As an Army Reserve Captain, I was assigned to Operation Cobra Gold, a three-week exercise held in Thailand. Cobra Gold—the largest Asia-Pacific exercise—was as much an exercise in diplomatic relationship-building and peacekeeping as it was about training for combat readiness. When my commander in California assigned me to the mission, I jumped at the chance to interact with counterparts from other countries and prove my diplomacy chops. Little did I know I would need to utilize those skills with leaders from my own country.
When I reported to the commander of Cobra Gold, he spouted, “What the hell are you doing here?” It was clear there was no place for a woman in his operation. He glanced at the major at his side who nodded in agreement. The commander explained that I was to sit in the corner, and be invisible for the next three weeks. I left his office in shock, but reminded myself that my commander in California had selected me to do a job and I wasn’t going to let him down. I quietly started to work.
Although the commander had ordered me to do nothing, I knew I had to do my job. If I didn’t do my job, I would be just as worthless as some of the men believed. Being one of the first women in the experimental ROTC class where women were trained equally with men, I already had experience with men who did not want women to be equals or to rise above them. A drill sergeant screaming in my face was one thing – all cadets went through that ritual. It was different and disheartening to put your heart and soul into completing a mission and then be ridiculed anyway because I was female. I would stand still, with a stoic face, as an officer or sergeant told me in great scatological detail how I was ruining the military. I showed no pain on the outside, but it tore at me on the inside.
Ten years later, the disrespect and disregard for women continued, although it became more subtle. It was tiresome at times, but I knew I had to do more than the male officers to be considered an “equal.” One day, when the major got wind that I wasn’t sitting quietly doing nothing as he was commanded to ensure, he called me a “pushy bitch.” It was humiliating, especially since it happened in front of subordinates. But I also knew that I couldn’t give in. “I’m here to do a job, and I’m going to do it,” I said. He slammed his fist on my desk and called me more ugly names.
The more he pushed, the more I pushed back. I did not back down. Those three weeks were the longest weeks in my life. I returned stateside exhausted but felt like I did everything I could to fulfill my responsibilities. In the end, even the commander begrudgingly admitted I had done a good job at the “hot wash” of the exercise.
The next year I returned to Cobra Gold – only this time I wasn’t the only woman soldier. Many had arrived to be part of the mission. This time we were not ignored. Instead, we were assigned meaningful responsibilities. In my pushy way, I had created a path for other women.
Regardless of whether you are in a military operation, or in the workplace, the hard reality is that women have to prove themselves every day. How are you reaching back and bringing women forward?