LINKAGE Q1 (2021) - Choose To Challenge
The military institute is perhaps the quintessential pillar of masculine leadership. Promoting gender equality and the visibility of women, does not mean invisibility for men; rather, it translates to military operational efficiency. In 1980, the first batch of thirty-four women enlisted in the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force (TTDF) Regiment. Fast forward to 2021, the TTDF has made significant strides in the integration and employment of women. These early pioneers paved the way, and since then, there has been steady recognition of the capabilities of women in the military. Women are currently employed in every branch except elite Special Forces Units, and comprise approximately 15% of the TTDF population. Of this population, women comprise 16% of the leadership across the ranks from Sgt/Petty Officer to Lt. Col.
To date, women have contributed significantly to leadership roles; however, where organisational inequities restrict women’s roles, the organisation forfeits an opportunity for not only increased operational effectiveness, but also competent and intelligent leadership. The TTDF, therefore, has embraced the responsibility to stimulate discussions surrounding gender-mainstreaming and full inclusion, so as not to discount 15% of its population.
There exists a critical role for women in the military. Yet, gender-specific organisational standards may reinforce perceptions that women are unable to perform to the same standard as men. Research has shown that lower standards based on gender, may make it increasingly difficult for women to earn the trust and confidence of leaders and peers in their operational capabilities. The perception that women are constrained by their inability to meet established organisational standards and criteria must be shattered, through giving women the opportunity to succeed or fail.
Meeting the demands of ultimate authority, responsibility, accountability, and expectations of performance, place enormous pressure on military officers. These expectations can be internal to the organisation, external, and often self-imposed. This compounding of demands and expectations is what some refer to as the ‘burden of command’, and often weighs heavily on an officer. However, the ability of a leader to successfully meet and exceed these demands demonstrates commandership, despite gender.
Commandership often requires subordination of individual needs for the greater good of the organisation, and the ultimate authority entrusted to a commander mandates a mental shift when he or she becomes the face of the organisation. Leaders are entrusted with the power to make organisational decisions, and must continually prove that the trust and authority inherent in command is well-placed and well-deserved.
This burden of command is significant for female military officers in a male-dominated environment, often as the only woman in the room. Two thousand and twenty-one marks the 25th year of my military career, and for more than half of it, I have been the most senior female in the TTDF. It is in this position that I have grown as an officer, a wife, and a mother. Originally from Morvant, there have been many firsts in my career, and because of where I sit, there may continue to be many more. Through all of this, my husband, as a retired military officer, and my son have been invaluable to my success as a female leader.
Through deep reflection of my career, I have realised that the ‘glass ceiling’ is real, mentorship is an important aspect of female leadership, behaviour during demanding epochs defines true leaders, and female and male leadership differences is a myth. Further, female leaders must accept the role model position and burden of responsibility that come with being the only ‘skirt’ in the room.
The phenomenon, known as the ‘glass ceiling’, has been described as a barrier of prejudice and discrimination that excludes women from higher-level leadership positions, Kent et al, (2010). The idea pervades that organisational systems may be consciously or unconsciously, but inherently designed, to exclude women from reaching the highest positions. These institutional systems include formal performance evaluations, promotion policies, training, and informal systems such as social circles, who knows whom, and who gets invited to which events. These systems are inherent within organisations, and have the effect of naturally selecting who makes it to the upper echelons; most often a man rather than a woman.
During my military career, I have had to hold myself to higher ethical standards, since my actions are measured against the Regiment’s core values, and gender roles based on society’s expectations. Overcoming gender biases sometimes required being overly assertive and opinionated. Studies have discounted, as well as supported, arguments that men and women use different leadership styles. Bennis and Thomas (2002) identified four essential leadership skills that would allow a leader to learn from and thrive through their challenges. These include gender-neutral traits such as the ability to engage others in shared meaning, having a distinctive, compelling voice, integrity, and adaptive capacity. The trait of hardiness provides the mental toughness and resilience required for maintaining a positive outlook through adverse situations, enabling the leader to turn around situations to succeed.
I have grown significantly over the course of my career; however, what remains consistent is my determination to positively influence the experience of women; so I often contemplate on the appropriate approach. According to McGregor (2014), the U.S. Army's first African-American female two-star general spoke about the absence of a formal mentoring program and the criticality of such a program for more women to get ahead. She said that the military needed to “get outside their personal comfort zone”. Female mentorship in all forms is critical to developing future female leaders.
In her memoirs, General Kennedy, the first US female three-star general, spoke about her struggles and having to adopt the role of the ‘Iron Maiden’. Having to appear more militaristic and wield the disciplinary power inherent in command much more unwaveringly than her male peers, are experiences we both share. Her ‘Iron Maiden’ persona came about both through her ideas of how men would react to her and through the challenges of men to her authority, as did mine. These factors may contribute to the loneliness of female leadership in a male-dominated environment.
At the age of 20, I was leading soldiers with children my age. I had to work hard for their respect, and that has influenced the leader I have become. My authority was often tested, and I was forced to wield my authority at every opportunity, continuously proving myself. I gained several nicknames including ‘Woman of Steel’, ‘GI Jane’, ‘Wicked Witch of the West’, and ‘Head B**** in Charge’. I had to work harder, know more, do more, just to receive the same respect as my peers, and to ensure I was not discounted as the weak link. Today, I am an overachiever; I realised that competence and capability were tools that could earn credibility and trust. As a leader, I had to set the standards and lead from the front. I had to accept the responsibility that came with being the only ‘skirt’ in the room.
Male leadership also plays a critical role in ensuring that women have a seat at the decision-making table, as they set the example for other males in a male-dominated environment. Integration of minorities requires organisational adjustments, and senior officers must be sincerely involved. Creating a culture where women feel comfortable, is not a quick-fix, but takes a long time, a lot of work, and requires different leadership initiatives and thorough actions. The support and political will of male leaders who publicly promote gender equality and women’s equal participation in public life, are vital for accelerating changes to social norms as people respond to the messages from traditional leaders. One of the major challenges we face is ensuring that good intentions are translated into actionable items, namely culture change. This is not about retaining a certain image of the organisation; it is about making real in-depth and meaningful cultural changes.
My experience has taught me that women leaders become role models whether they want to or not. All achievements are huge achievements in a world where every female accomplishment is celebrated as if this achievement was not expected, or beyond the reach of a woman. The lesson to be learned here is that as women, the world is always watching, and you are always a role model, whether it is your intent to be one or not, so be the superhero that you are.
Finally, as women, we have a responsibility to add to the conversation, and to become champions and advocates for advancing agendas for organisational change and for increased integration and recognition of our contributions. Let us unapologetically choose to challenge expectations and attitudes about the masculinity of leadership, while recognising the value of diversity.
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