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Diversify and Excel

Lieutenant General Jones and Lieutenant General Fetter

I recently gave a speech to a civilian audience about today’s military. After the event I was approached by a woman who asked about the possibility of a return to the draft (she was in favor of it) and about women serving in combat roles (she opposed it). She was surprised that I held the opposite belief on both subjects. I think the all-volunteer force is capable of executing the national defense strategy and the women who serve in our armed forces are as patriotic and highly proficient as their male counterparts. I shared with her my rationale; she accepted my logic on the volunteer force but was unmoved by my observations about our female service members. She didn’t think women should be exposed to combat and thus shouldn’t be in the military. My beliefs are grounded by two seismic events in my career; both of which made the AF better.

I was raised in a house with four boys, a fighter pilot Dad, and a stay at home Mom. I left to enter the Air Force Academy in 1976 – this happened to be the first year women were allowed to attend service academies. More than 150 women (of almost 1600 people inducted) started that four-year journey…60 of them did not make it to graduation. At that time the officer corps of the Air Force was predominantly men and we needed to include women to reach our highest potential. The 97 women who graduated in the class of 1980 served with great distinction; there were multiple General Officers among them and one achieved 4 star rank. During those four years they endured harassment beyond the norm – singled out solely because of their gender – yet persevered to reach a lofty goal of being a commissioned officer. The overwhelming majority of cadets in the classes before us (and some among our own class) made it clear that women were NOT welcome in “their” Academy. The fact that 97 of them made it through four years of hostile behavior is testament to their fierce determination and love of service…the same qualities displayed throughout their time in uniform. They served as tremendous leaders and role models for the women (and men) who joined the force after them. Airmen of all ranks benefitted by seeing women at the top of their organizations, and their service helped break down discriminatory beliefs and behavior that had dominated our service beforehand. I fully believe that any organization will benefit and become better from having women represented among the workforce – from entry level to the C Suite.

The second event happened in 1993 and was equally revolutionary. In 1985 I became a fighter pilot. Flying fighters was a demanding task, both physically and mentally and it was all done by males. Though females had been allowed to fly aircraft since 1976, they were not allowed to fly fighters until 1993. Fighter squadrons were an elite group of warriors and we were close – much like the sports teams most of us had been members of in years past – but change was upon us. Once again I witnessed an organization struggle with accepting women into roles once filled solely by men. This time was different though, as I was in a leadership role in a fighter squadron and I had the benefit of having watched my Academy classmates perform remarkably well when facing similar resistance 20 years earlier. The squadrons, groups, and wings that I served in and commanded were better because of our women fighter pilots. Just like their male counterparts, some were great fighter pilots, some were average, and some needed extra attention. I know it’s a small sample size (women make up only 6% of pilots in the Air Force) but every female pilot I’ve met has an internal drive and unique perspective that adds value to the organizations I’ve led.

In both the examples above I heard similar complaints: “this is a warrior society – no place for women”; “including women will make us softer”; “this means we’ll have to lower our standards”. There were more, but you get the picture. Forty years after those protests, it’s easy to see how hollow those assertions were. We were the world’s greatest Air Force in 1976 and we remain so today. We have had numerous instances of female fighter pilots performing heroically in demanding conditions (look up USAF Capt Kim Campbell or Southwest Airlines Captain Tammie Jo Shults). Without their contributions we’d have been a lesser force. I watched it from the front row. Including women in the Air Force and flying fighters didn’t make us less lethal, it made us more so. Over the years I’ve heard from many former fighter colleagues who pine for the past and complain “We had to change our behavior when women were let in”; of course we did – but it didn’t make us any less talented or aggressive in the air. It gave us access to additional talented pilots (who happened to be women) and tremendous patriots who want to serve their country. Who doesn’t want that?

I doubt the woman I met after my speech will ever change her mind and I don’t know how prevalent her beliefs are among the rest of our nation…but I fear it’s more than it should be. Women are now fully established in the military – across all spectrums – but that’s not the case in all professions. Take a look around your workplace and your C suite. Odds are males are more prevalent than females. I get it; not every workplace can (or should) be 50% men and 50% women…including the military. That said, I’ve seen the benefits of including more women in the workforce and I’m confident that organizations that increase their diversity succeed with greater frequency than those who don’t. You don’t have to look any further than your Air Force!



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