A Woman? No Way!

by Asha Castleberry

Who would have known that my commissioning in the U.S. Army would lead me to such an unthinkable assignment? I arrived in the Middle East as a country engagement officer. Although my rank was captain, I soon realized I was expected to perform on a higher level and act as one of the top advisors for a three-star command. Despite this unanticipated pressure, acclimating to the position was seamless, and I felt competent doing the work. But being the only female on the team was a frequent concern.

Before this assignment, I had preconceived notions that women were unable to succeed in an all-male environment in the Middle East, and, worse, that it was a mistake to give an assignment of this caliber to a woman. Although my team considered me integral and valued my contributions, the perception of me outside the mission was markedly different. My tasks ranged from engaging in U.S. Central Command exercises to advising Iraqi Security Forces during their Tikrit liberation against ISIS to attending high-level covert meetings with U.S. ambassadors. I originally believed a woman like me – still fairly young and a woman of color – would be incapable of building long-term relationships with high-level Arab male security forces. In the end, though, it was evident to all – perhaps most importantly to me – that women could make a difference in the operational theater environment and that their roles in and contributions to U.S. national security should be more recognized.

Still, it was a struggle to maintain my own identity in these surroundings. There were inevitable clashes between taking on this role in a male cohort environment and the desire to maintain my femininity. Sitting in a room with three-star generals, a U.S. ambassador, and the head of the Iraq Minister of Defence should have felt prestigious. But after repeatedly attending these engagements, I felt like an oddball – where were the other women? And how did I fit into this dynamic? I had to wear Army apparel the majority of the time, which definitely diminished my feminine side. The absence of my pearls around my neck and wrist, the clicking of my heels on the ground, and the taste of the candy-flavored lipstick shaped not only my appearance but my sense of self. With no female bathrooms or other accommodations for women, the sense that women were out of place could not have been more prominent. But I found solace in confiding with my female peer officers about the discomfort and inelegance I was experiencing. These dialogues helped me to stay in touch in my feminine side – and to value what I brought to the table. 

When reflecting on my time in the Middle East, I wonder, “Why did you doubt yourself? You were qualified to do the job. You just spent time working with the State Department participating in high diplomacy meetings at the U.N. Security Council, sitting behind former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan E. Rice.” Although I had been struck by Ambassador Rice’s tenacity, eloquence, and leadership regarding U.N. peacekeeping missions, particularly in South Sudan, doubts still dominated my mind: “I could never be the ambassador.”

Women Of Color: Evaluated Differently?

Before my deployment to the Middle East I was tested in a similar environment during a U.S. Southern Command peacekeeping exercise in Nicaragua. I was tasked to address an audience of more than 400 male service members regarding the importance of female peacekeepers. I remained composed and thought I delivered, but I felt like I was from Venus and they were from Mars. I felt my instincts were substantiated when I later learned that a significant number of men thought my message was laughable because I was a woman encouraging female empowerment.

Regardless of my own sense of competence, I was all too aware that women of color have to deal with realistic setbacks, mainly the lack of sponsorship. Without this support, our aptitudes are overshadowed, and doubt continues to resurface. Underrepresentation in the U.S. armed forces creates many challenges for all women. Statistically, women of color represent a small percentage of the U.S. Army Officer Corps, and prospering in a male dominant environment is arduous.1 These realities are a constant reminder of why I feel like an anomaly in a world I nonetheless have embraced and succeeded in for 11 years.

In the 21st century, institutional bias still exists against women in the U.S. armed forces. But I believe the misperceptions are worse for women of color. In my experience, and that of too many peers, women of color suffer from ongoing stereotypes and underestimation. Low expectations are engendered from a constantly myopic view of our talents and abilities. Too often, we are looked upon as low-tier professionals in the national security community.

