at me confused.
I honestly don’t know what it is like to work in a “male-dominated” world- I can only remark on what things are like in an environment where men happen to be the majority – and continue to be the majority despite multiple deliberate efforts to change it. If we imagine a military of women- as Col (Ret) Karl Friedl writes about in his fantastic article, Biases of the Incumbents – What if We Were Integrating Men into a Women’s Army– that challenges the perceptions of diversifying the military. What if we had an all women’s army that had to be opened to men, would the challenges of that be just as numerous and exclusionary for men? Men would have to wear uniforms that don’t fit them, they would have to subsist on lower calorie meals, they would have to strengthen their lower extremities and use less upper body strength, just to name a few. And probably, they would have to be put in special dorms that probably locked them in so that they did not mingle with the women while they were hormonally charged from hunger. Those are just a few of the things that would be prohibitive if the roles were reversed. It would be challenging – what would it be like to work in a “woman dominated” field?
And yet male nurses, flight attendants, and teachers do it all the time. Do they have support groups and “Lean in” coaching seminars to learn to act more like women? Do they lament that they are dominated? My instinctual response is probably not. So why do women?
I would guess that about 95% of people agree that we need diversity of thought to progress – and most men do not wake up in the morning with the intention of excluding women. At least, they haven’t in my experience. And how much are women excluding themselves just by using language like “male dominated”? Most men want women to have the same opportunities they had- they just don’t know necessarily where things are limited – or how their behaviors are inadvertently exclusionary. There are some places where equality of access and opportunity could be improved for women and society is slowly working to change them, one “woman dominated” act at a time.
So, as I formulate my response to this young lady I decide to ask her to reconsider the circumstances. It’s not that the Air Force is “male dominated”- but that men happen to be the majority. Not so scary or intimidating anymore – requires less “GRIT” and passion more acceptance and challenge. If we change the way we frame the situation with our language, maybe it will help us find better ways to solve it.
**The views in this piece are of the author’s alone and do not reflect on the United States Air Force or US Department of Defense.