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Hidden Gems: Women Veterans in Leadership

Recognizing the many leadership skills women veterans bring to our communities.

Jacob Morrison/Unsplash
The invisible female Veteran
Source: Jacob Morrison/Unsplash

Do you know how hard it was to find a (free) image of a woman veteran for this blog post?

Here’s an exercise: I want to you take a quick moment and go on a few of the free image sites and try. Go ahead... I’ll wait.

Not even Google, the all-encompassing collator-of-everything, had much. Among the first 80 images, there were 78 images of male veterans or other veteran-related symbols and 2 images of civilian women hugging male veterans returning from deployment.

On other photo image sites, it was even worse: the majority of female military or veteran pictures were things like civilian women frolicking in fields holding large American flags or women in sexy poses wearing military-inspired designer clothes. Huh?

I was shocked and that much more motivated to write this post to increase awareness of their contributions.

I know they are a minority group in the military, so of course we would see more images of men. But they currently make up about 10 percent of the total veteran population in the United States – it doesn’t sound like a lot, but that is about 2 million Veterans! And it’s projected that by 2043, women will make up about 16 percent of all living Veterans.

Yet we rarely see them highlighted in the news: even when we celebrate Veteran's Day.

Okay, next exercise: Now I want you to look up all the research articles out there on “women veterans” and then on “women veterans and leadership."

I’ll save you some time and give you the trend: there are a small number of good articles on women in leadership roles during their military service, but when you look up post-military service, the vast majority of research articles focus on mental health issues and barely anything (especially no research-based articles) on women leaders or leadership after the military.

As a psychologist who works for the VA and does research on post-deployment mental health, I am certainly glad to see more and more research being done on the specific and unique needs of women veterans who are suffering from post-deployment and military-related mental health concerns. More of that research absolutely needs to be done in order for better care to be provided.

And certainly, in the age of #MeToo, I also appreciate an increased focus on the sexual harassment and assault epidemic, as well as the trauma-related mental health consequences of these events. This an important problem to continue focusing on in research and in policy.

But as a women’s leadership coach and consultant, I am disappointed that this is where it stops. There is almost no current focus (research or otherwise) on what these amazing women are contributing to our society, both through their past service in the military, as well the specialized skillset they bring to their work after the military.

In fact, a VA report acknowledges that:

"Women who have served in the U.S. military are often referred to as “invisible veterans” because their service contributions until the 1970s went largely unrecognized by politicians, the media, academia, and the general public… the early female pioneers in the military volunteered to wear the uniforms, submit themselves to military rules, and risk their lives in service to their country, all without the same benefits and protections of the men with whom they served."

Women who served were not recognized as “veterans” until well after WWII. I will add that anecdotally, even now there are veterans who do not realize that they are considered to be Veterans: there is a common misconception that combat service is a requirement for veteran status. Some VA and DoD colleagues suggest that sometimes it's not recognition, per se, but wanting to put the past behind (especially if there were negative experiences such as sexual harassment associated with the service). This unfortunately means there are women who may not claim or receive the recognition for service and even the healthcare, financial or other benefits associated with their service.

(A great historical overview of women’s service in the U.S. military can be found here and here.)

Source: Skeeze/Pixabay

To that end, on Veteran’s Day, let’s make sure we do not overlook the female leaders out there who served our country.

Women veterans on average reach higher educational attainment compared to non-Veteran women: in 2015 44 percent vs. 32 percent of men had some college education and 35 percent vs. 28 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree. Women veterans are also less likely to be unemployed or live in poverty.

In 2013, CNN reported that 69 of the 976 generals and admirals (7.1 percent) were women. Likely that number has grown, as well as the number of additional women leaders below those levels.

This translates to more and more women leaving the military and entering the workforce with highly specialized leadership skills, not the least being that these are women who have successfully led in male‐dominated environments.

(Here and here are just a few examples of the kinds of leadership experiences they have had. You can also check out this awesome reference card, developed by the RAND Corporation describes ways in which veterans can translate their military experiences into 14 key skills that employers want and need. Among them include several levels of leadership training depending on the level achieved in the military, as well as training in team work and team building, leading and inspiring others, communication, training others, supervising, and critical thinking.)

When it comes to women in leadership roles, remember that those who work in male-dominated industries must take on everything men take on but must work harder and perform better in order to receive the same recognition. This requires a certain level of confidence, courage, cognitive and emotional intelligence, and high competency.

While there is no research on this yet, it’s not a hard leap to make to assume that this level of intensity, persistence, grit, courage, and resourcefulness required of women in male-dominated industries to become successful recognized leaders is likely to be even more exaggerated in the military. Don’t forget that on top of the typical performance outcomes must include meeting the physical fitness requirements.

One colleague who works for the Department of Defense and is a researcher suggests that women in some military branches and jobs, may even develop greater empathy as leaders because of their experience never becoming too complacent in their role or taking it for granted, often feeling like an outsider, and always having to work harder than men to get the same resources, positions or recognition.