In the Middle East, I attended multiple conferences and meetings involving military operations, and I routinely was the only woman, or among only a few women, in the room. When I raised my hand to make a comment or present information, some responses were direct: “Wow . . . Who are you?” I felt I had to constantly prove myself. These comments frequently came from individuals who never guessed my role in the mission, or that my attendance at these high-level sessions was necessary because of my profound understanding of the culture and geopolitical issues. Little did they know that my work set much of the tone and the agenda: I also prepared all of the critical talking points for the meetings and accompanied the general officers, U.S. ambassadors, and the Chief of Defense at the Ministry of Defense. As much of my work was behind the scenes, I occasionally experienced blatant disregard by colleagues in the room and was referred to as “the note-taker.” Fortunately, I was only infrequently asked to go get coffee. On one memorable occasion, I startled everyone in the meeting when I spoke Arabic for the first time. Then, and in many other instances, the only woman in the room made an indelible impression.

I am optimistic that small instances such as these and longer experiences of positive performance will make an impact and that there is hope that the military will continue to tackle stereotypical gender barriers. Already, the first female service member has graduated from Ranger School and the first African-American female has become the First Captain at West Point.2 As more women persist in breaking down these glass ceilings, the stereotypes undoubtedly will start to disintegrate.

Unknown Assets In Defense And Diplomacy Abroad

Despite the challenges, my experiences opened my eyes to how women can make a difference in a deployed environment. Unfortunately, this contribution is not edified in U.S. school systems, rarely highlighted in the media, nor discussed in military training. Despite the absence of a narrative, the Department of Defense has pursued several initiatives that capitalize on women’s leadership in a forward theater environment. For example, the Pentagon created Female Engagement and Reconstruction Teams to support missions in combat zones, which have had a game-changing impact. The reality is that women are not just a special need. One hidden truth of the national security world is that women are likely to be a greater asset than men in some roles in a deployed environment. The United States needs more women – particularly more diverse women – involved in national security representing our country overseas. President Barack Obama and his national security team recognized this gap and launched the 2016 U.S. Presidential Memorandum on Promoting Diversity & Inclusion in the National Security Workforce.

I’ve seen firsthand the effects of a lack of a diversified defense community. When I served as a frontliner in the Middle East region, this lack of diversity in background and experience was devastating and counterproductive for U.S. national security. When ISIS broke into the CENTCOM account in January 2015, I knew the cyberattack could have been prevented if the relevant U.S. personnel had known Arabic.

I have shared my experiences with many fellow Americans. Most I have spoken with were shocked because they had a hard time visualizing women playing a positive role in U.S. military engagements and counterinsurgency, which is unfortunate because there is ample evidence suggesting women are making a difference in this field.4 As a deployed soldier, I discovered that while engaging with U.S. foreign counterparts, women often had advantages over their male counterparts in a theater environment; in many cases, the women were able get more things done because of their unique capabilities and access. For example, they were able to gather more information than men. This was a game-changing revelation for me and colored how I saw my own performance and competency as well as that of female peers deployed abroad. I did a better job establishing a rapport with the local population, gained more access to key high-level officials, and gathered more valuable information.

In my experience, women tend to be better listeners. Oftentimes, I was a better negotiator because I maintained strong listening skills and did not allow the American exceptionalism posture to shape my behavior. During the Tikrit liberation against ISIS, I had the opportunity to provide advice and assistance to my Iraqi counterpart. He divulged that he was under stress because of a family crisis. Instead of disregarding his quandaries, I spent time listening to him, and he repaid that consideration not only by giving me serious attention, but a small accolade. 

Over time, I noticed that in many circumstances our foreign counterparts tended to be more comfortable and trusting with female soldiers. Although this difference was not widely recognized, it was an astounding advantage for me while participating in the planning process for Eagle Resolve, a CENTCOM joint exercise. Most of my counterparts, who were from the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Egypt, and Jordan, displayed more respect toward me because of the strong relationship that my unit developed with our Gulf State allies.

Still, there remain disadvantages to being a woman in this environment. In my experience, women in the national security field who obtain stellar achievements under high visibility experience unnecessary negative feedback or little encouragement. Instead of praising their success, their male colleagues find fault in their work. I recall a female diplomat sharing that she had experienced this during her earlier years as an officer. I’m still uncertain about whether this is an unavoidable reality in life and how to deal with it, but her comments stuck with me.

