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Air Force Female Generals: The Road to Success

Los Angeles Air Force Base -- Women have long worked hard to create an equal working environment. The Air Force, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, has also changed along with the times. 

Twenty percent of Air Force personnel today are women. Of that 20 percent, there are 20 female general officers, two of whom are stationed at Los Angeles Air Force Base - Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, Space and Missile Systems Center vice commander, and Brig. Gen. Susan Mashiko, Military Satellite Communications Wing commander. 

"I don't look at it as success as a woman," said General Pawlikowski, "I look at it as success as an Air Force officer. The fact that I'm a woman never really plays into it."
General Pawlikowski began her military service in 1982. 

"I don't think I ever thought of being a general officer in ROTC," she said. The general began service as part of the obligated reserve following graduate school, convinced she would serve her four years and move on. "Every time I reached a decision point, there was some new challenge or some new exciting thing the Air Force was offering," she said. In a blink of an eye, she was a colonel and it had been 12 years. At that point, a general officer took her aside to discuss her career. It wasn't until then that the thought of being a general even crossed her mind. 

Though she moved quickly through the ranks, the road to her success was not without bumps and curves. 

"There were challenges that I probably faced that were maybe not the same ones that a male officer would," she said. During her time in ROTC the opportunities for women in operational career fields were limited; the Air Force has largely eliminated those limitations today. 

Since those days, the general has found the Air Force as a culture to be extremely open to providing women opportunities equal to men. 

"I've never faced an institutional barrier besides that original one," she said. However, she said there are still individuals who, because of their backgrounds or experiences, treat women differently than they do men. She's especially found this in her engineering career field, which is male-dominated. 

"I have been in positions where I have found it more challenging it to be part of the team or to be accepted for who I was as an engineer or as an officer, because I was a woman," General Pawlikowski said. However, she added that those incidents were isolated, individual experiences and not anything she found to be ingrained or institutional in the Air Force culture. She also maintains that not all of those experiences were with Air Force people and that she has experienced greater challenges as a professional engineer interacting outside the Air Force. She said to combat these types of challenges, you must be very good at what you do. 

"You must have credibility by demonstrated performance that helps people to see beyond that mindset or predisposed stereotyping that comes into their head," said the general. Relying on individuals that don't have that type of stereotype can also help ease the challenge. 

"Often you can overcome that one individual in the crowd because the rest of the group accepts you," she said. The general has experienced tremendous support from other Air Force officers. 

The greatest challenge General Pawlikowski faced was balancing a family and her career. 

"I knew the challenges of going through a pregnancy and having young children at home were probably, I believe, more difficult for a mother than a father," she said. "At that time, there was not only a cultural expectation in terms of responsibilities of a mother, but also my own personal ones." 

When General Pawlikowski was a first lieutenant at McClellan AFB, Calif., Gen. Wilma Vaught visited the base and offered to meet with the three female officers who were stationed there. During that discussion, General Vaught told them that, to have a successful career, they would have to make sacrifices such as not being able to have a family and they most likely would not be able to get married. Although she didn't say anything at the time, General Pawlikowski said that made her angry. 

"I felt cheated when she said that," she said. "I made a vow to myself that I would prove her wrong." 

Later in her career, General Pawlikowski invited General Vaught to her promotion ceremony and she attended. 

"I thanked her for being a trailblazer for us, because she was, she was one of the very first women to be a general," she said. And after pulling her two daughters on stage said to General Vaught, "But you know what? You were wrong." Afterward they hugged and discussed the mind set she held previously. 

"That was 24 years ago and at that time, she was probably right," said General Pawlikowski. "But that's how much the Air Force has changed in terms of how they approach women in the Air Force now, because there isn't a woman in the Air Force now that can't have both." 

She said that through the years it has not been easy, but that the key is to find a balance that works for both family and career. 

"It becomes a matter of understanding what your priorities are and living by those priorities." The general said that her husband is the most important person in her life and that there are certain responsibilities she feels she has to her children as a mother that take precedence over being an Air Force officer. 

"My children will have an impact on our country and our society long after I'm gone," she said. "So my view about those responsibilities I have as a mother in terms of ensuring they are raised with the right moral standards, with a healthy perspective on life is because that's my legacy to my country as much as whatever I can do as an officer." 

While she believes there are certain key elements she has that take priority as a mother, there are also key priorities, like executing the mission, that take precedence over second-tier family priorities. And while her children are now in their early 20s, she says there are still things that she needs to balance. 

General Mashiko attributes her success to hard work, "nothing different than what a man would owe his success to." The engineer has also had her trials and tribulations by beginning her Air Force career as one of the first female cadets at the Air Force Academy in 1980. 

"When you are in the ground breaker class, you are going to, by definition, experience the resistance of the many to the few," she said. "When you have that basis of comparison, what you get exposed to in the standard workforce is not that big a deal."
General Mashiko feels that the best way to handle these types of situations is to stick up for yourself. 

"Given the focus of my particular career and the types of jobs I've focused on and the communities I've dealt with, there really weren't all that many women," she said. "If you don't stick up for yourself, no one else will." 

The 27-year veteran has seen many changes in the Air Force, primarily in terms of women taking on positions as pilots and navigators. She said that as an engineer, there haven't been a lot of changes in opportunities for women, but there has been an increase in women in her chosen profession. 

"In the early 80s, it was very rare to have more than 10 or 20 women total who were actually degreed engineers or scientists at SMC," she said. "That is very different today." 

General Mashiko believes that the change is positive because it creates more diversity. 

But through any issues they've had, both generals agree that it has been well worth it. 

"I love what I do," General Pawlikowski said. "That's why I'm still in the Air Force." The general said that for her every day is a new adventure. She views her new position as vice commander of SMC, as an opportunity to be in the forefront of space, to make the Air Force a world leader and bring on new capabilities. 

General Mashiko believes it's important for anyone who wants to succeed to have a mentor, do their jobs well and continue their education. 

"Continuing education is clearly valued by the Air Force and needs to be valued by the individual," she said. 

General Pawlikowski says the key to success is knowing your goals in terms of family and profession, setting priorities based on those goals and being very good at what you do. 

"It may be the littlest thing that you do very well that gets the attention of the leadership that motivates them to put you in a job with more responsibility," she said. The general believes that most people are always worried about what their next good job will be. 

"You don't get the good job if you don't do a good job on the job that you have today."