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Women's History Month: A Celebration of Strides Made

Los Angeles AFB, Calif. -- Among SMC and its industry partners, there are many women working in prominent positions that would not have been possible 20 or 30 years ago. Some might not realize just how different life was for women, where things like organized sports and team building activities weren't an option. Women who were pioneers often had no female role models because they were the first! We're fortunate to have in our midst certain women who were pioneers back when women in the work force wasn't natural. Now they are the role models for a younger generation of women looking to forge a path for themselves. They include Col. Anita Latin, 61st Air Base Wing commander, Brig. Gen. Jane Rohr, Mobilization Assistant to the commander, Space and Missile Systems Center, Mrs. Renee L. Rodeck, Director of Staff, Space and Missile Systems Center, and Dr. Wanda M. Austin, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Aerospace Corporation.

Colonel Latin was in the fifth graduating class that allowed women to attend the Air Force Academy. Although her father was a sergeant major in the Army for 29 years, he had no idea she had aspirations to join the military and was shocked when she applied to several service schools. This was during a time of economic difficulty when Colonel Latin saw that people were graduating from college and not able to get a job, so she decided to experience the military for five years.

Her parents were proud she would attend the Air Force Academy. Although neither of her parents graduated from high school, they both completed their General Education Development tests, and were adamant she go to college. Her mother was actually in the Women's Army Corps when she met her father, so working hard was an element ingrained in Colonel Latin from the beginning.

Although there were fewer women at the Academy, Colonel Latin said she didn't experience many of the issues and problems she'd heard about from friends at some of the older service schools, after several generations of only admitting men.

"They had worked out many of those issues and challenges by the time I attended the university and it was a very integrated environment. If you were mentally and physically solid, met all the standards, and performed well, you were accepted," she said. She was selected as a squadron commander in her senior year. Even though she excelled in the structured environment, it wasn't until she spoke with some of the other women at her 10-year Air Force Academy reunion that she realized the challenges she met.

"I worked hard to excel and be treated as an equal. The objective was to fit in and avoid stereotypes," she noted.

When General Rohr arrived at Officer Training School, the Air Force goal was to have 20 percent women.

"Teamwork got me through OTS. My flight worked together very well, and we all wanted to graduate together. It wasn't like I had the female issue to overcome because we were accepted as part of the team."

General Rohr's father was enlisted in the Air Force for one tour and her mother's five brothers all survived World War II. Her grandfather was also in the Coast Guard for a full career. Despite her family history, she said she didn't feel any pressure to join the military; in fact, her parents didn't think she was really serious when she started talking to the recruiter.

"When my dad truly realized I was going," said General Rohr, "he said, 'Oh this will be really good for you--it'll make a man out of you!' He was saying it in a kind of pat-on-the-back funny way, but it was something that always motivated me to show my folks how appreciative I was to them. They made sure I went to college and got the best education I could."

She had some really great supervisors when she was a Captain--two lieutenant colonels who taught her to stand up for what she believed in, integrity, and everything the Air Force embodies.

"They instilled in me the kind of things that helped me become successful," she said.

But did the Air Force really make a man out of her?

"I think the military is definitely less biased toward women compared to any civilian job I've had," said Brigadier General Rohr. "I don't want to make a big deal out of it because it never was a big deal. I think the military is very much a team kind of atmosphere. Everybody's got a mission, everybody's trained to do their job, and if you do your job to the best of your ability, there are really no limits."

From the start, Mrs. Rodeck had good feelings about going to the Navy's 16-week Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. in 1975.

"With a degree, the military was one of the few institutions that was willing to take me at face value and say, 'We'll assume that since you have your degree, you're willing to work and know how to apply yourself, and we'll see what we can make out of you,'" said Mrs. Rodeck.

Her first duty station was in San Diego, Calif., as the administrative officer for a fighter squadron.

