Air Force female pioneers discuss overcoming barriers

Individuals speak during the Breaking the Gender Barrier panel at the Air Space, Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 19, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Chad Trujillo)

Individuals speak during the Breaking the Gender Barrier panel at the Air Space, Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 19, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Chad Trujillo)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Day two of the Air Force Association Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference kicked off with several panel breakouts, to include one titled Breaking the Gender Barrier.

The panel of five women included: Gen. (ret.) Janet Wolfenbarger, Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, Chief Master Sgt. Shelina Frey, Essye Miller, and Heather Penney.

Each of the panel members discussed barriers they overcame during their careers.

As part of the first U.S. Air Force Academy class to admit women, Wolfenbarger faced acceptance obstacles from male classmates who worried that standards would be lowered.

“In my opinion, I and my [USAFA] class of women and those that followed us spent four years proving not only could women survive, but thrive in a very challenging environment of a service academy without, in fact, having to adjust the standards,” said Wolfenbarger, who in 2012 became the first female four-star general in the Air Force.

As the first female Air Force fighter pilot, Leavitt also overcame barriers.

“I worked my absolute best,” said Leavitt, now the 57th Wing commander at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. “It became clear to everyone all I wanted to do was be the best possible fighter pilot. I didn’t want to be the best female fighter pilot. I didn’t want to be there because I was female. I wasn’t trying to make waves. I wanted to be the best fighter pilot I could be.”

The group of women spoke of mentors who helped them become pioneers in their respective fields.

“Growing up in the Air Force, those who mentored me did not look like me,” said Frey, who became the first female Air Forces Central Command command chief master sergeant in 2013.

She credits the 12th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Eric Benken, for helping her come into being as an Airman and leader.

“He saw something in me that I did not see in myself,” said Frey, who currently serves as the Air Mobility Command command chief master sergeant, Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. “He saw past what I thought was my potential and allowed me to make mistakes.”

Benken then used those mistakes as mentorship opportunities.

“I learned even more about myself,” she said. “Better yet, it was about understanding self and others. It is when you understand yourself that everybody else makes sense.”

Penney said that as the first female fighter pilot in the 113th Wing she also faced barriers, but cautioned the audience that women today still face challenges when it comes to balancing their roles between work and family and there is still work to be done.

While work is still ahead, mentorship is key to continuing the momentum. Miller spoke on the value of lessons and development from positive and negative influences faced.

“(I’ve come) across people throughout my career that were willing to pour into me,” said Miller, who is the deputy chief information officer for Cybersecurity for the Department of Defense. “When I say pour in, it’s good and bad. Taking the lessons and the leadership trends from those that you don’t think very highly of. But, it all boiled down to lead to authenticity. To come to understand truly who I was at the core, who I am at the core and how that played into my interaction and my leadership style. Such that when I leave an organization the engagement and the relationships don’t end.”