Scott Air Force Base, Ill. – Recently, I heard someone talking about Diversity and Inclusion, a topic I am extremely passionate about. This person made reference to looking up at the wall of leadership pictures and not seeing someone who looks like them. They suggested that since nobody looks like them in the C-suite, that it sends the message that they can’t survive and are not welcome in a leadership position in their company.
While I acknowledge that this phenomenon does exist and nearly drove me to leave the Air Force at one point myself, I have a different message for you. My future Airman and Guardian: stop looking up. Instead, look out and within.
Today we have amazing examples of women in leadership positions: your Principal, Mrs. Clarice McKay, has amazingly led your school through this COVID-19 pandemic. Our neighbor, Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, is the commander of Air Mobility Command and leads over 110,000 men and women across the globe every day. Vice President Kamala Harris is serving in the second highest position in the federal government. These leaders, and so many others, are the examples we need to give us hope. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. If they do, fight like heck to prove them wrong.
Rather than looking up, hope is also found when we look out. I have spent the majority of my career looking up and not seeing someone like me until most recently. If I based my decision to continue to strive for leadership opportunities on this, I would have tapped out a long time ago.
When I see my friends and peers courageously leading in whatever their chosen field is, I have hope. I am encouraged by seeing more diverse leaders making a difference at any level, not simply a wall of pictures. Everywhere I have been for the last 10 years, I have tried to build a network so that the diverse leaders around me can connect and find courage in each other. As Abby Wambach calls it, I’m building my “Wolfpack.” In her bestselling novel, “Wolfpack,” Abby challenges us by stating, “You need a crew of brave and honest women to support you. You need them to hold you accountable to your greatness, remind you of who you are, and join you to change the world.” Build your pack.
Secondly, you don’t have to change yourself to be “one of the guys.” As the saying goes, “you do you!” For the first half of my career, I spent a lot of time trying to blend in and fit into a culture where I am the minority as a female pilot. I worked hard to hide my femininity and tolerate those things that happened in the workplace that were not welcoming to women.
Now I’m proud to be a part of a team that celebrates diversity and appreciates the perspective I bring to the table. I know it is not perfect, but we are working to make it better every day. You are my inspiration to keep fighting. You have been uniquely and wonderfully made and are already strong, independent young women. Don’t hide your true self if you happen to land in a culture that promotes fitting in over true belonging.
We will know when we have reached true inclusivity in our organizations and communities when we have a culture that embraces people for who they really are. We will know when each person—no matter their race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, creed, or ability—feels a sense of belonging every day they show up, not just when we are celebrating it on the calendar like we do during Women’s History Month.
I want you to know this now: reject the lie that you can have it all. There is no such thing as “having it all.” Life is full of sacrifices and last time I checked, there are only 24 hours in the day. This isn’t just a woman thing, this is a human being thing, and I would tell your male cousins the same thing.
The majority of people wake up every morning and want to be good at their job, good partners and spouses, and good parents. It is a challenge every day and some days are better than others. Some people call it work-life balance, others use the word integration or harmony. The point is, you must define your priorities and then choose to live by them every day. You, more than anyone, know this because you have been left home when I’ve been deployed. Those were tough times for us as a family, but professionally, it was one of the highlights of my career: leading men and women in combat. Even though the sacrifice our family made was not small, I am thankful for that once-in-a-lifetime professional opportunity, which would not have happened without the support of Grandma, who moved in to help care for you while I was gone. This highlights a social factor that is one of the main issues effecting gender equality today: availability of quality childcare.
According to the World Economic Forum “Global Gender Gap Report 2020,” we will not reach gender parity for another 99.5 years. The United States isn’t even in the Top 10 list of countries for gender equality. This analysis was based on data collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacted women in the workforce. A study by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trust, released in September, identified that mothers of small children have lost work between February and August of 2020 at a rate three times that of fathers. Single moms and women of color have suffered this disparity even more. Sadly, when you join the workforce, these issues may still play out because the root cause of many of these problems is a lack of quality, affordable childcare. It will take leaders at all levels of industry and government to commit to prioritizing family and support workplace policies and infrastructure to course correct.
So when you do get to that table, when your picture is up on that wall, I dare you to look within and down. Be the change you want to see and make it better for those who are coming after you. Fight to identify and slash barriers that prevent us from creating a culture where all can belong and thrive, no matter who they are. As the poet Amanda Gorman reminds us, “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” Be bold, be brave, and be you—the world is counting on it!