LOS ANGELES AFB, Calif. -- The roles women have filled throughout America's history have evolved as our society as a whole has evolved. The change in those roles is none too evident than in the positions women hold in the Air Force and the aerospace industry today.
In celebration of Women's History Month, the Space and Missile Systems Center hosted a panel discussion entitled "My Life, Our Legacy," giving four women the opportunity to share their individual stories. Demonstrating examples of challenge, opportunity, balance and difficult choices, these women showcased the opportunities available today that were only aspirations for women of yesterday; and encouraged the women of younger generations, whose choices would pave the way for the women of tomorrow, to make their own path.
Each panel member had a very different story: a retired general who joined ROTC when it was first offered to women at Indiana University and turned a scholarship into a fruitful career; the chemist who followed her husband to Los Angeles and established herself as an accomplished scientist and business manager; a chief master sergeant who joined the Air Force in her late 20s and discovered a continuous flow of opportunity; and the woman who dreamed of being an astronaut as a child and instead became the first operational and combat-ready female pilot of the F-22 Raptor.
No matter where these women began their lives or where their careers have taken them, they each share something very special with one another: the commonality of clearing the paths for the women who will follow in their footsteps.
Doing whatever it takes to remove the obstacles as you face them so that those following your lead will not have to face them, especially if they're unfair and unwarranted, was Chief Master Sgt. Patricia Thornton's resonating message. "You make sure that pathway is clear. And that means that you need to have a backbone because people are going to tell you 'no' over and over and over again, and you better know how to get them to say 'yes,'" she said.
Retired Brig. Gen. Katherine Roberts, Signals Intelligence Systems Acquisition director, National Reconnaissance Office, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space in Chantilly, Va., shared her story of a career that was a "means to an end." From turning an ROTC scholarship service obligation into a career of longevity, to experiencing the shift of leadership roles filled strictly by men to those shared among men and women, Roberts explained that through it all, the key to having a meaningful career is having a very clear understanding of what you label as the ends and what you label as the means.
In many instances, she said, we focus on the jobs we want, and we give them priority as the ends, our ultimate goal in life. "I would challenge you to rethink that. The jobs we do are the means. The ends - the thing that will keep you going when you've had a cruddy day, that's turned into a cruddy week, that's turning into a cruddy month - are the intangibles. For me, the intangibles were being a part of something bigger than myself and being able to make a difference," she said.
Thornton promoted the idea that challenges and opportunities go hand-in-hand, and you have to be able to stand up for what you want. She said her career has been filled with amazing opportunities that allowed her to grow as an Airman, a woman and a human being. "Everything I've done in the military has enhanced every aspect of my life... I have been blessed with so many opportunities, but I will tell you that as I have been blessed, my goal in life is to provide those same opportunities for others," she said.
Dr. Sherri Zacharius, general manager, Physical Science Laboratory, The Aerospace Corporation, expressed the importance of challenging yourself to new levels. "When I saw the challenge, I took it. I challenged myself to learn new material... and I frequently went out of my comfort zone, sometimes kicking and screaming," she said.
All of the women represent great success in their chosen career fields, and they all shared one common approach to their respective careers: Balancing priorities. In order to balance your priorities, Maj. Jammie "Trix" Jamieson, 49 Fighter Wing Advanced Programs chief and F-22 pilot with the 7th Fighter Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., said you first have to establish your priorities. "The biggest lesson I've learned from the Air Force is when everything is a priority, nothing is. If you can only do one thing at this instant with the picture you see in front of you, the situation as is...you can only do one thing - not your top three, not your top 10 - one. If you could pick one, what would it be?"
Thornton's approach to balancing her career with her family life elicited a few laughs from the audience. "Your house doesn't have to be clean. It doesn't. We can contribute to the economy by paying someone to do that for you because there are better things to do. I want to go to Napa Valley. I do not want to spend Saturday morning cleaning my house," she said.
While Thornton's example of balancing priorities may be on the lighter side, the message she was sharing was not. Roberts used adaptability to demonstrate the balance of priorities, and how they will change throughout a career and lifetime, just as the environment surrounding them will change. "You will find that the Air Force you entered is very different from the Air Force of today and will be very different from the Air Force you retire from or separate from," said Roberts.
Change is a lasting theme among the women's careers. While they each may have started with a plan, none of them planned their careers the way they happened. "Don't be afraid to re-evaluate your plans on a regular basis. You change, the Air Force changes, your circumstances change, and your interests and motivation will change. Don't be afraid to change your priorities," Roberts said.
However, each of them did begin their careers knowing that they wanted to make a difference and add value to the work they performed. Roberts' greatest satisfaction in her career was "the ability to make a difference in something much bigger than (herself.)"
"I've done some pretty great things in my career. The idea that people did a mission for the United States and came back from harm's way intact to a family, or to their job if they're in the guard or reserve, because of what I did, because of what my team did - whether I was on the team or led the team - how cool is that? That's very cool. The idea that there are times when we didn't' have to put anybody in harm's way because the issue never escalated that far because of what we did as a team, what I contributed to...oh that's really cool! For me, it doesn't get any better than that," said Roberts.
They each stressed the importance of breaking down any limitation preventing them from reaching their goals. Each woman shared a story of how being a woman was perceived as a limitation at some point in her career and how she was able to strive beyond that limitation to reach her goal.
"Let's take down the barriers, take down the artificial limitations we place on ourselves through stereotypes, statistics and generalities and look at professions for what they are, and let the chips fall where they may. There's nothing that settles the debate about whether (any person can perform any job) other than your competent and credible example. You can either do the job or you can't. Don't put that barrier there; don't make that judgment until people have had the opportunity to do it," said Jamieson.
The women closed the panel with encouraging the younger generations to reflect on the history, to know the challenges women faced before them, to take advantage of the opportunities available today and to strive to break down the barriers that still remain. However, they cautioned against becoming so immersed in the history that they create a barrier of their own.
"If you are too much into the history, you wear it around with you as a burden, a badge of honor and something you throw in the face of other people and it immediately turns them off, and it creates barriers that weren't there before for you. Know the history, but remain humble and thankful for the opportunities... When you don't have the perspective of the history, you tend to underestimate the future potential," Jamieson said.
Roberts said that she hopes the legacy of her 32-year career is one of opportunity. "I opened some doors and hopefully I built a strong foundation for the next generation to build on," she said.
The potential of the future relies on the opportunities women are willing to chase. All that is left to do is get out there and make it happen. Jamieson said, "At this point the opportunity is there - we just have to jump in and do it."