When I returned to Fort Bragg in 2000 as the first female general officer ever assigned, it was a big deal in the local media. At the change of command ceremony where I took command of the 1st Corps Support Command (COSCOM) I saw row upon row, column after column of soldiers–of all races, genders, and ethnicities. They were proud, they were a team, and diversity was obvious and thriving.
Soon after my return, several women who I had served with before approached me, and they had a plan. To honor my return to Fort Bragg as a general and put the spotlight on the accomplishments of women, they wanted to do an all-women parachute jump, complete with an all-women flight crew from our neighbor installation at Pope Air Force Base. They were far along in their planning and were so excited.
Ma’am, I’m Major Cindy Pollock, XO for the 530th. Congratulations on coming back to Fort Bragg and commanding the 1st Corps Support Command. We are so excited. If I may be so bold to suggest to you . . . but we thought in honor of your return and your assignment . . . perhaps we should organize an all-female jump . . . you know, women pilots, women paratroopers, women jump masters, and women safeties. What do you think?
I was taken aback. All of my career I had fought for the integration of women, and now someone was proposing a segregated event. I was honored she felt so proud, but I couldn’t see the value of this event. I saw no upside to drawing this attention to ourselves. I told her: “I’ve spent my whole career trying to support the integration of women into the Army, and this kind of activity seems to counter that. Don’t get me wrong–I’m so proud that we could even have the opportunity to conduct an all-women event like this.” When I told her I was very appreciative but didn’t think it was appropriate to celebrate my return to Fort Bragg with an all-female airborne operation, she was very disappointed.
I hope, like me, that she is proud that in 2011 a male battalion commander at Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the Army Airborne School, determined it was time to celebrate the four decades of women in the airborne community. This officer had witnessed the contributions of female paratroopers and respected the fact that they all trained together to the same standard. He had seen the emergence of female “Black Hat” instructors at the school and felt that the time was right for an all-female jump to commemorate the anniversary.
When I saw the video tape of the 2011 all-female jump I couldn’t help but think we had come full circle. I thought back to the poster from when I was a student at Fort Benning: “Paratrooper: last step to becoming a man.” I thought about my 82nd Airborne Division commander who wouldn’t even allow female paratroopers on his plane. The integration was now invisible, and the celebration by our male counterparts had more impact than any celebration we could have done for ourselves.
What I did learn over the years is that female-only sessions are important and necessary. Women talk about gender issues a lot more freely when they are not surrounded by the guys they work with every day. Discussions about harassment, assault, respect, fitness, and pregnancy are discussions that will be much more open, honest, and candid without the presence of their male counterparts. Similarly, males will be more open to discuss their own issues, biases, and challenges with female soldiers in their ranks without women present. Since my retirement, I have participated in women veteran forums, and it is clear that women-only forums like Veteran Women Igniting The Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE) provide a safe haven for honest and open discussions for women who have different issues from men.
Confusion over what diversity really means and why it is considered a strength will likely remain for the foreseeable future. I believe the strength in diversity comes from being able to leverage diversity of thought. It’s about creating teams of people from various backgrounds to solve complex problems. They need to strategize and provide a full range of alternatives and ideas that allow leaders to make the best-informed decisions.
To maximize potential–be it in a war zone, Wall Street, or Main Street–leaders need to look in the mirror and at their immediate surroundings to figure out what’s missing. Those courageous enough to embrace the power of diversity will thrive.
From A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies From America’s First Female Four-Star General by General Ann Dunwoody (U.S. Army, Ret.) with Tomago Collins, Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.
Ann Dunwoody is the first woman to become a four-star general in the United States Army. Now retired from the military and a sought-after public speaker, she is president of First 2 Four, LLC, a leadership mentoring and strategic advisory services company, serves on the board of directors for L-3 Communications, Republic Services, and Logistics Management Institute; and is a member of the leadership council for the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project.