Even those who served at infantry and lower level officer levels leave the military with unique leadership skills. They have experience briefing high-level stakeholders, developing and executing complex operations, managing employees who range from highly adept to those suffering from stress-related mental health concerns, and maintaining calm while managing intense crises.

Dr. Celia (Renteria) Szelwach, a management and leadership consultant and professor who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (in the 11th class of women) and served as an Army officer leading soldiers (and jumping out of airplanes!) has had the unique advantage of being a leader in the military, training leaders as a leadership consultant, being a female veteran herself, and studying women veterans health for the VA. She highlighted a number of amazing contributions and unique leadership qualities owned by women veterans that deserve recognition. These include:

  1. Courage and calm under pressure. Southwest Pilot Tammie Jo Shults, a retired Naval Aviator, made headlines when she showed courage and calm under pressure successfully landing a commercial plane safely and demonstrated continued empathy and compassion for the passengers when they deplaned.
  2. Ongoing commitment to service and the development of others. Ginger Miller, a Navy veteran, started Women Veterans Interactive which gained national recognition and now serves as Chair for the VA's Minority Veterans Committee. There are also now 7 female Veterans serving in Congress (3 were newly added after the mid-term elections).
  3. Courage, character, and competence to navigate our nation through turbulent waters. Take, for example, Major General Marcia Anderson, the highest ranking African American woman in the Army and responsible for their leadership programs. She has taken on issues ranging from sexual harassment and assault to minority discrimination and mentorship and training needs to increase the number of women in military leadership.
  4. High tolerance for risk and high resiliency in the face of risk. More and more women veteran owned small businesses are being developed. Tolerance for risk is one of the most important leadership skills identified.

Dr. Szelwach also recommends that “all women veterans should be registered with the Women's Memorial so our stories can be written back into our common history.”

Dr. Christina Patton served in the US Air Force as a Security Forces Officer, where her primary responsibilities included base defense, counterintelligence, law enforcement, and asset security. She then became a clinical psychologist and forensic evaluator for the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo.

Think about that skill set for a moment.

The various skills she has to contribute to the wider society is limitless. Dr. Patton is especially passionate about supporting first responders and high-risk underserved veterans in the criminal justice system and has earned awards in these areas. She says that one of the strengths that female veterans bring to the workforce is a drive to improve their environment for the better of all:

“In the military, I learned this as ‘leaving your area better than when you found it.’ We are trained to identify problems, create solutions, and ensure those solutions are carried out effectively so that everyone benefits. We approach problems not as insurmountable objects, but as puzzles just waiting to be solved, and we use our training to rapidly affect change. As civilians, that results in improved outcomes for our clients and communities, and in my world, healthier and happier first responders and veterans in general.”

She relays another story when she served in the Reserves and took it upon herself to create her wing's first ever women’s focus group: I kept hearing about female airmen having nowhere to go and no leader they trusted to discuss their problems with.” By connecting the minority of siloed women into a supportive group, they were able to identify and address problems including sexual harassment and increase the number of women promoted into specialized roles.

Some of these leadership strengths may not be specific to women veterans, but rather to all veterans. However, because women are among the “invisible veterans,” they often do not receive the same recognition for the same high caliber leadership skills. Additionally, due to their minority status in the military, their focus on creating and developing support systems and having the courage to speak up about problems becomes better developed as a relative strength.

Dr. Kristin Saboe (former Army Captain) entered the military having already trained as an Industrial/Organizational psychologist. In the Army, she specialized in military psychology, leadership, resilience, risk-taking behaviors, and policy. She recently transitioned to civilian work and is now leading Boeing’s Veterans Talent Strategy as a Senior Talent Strategist.

Again, think about that skill set: psychology, organizational and business development, research, resiliency, policy. She shared with me her perspective of what female Veterans can contribute to the workplace:

“[Veterans in general gain] higher mental agility, advanced team work capabilities, and significant leadership experiences and training [which] translate into employees with the soft skills that are more and more prioritized by companies in addition to the concrete skills and expertise they hire for…Most female veterans have deployed as well, including myself, which is a very unique character-building experience. Companies know that veterans bring with them a culture of excellence, hard work ethic, innovation, and high moral standards.”

Specific to female veterans, she says they can be huge successes in other male dominated fields (e.g. engineering and tech sectors companies such as Boeing, Google, Amazon, Lockheed Martin). But it also presents issues of representation and advocating for oneself effectively.”

The key is for companies to recognize these strengths. Many Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 organizations have started to do so and, hopefully, more will in time.


Is there anything I missed about women veterans as leaders? Are you a female veteran in a leadership role? Please share your experiences so that we can increase awareness – I am grateful for your contributions. Thank you for your services and Happy Veterans Day.

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