Young Women Leaders Reaching New Heights in the U.S. Military

The Naval Academy Class of 2020 has the highest number of women in the institution's history. This is not your father’s military.The Naval Academy’s Class of 2020 will represent the largest enrollment of women in the Academy’s 171-year-long history, Meredith Newman reported recently in Military.com.  The news that these 331 young women, roughly 33 percent of the incoming class, will set a new precedent comes just as the Naval Academy celebrates 40 years of women being in enrollment.While 33 percent may not be 50 percent, this proportion holds considerable significance and sets the bar another rung higher for the military’s integration of women into every level of service. Each of these young women, and all young women leaders in the military, are a critical demographic for the future of leadership in America.[bctt tweet=“All young women leaders in the military, are a critical demographic for the future of leadership in America.”]According to Statistic Brain, women make up 14.6percent of active duty service members in the United States armed forces.Eileen Patten and Kim Parker of Pew Research Center found that this group of military women has grown steadily since 1973.In a Department of Defense profile, it is reported that 43.5 percent of active duty members of the U.S. Military are 25-years-old or younger, making this the largest age group in the military.As the number of women leaders in the military grows, young women who are entering the armed forces will be responsible for taking up the call of duty in a new era for servicewomen. Since Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the Pentagon would be opening all combat positions to women in December 2015, the goal of equality in military participation has become a realistic possibility for this new generation. After many years of debate, young women will begin seeing themselves represented on the front lines.Programs such as ROTC have traditionally offered opportunities for young women to grow their leadership skills.  In addition to the five military academies, there is no doubt that the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) is an important resource for young people of any background with aspirations of military leadership. According to U.S. Army Cadet Command, “more than 40 percent of current active duty Army General Officers were commissioned through the ROTC.”General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was a graduate of City College ROTC. The first black Admiral of the Navy, Vice Admiral Samuel Gravely Jr., graduated from Columbia University’s program. And Lori Robinson, the first female Combatant Commander of the United States Northern Command was commissioned out of the Air Force ROTC program at the University of New Hampshire.Robinson stands as an example of women’s leadership in the military and as a role model for young women leaders considering a life of military service. Earlier this year at the United State of Women Summit at the White House, she spoke about this responsibility.Narratives of young women in the military tell of both obstacles and optimism.Accounts of women leaders in ROTC programs, such as the following from The Stanford Daily and The Daily Texan, tell of the chronic under-representation and challenges women face in ROTC programs. However, these narratives also highlight some of the positive experiences that resonate with young women participating in ROTC.Ann Thompson, Stanford Class of 2011, writes: “The military has done wonders for my growth and development. Far from advocating that I learn to think and act like a man, it has encouraged me to bring my feminine perspective to various challenges, such as how to mentor a struggling cadet or how to engage with female civilians in a hypothetical deployment scenario. I have grown tremendously in confidence, knowing that I can jump from planes, compete on a co-ed marathon team or command a battalion of 90 cadets as easily as my male counterparts.”Marisa Charpentier writes that Madison Solsbery served as the Cadet Wing Commander of her Air Force ROTC detachment at The University of Texas at Austin, “the highest position a cadet, or member of ROTC, can fill.” The ROTC department chair at UT, Colonel David Haase, said of women leaders in the detachment, “They do very well… I don’t know if it’s because they come in more mature or they have something to prove. The females are very strong. They’re committed and focused.”Intended to serve as a bridge between civilian and military life, ROTC trains college students to become officers in the United States military. Students in ROTC graduate with leadership training and a guaranteed post-college career. The benefits of military service in addition to the elimination of the combat ban make programs such as ROTC attractive to young women leaders.[bctt tweet=“The benefits of military service make programs like ROTC attractive to young women leaders.”]The Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership at Mary Baldwin College has developed the only all-female ROTC cadet corps in the country. The mission of the program “from the beginning has been to provide an unparalleled opportunity for young women to develop the leadership skills, self-discipline, and strength of character they need to succeed as principled and contributing citizens and leaders in their communities and chosen careers.”The skills in this mission are closely applicable to leadership roles in civilian life. Richard Feloni specifies some of these skills in Business Insider. Feloni asked students enrolled at USC’s Master of Business for Veterans program “what leadership lessons they learned serving in the military that have prepared them for the corporate world.” Their answers are categorized into 10 skills and lessons: “confidence,” “dedication,” “the ability to follow,” “ownership,” “bias for action,” “compassion,” “authority,” “consistency,” “solitude,” and “imperfection.”This kind of leadership training adds to the incentives that young women today— just as the 331 enrolled in the Naval Academy’s Class of 2020— might feel as they are considering military service.