Women also are not always encouraged to master the skills necessary to succeed in this field. For example, in the world of security cooperation, it is paramount to understand the importance of foreign military sales and associated technologies. These sales are a key ingredient in U.S. efforts with partner militaries. I have many female colleagues who have struggled to articulate concepts of military technology and are not pushed by mentors to educate themselves. In general, men tend to be more confident in military technology, in particular understanding of drones (MQs). I was lucky: I pushed myself to gain exceptional comprehension of the evolution of military technology and its effectiveness in a theater environment, gaining a competitive edge over my peers. In the 21st century, having proficiency in military technology is an advantage in the national security field and increases opportunities for women.

More Women Should Be Present At All Levels (Strategic, Operational, Tactical)

For real impact in the national security world, more women should be present at all levels of decision making and policy implementation. The U.S. government sent an important message during the Obama administration with its policy on diversity, but overall should do a better job manifesting this demand. Currently, it appears that international organizations, like the United Nations, seem to be more aggressive than the United States in promoting women’s leadership. Since the introduction of Resolution 1325 in 2000, the U.N. Security Council has prioritized women, peace, and security issues.5 Despite slow progress, the U.N. continues to take the lead in promoting awareness about the impact of female leadership in post-conflict areas.

It is important for women to be present at all levels of decision making, particularly in a deployed environment, for a number of reasons. Women and children tend to make up more than the majority of a local population in a combat zone; deployed women can have better communication with local populations, and stronger institutions would be established by integrating more women in their local military and law enforcement. The presence of women in the chain of command also is critical. This is particularly important for the counterterrorism threat – women are increasingly joining the terrorist ranks, presenting both potential threats and opportunities for U.S. policy and programs.

In Washington and in U.S. embassies around the world, women are critical players promoting gender-based policy. Working at the State Department, I admired how the Obama administration elevated women, peace, and security issues. I was very gratified to witness the overwhelming support for U.N. Resolution 1325 regarding those issues. But this couldn’t have occurred without the encouragement of top female leaders such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ambassador Susan E. Rice, Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, and Ambassador Samantha Powers. They were all locked in step with advocating these issues because of who they were and their leadership roles in the government.

Female representation in all uniformed ranks – including combatant, brigade combat team, battalion, and company commanders – also is vital for American leadership. Currently, there is only one female combatant commander, and she is in charge of USNORTHCOM – a wonderful example, but one that has to be followed with many more to create both precedents and role models.6 A retired field grade officer once told me that the Pentagon would never appoint a woman as CENTCOM commander and that the region will not take the leadership seriously if women are in CENTCOM combatant commander positions. Military leadership roles have evolved – women can serve in combat now – and I believe that women are perfectly competent to engage with top leaders such as prime ministers, Ministers of Defense, and component commanders. There is no reason for combatant commands to be off limits.

I’m confident that if the United States encouraged more female representation in uniformed leadership roles, other countries would be inspired to do the same. Most armed forces in the Middle East have little to no representation of women in the military, but there are still some good trends. While working on Operation Inherent Resolve (the counter-ISIS mission), I was impressed when I observed a female captain pilot from the United Arab Emirates supporting air strikes in Syria, and female Peshmerga soldiers fighting in Sinjar against ISIS. The growing number of females joining the Jordanian Armed Forces – the most progressive military in the Arab world in my experience – was equally impressive. Despite economic constraints, the government of Jordan is investing many resources in recruiting and retaining female soldiers.7 Most of the female soldiers serve in the medical corps. However, many have served in hostile environments like Afghanistan and in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Sponsorship Is A Must

As previously mentioned, sponsorship is critical in getting more women out of the shadows and into leadership roles; however, a few critical elements are necessary to support them. Most important: When a female is assigned to a higher-level position in government, it is imperative that she be provided a sponsor. A sponsor will ensure recognition for her work, access for her key tasks, and resources for her education. During my assignment in the Middle East, I was sponsored by several general officers. Without their support, I would have had many more challenges.