"Since it was a training fighter squadron, women were allowed to work there," said Mrs. Rodeck. "This was before women were allowed to go to sea. There were very few women pilots at this time and I think I was the second woman who'd been at the squadron," she said.

She was one of only four women working on base among several thousand men.

"What I did was looked at much more carefully than a male counterpart might have been," said Mrs. Rodeck. "Even though I was an ensign, I expected more of myself because I thought I was going to have to prove myself more," she said.

One problem that Mrs. Rodeck noted was that she didn't really have any women role models, so she and other women had to pattern themselves after the male officers they knew.

"So it was kind of hard for us," she said. "We had to make our way without that. Today, I think it's a little easier."

In terms of mentors, she gleaned from her parents. Because of her mother's job as a hospital administrator, Mrs. Rodeck knew some of the leadership issues she dealt with in her business, and this helped her understand how to act in her own job. But in order to overcome everyday challenges, she said she had a good sense of self at an early age:

"The way I was raised, I didn't have a lot of doubts about myself as an individual. I was lucky in that my mother really stressed education and achievement for me. Working women in my family go back four generations. It never occurred to me that I wasn't going to earn my living, so I didn't have to overcome the expectation that I wasn't going to work, or that it wasn't proper for me to work."

Although Mrs. Rodeck was sure of herself, this was still 35 years ago at a time where very few women worked outside the home, particularly in a military environment.

"Back then we didn't have a lot of validation that we were doing the right thing outside of ourselves. You had to kind of find that," she said.
Dr. Austin wanted to be mentally stimulated when she entered college and to make a difference using her technical skills.

"That's what I liked about mathematics versus English or history or anything else. It was the challenge of solving a puzzle, getting it to fit, and it telling a good story," said Dr. Austin.

When she started a master's in Systems Engineering, there weren't too many women involved with engineering, but her drive for learning overshadowed this fact:

"Systems engineering involved using all of the technical disciplines to solve a problem. In systems engineering, similar processes apply in broad subject matters, so you can apply it to traffic flow, city development, architecture, and you can also apply it to space," she said.

Within her career at Aerospace, Dr. Austin has known other women as passionate about her discipline as she is, but with a limited amount of options:

"The aerospace industry as I've seen it evolve has always had bright, talented, innovative women in our midst. It is now easier for people to envision women in leadership roles.

"We've got lots of wonderful examples of women who have been very successful," said Dr. Austin. "I think that women are different and that they bring a different perspective on issues. It's important that our voice be heard because we bring something really unique to the table."

So for many women who get caught up wondering if the strides they make each day in the work place really matter, here are some words of advice and encouragement from those who helped pave the way:

"Every person has a job, and that job is absolutely critical to the success of our mission in the Air Force," said Colonel Latin. "Everyone is responsible for providing warfighter capability, or supporting them from a personal perspective to allow them to do their job. It's all about team work, and everyone needs to realize what they bring to the fight. They need to look at the bigger picture in terms of how they fit into the Air Force."

"Figure out who you are inside, and don't let circumstances change that," said General Rohr. "Be true to yourself, and be true to what you believe in. There's always a part of me that feels a bit guilty because I can't go to their school functions all the time, but I think showing my two daughters the bigger picture in terms of what they can achieve and what's out there for them is important."

"I'm very proud of the women I work with here at SMC," said Mrs. Rodeck. "I find them to be wonderful professionals, and I think in many ways, they're far superior to my group when I was their age because they've had the ability to work in areas, and perform in areas that we never had. So I think that the women today are much more well-rounded and I'll even say more capable than we were when we were young."

"I think a lot of times you don't see immediate results with what you're doing," said Dr. Austin. "You may not go as far or as fast as you want, but it will be valuable, and it will lay some groundwork that maybe someone else will come along and continue that work. You may be a piece of that story in a long continuum of solving hard problems. They take persistence, drive, and people staying on it to get to a resolution, so you have to have that kind of commitment."

And undoubtedly the strides these women made have helped women today experience things that 20 years ago would never have been possible. So, thank you.