In May 2015, four months after graduating from college, I decided to join the Army through their Officer Candidacy Program.
That October I commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, excited for the good that I thought I would do in the coming years and how I could positively impact the lives of those who I would be leading. After six more months of training and learning the ins and outs of Army Engineering I set off for my first duty station to really begin my career as a junior officer.
The Army Corps of Engineers is comprised of two main disciplines: combat and construction engineering and until 2016 when the ban of woman in combat arms was lifted there were no female combat engineers- but that ban did not apply to officers. So in April 2017 I found myself the Platoon Leader of a 27 Soldier Platoon, and in a company of 120 as the only woman.
I knew that the next year would be challenging and full of so many rewarding opportunities and growth for not only myself and my Soldiers, but I did not anticipate the inner challenges that I would face trying to defend my gender and maintain the respect of my Soldiers.
While I am sure that when my Soldiers saw me for the first time they were probably a little wary and unsure of how to interact with their new female Platoon Leader they never once showed it to me. There was the typical transition from one leader to the next and the learning curve that comes with it but I never felt unwelcome or disrespected. Now, I am not naïve enough to think that there weren’t comments made behind my back. In fact, I know that comments were made and jokes were told about the new “hot female LT in B Co”- just not to me. And even after I heard about the comments from other lieutenants I worked with I chose to ignore it all and let my actions speak for themselves. Luckily it didn’t take very long to show them that I was the right person in my position – male or female. I didn’t have to be the best athlete, the best Soldier, or the smartest in the Platoon. I just needed to show up every day and demand respect by simply doing my job.
It sounds pretty simple because to me it is.
I do not think that we, as females, need to prove our worth by being better than everyone we work with or the top of the totem pole. That does not solve any equality issue. If we have to be #1 to be treated with respect we are saying that everyone beneath us, male or female, doesn’t deserve that same treatment.
To me the way to fight the biases that I saw in my company was to show up, be present, and demand respect through my actions and by respecting those around me. In the military a common tactic many leaders take to ensure they are respected is to yell and scream at Soldiers and completely overwhelm them with their presence. I was never and will be the loudest person in room with a huge domineering presence.
I am not the type to stomp around an office yelling and causing a scene. But I am the person who gets the job done. I know that my way isn’t always the solution to the biases that can appear in the workplace. Often it doesn’t matter how hard you work or how deserving you are of your position, people will still refuse to respect you based off of your gender, or race, or whatever way they want because they feel like they can.
And those situations suck, because they aren’t fair and it feels like there isn’t a way to get out of that situation. But sometimes there can be- sometimes it is possible to change how someone feels not only about you but about others as well.
About six months into my position as a Platoon Leader the senior Non-commissioned officer who I worked directly with left the company and a new one took his place. This Sergeant First Class had never in his almost twelve-year career worked with a woman until he showed up to our company.
I didn’t know it at the time, but he hated the idea of working with me. He thought that I would never gain the respect of our Soldiers or be able to pull my weight in the field and in the office. Talk about some confirmation bias – for someone who had never worked with women before he sure had a lot of negative opinions about us.
He never once showed me any disrespect or that he felt like he could not trust my leadership, for which I am forever grateful. Slowly but surely as we began to work together he saw that I not only had the respect of my platoon, but of the whole company. And pretty soon I had his as well.
Before I left for my new job he took me aside and told me about the concerns and initial worries he felt when he began working with me. He was very honest and frank about his opinions because, as he said, I had completely changed how he felt. Almost as soon as we started working together he realized just how wrong he was to judge me and my leadership abilities because I am a woman, and because of our experience working together he completely changed his opinion on not only female officers but female enlisted Soldiers.
That conversation was one of the proudest moments of my career because I knew that by gaining his respect and showing this rough and tough veteran that he was wrong that it will be possible to keep making strides and for women to keep pushing boundaries. Throughout our working relationship there was never an overt change in the way he treated me or our interactions, but internally he had completely removed a very long held bias. I respected that he kept his opinions to himself, but I respected him even more for coming to me and honestly admitting that he was wrong.
As much as that conversation made me proud, however, it also made me realize that we still have a very long way to go in proving that we deserve the same opportunities as every man and that are as equally valuable in the workforce.