One of my sponsors was Major General Dana Pittard, U.S. Army (Ret.), who was the premiere general officer to command the anti-ISIS mission in Iraq.8 General Pittard provided me a wealth of knowledge and helped spearhead my role into a key advisory position in the command. With his support I became an integral part of a high-level process and my talents were quickly recognized by the State Department. The position also afforded me the opportunity to sharpen my Arabic skills, enabling me to more effectively communicate with our allies. One of my favorite memories is of a moment during a high-level meeting with our partners. I started speaking Arabic, and General Pittard was astonished and applauded me for my efforts. The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Douglas Silliman, also was quite impressed and encouraged me to continue perfecting my craft.

A Woman Affirmative, In Every Sense of The Way

My overseas experiences were incredible but would be characterized as unthinkable to many Americans. Many would not think of women of color engaging in the kind of work I performed in the Middle East. My experience and my success have no place in their imagination. At first, it didn’t even have a place in my own.

However, some people do not believe that challenges that exist for women of color in national security because they are so quick to reference the advancement of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, and U.S. Ambassador to Nuclear Threat Reduction Bonnie Jenkins.

I do not take it personally, because I realize that the average woman likely will never experience what I did. But sometimes others’ perceptions impact my upward mobility in the national security sector. In my experience, when someone requests a Middle East policy expert, women like me are not considered and are a mere afterthought. I particularly struggle with this in my civilian life, where my time in uniform isn’t obvious. Many civilians disregard the fact that I once was a foreign affairs command advisor to General Vincent K. Brooks, who is now the Joint Commander for United States Forces Korea. A woman of color in this sort of role is practically unthinkable to all too many.

To fight that instinct, I am making it my personal duty to educate women so that they can make a difference in national security. Despite the fact that it is a male-dominated sector, our country should continue to recruit women into all of our smart foreign policy roles: defense, diplomacy, and development.

More broadly, my theater experiences constantly encourage me to educate our society about the potential and impact of women leadership in national security. I spend time in academia, speaking at conferences, and as a television commentator about national security. The opportunity to speak to the American people about my experiences and what I bring to the table has been very gratifying. Our country does a disservice to women by not recognizing their involvement in national security. It will have a rippling effect on the next generation if women continue not to be acknowledged in the national security profession. My main objective is to have persistent influence on eradicating the perception of “a woman? No way!”

Endnotes

  1. Pew Research Center, “Six Share of U.S. Active Ranks Rises,” April 12, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/13/6-facts-about-the-u-s-military-and-its- changing-demographics/ft_17-04-12_militarydemographics_hispanic. 
  2. “This Woman will Be the First to Join the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment,” Army Times, January 18, 2017, https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2017/01/18/this-woman-will-be- the-first-to-join-the-army-s-elite-75th-ranger-regiment. 
  3. Presidential Memorandum-Promotion Diversity and Inclusion in the National Security Workforce, October 15, 2016, https://obamawhitehouse.archiv... presidential-memorandum-promoting-diversity-and-inclusion-national. 
  4.  See, for example, Emily Miller’s comment as part of the Center for a New American Security’s Survey on Women in National Security. “From my experiences as a CST, women brought a diversified skill set to the team. We could gather intelligence on the enemy terrain that the men could not. We built rapport and established relationships the men would not have had access to due to cultural limitations. We found mission critical items and information through our searches that the men would miss. We were even able to detect the male terrorists disguised as women, the ultimate evasion. Our effectiveness was obvious – the fact is we identified and detained more terrorists by having women on the team, than without.” http://women.cnas.org/survey
  5. United Nations, “Landmark on Women, Peace, and Security (S/RES/1325),” 2000, www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/wps. 
  6. Tarr Copp, “Robinson becomes first female combatant commander,” Stars and Stripes, March 16, 2016, www.stripes.com/news/air-force/robinson-becomes-first-female-combatant- commander-1.409362. 
  7.  Lt. Col. Elana Obrien, USAF, “ Partners Colorado and Jordan Explore Military Evolving Leadership,” Colorado National Guard, February 1, 2017,  http://co.ng.mil/ARTICLES/Page....  
  8. Awad, Mustafa, “ Army Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard to Lead U.S. Operations in Iraq,” The Washington Post, June 27, 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2014/06/27/army-maj- gen-dana-pittard-to-lead-u-s-operations-in-iraq/?utm_term=.8967dc2317c4. 
Bonnie Jenkins