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2011 Joint Women's Leadership Symposium
Air Force Academy Dean of the Faculty Brig. Gen. Dana Born speaks with junior officers, from left, 1st Lt. Sarah Booth and Captains Angelia Sanders and Heather Greatting, during the opening sessions of the 2011 Joint Women’s Leadership Symposium in San Diego, March 15. The symposium is the largest gathering of uniformed women in the nation with about 1,300 participants. (U.S. Air Force photo/2nd Lt. Meredith Kirchoff)
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Symposium celebrates contributions, diversity of military women

Posted 3/22/2011   Updated 3/24/2011 Email story   Print story


by 2nd Lt. Meredith Kirchoff
U.S. Air Force Academy

3/22/2011 - SAN DIEGO -- Uniformed women from all services of the U.S. military travelled to San Diego to participate in the Joint Women's Leadership Symposium March 15-16.

About 1,300 women and a handful of men embodied the symposium's theme "Connect. Empower. Succeed." during the two-day event led by the Navy. Keynote speakers, panels, and break-out sessions characterized the first day, and focused on everything from women's role in building global security to leadership development to balancing a family.

"In the military, women are normally a distinct minority. Our goal at this symposium is to give women the opportunity to be in the majority, to be comfortable, and to be able to connect with those senior female leaders who are pioneers," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Shue, president of Sea Service Leadership Association that hosted the event. "Participants have been able to interact with mentors and to gain an understanding of the many opportunities available to them."

Attendees explored topics pertinent to today's overseas contingency operations such as women in combat and the future of women in Special Forces career fields.

Marine Lt. Col. Julie Nethercot, whose battalion is currently deployed, travelled to the conference to talk about the success Marine female engagement teams have achieved in Afghanistan during the "Women Building Global Security and Stability" panel. Specifically, the communication and trust they have developed with the female members of Afghan villages and the ability to conduct searches male military members are not permitted to perform.

"Diversity is more than just a feel good initiative, it can provide a proven tactical and strategic advantage as we have seen with the Marine female engagement teams," said 1st Lt. Chrystina Short, a C-130 pilot, and one of the Air Force's event organizers. She went on to say she hopes military women gain an understanding from the conference that there are thousands of women who are combat veterans and have made direct, invaluable contributions to the war effort.

On day two, attendees separated into their respective services for more customized sessions. This was the first year the Air Force participated in the symposium, which attracted about 170 Airmen from all over the world.

The Air Force keynote speaker list boasted the highest-ranking female officer in the Air Force, Lt. Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger; former astronaut, Lt. Gen. Susan Helms; and the director of force management policy, Brig. Gen. Sharon Dunbar.

"We're here to celebrate innovative Airmen, which I would suggest is why we are the Air Force," said Mr. Daniel Sitterly, director of force development and a member of Air Force diversity operations, in his opening statement for the Air Force day. "Most people think of innovation as requiring smarter people, better ideas, and that premise, though it's intuitive, omits what I think might be the most powerful, least understood force for innovation, and that is diversity."

He went on to explain that innovation resides in the people who comprise the Air Force and diversity engenders innovation. One of the largest gaps the military faces in securing its most talented people lies in women, as they make up a smaller percentage of the force relative to the general population, he said.

There is work to be done, Mr. Sitterly added. "It is imperative that we deliberately develop every Airman to be as innovative as he or she can be."

In her keynote address, General Helms, 14th Air Force commander, spoke about the opportunity she was afforded to return to active duty after 12 years as an astronaut with NASA.

"Thanks to the Air Force leadership who sees value not only in diversity of gender, but diversity of experience, I'm back here today doing what I'm doing now," she said. "The Air Force recognized that my space experience provided a sense of diversity to the overall space operations of our Air Force."

General Wolfenbarger, vice commander of Air Force Materiel Command, began her message with a look into how her Air Force career began 34 years ago with a congressional decision to allow women to attend the U.S. service academies. She talked about how she experienced first-hand the evolution of women in the Air Force, and how she has seen the Air Force change in that dynamic environment.

"I realized that, although through hard work my skills and my knowledge I maintain are as good as anybody's in my career field, it wasn't until my United States Air Force embraced and accepted the importance of diversity as part of a strategic plan for this institution that I as a woman would be here today," General Wolfenbarger said.

A resounding theme throughout the symposium was a focus on family, and how to balance relationships and children with a military career. During a work/life balance panel, participants with and without a spouse or children discussed how they integrate their careers with life outside the military.

Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, the first female Air Force Thunderbird pilot, balances a dual military career with her husband and young children. Both Malachowski's fly F-15s and are parents to 9-month-old twins.

"Organization and open communication with my spouse is what's making it work right now, and perspective--when you hold those little babies, nothing else really matters," Colonel Malachowski said.

All the panelists emphasized that career and family goals can be attained with patience, communication and defined priorities. They encouraged the audience to take advantage of the many resources the Air Force provides that are designed for families.

"It's like when you're flying in turbulence-- because there is so much we don't control, you control what you can control, and it's an awesome ride," said panelist Brig. Gen. Dana Born, Air Force Academy dean of the faculty, who is married to a retired Marine officer and has two children.

At the close of the Air Force day and the symposium, participants lingered in groups for conversation with peers and mentors, photos, and exchanging of contact information.

"These pioneers opened many doors for the rest of us," Lieutenant Short said. "It was wonderful to actually get to meet these women and hear their stories first hand. To see so many in one place was overwhelmingly inspirational."

Next year's Joint Women's Leadership Symposium is scheduled for March 2012 in the national capital region. Airmen are who interested in participating can find updated information at www.sealeader.org.

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