Department of the Air Force senior leaders discussed the importance of diversity and inclusion during the inaugural 2021 Women’s Air and Space Symposium March 8-11.
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted the four-day virtual event in partnership with the Women’s Initiatives Team. The symposium served as a professional development opportunity and included a variety of topics ranging from maintaining a competitive edge through diversity and inclusion to unconscious bias.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond, Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commander of Air Mobility Command, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass and Chief Master Sgt. of the Space Force Roger Towberman participated in the event.
“Much like many of our diversity and inclusion efforts this past year, the strength and support for this symposium is a credit to our Airmen and Guardians, who recognize we have areas that we need to improve upon,” Brown said.
Brown further explained he knows what it’s like to be the only person who is different from everyone else in the room. He’s had people approach him to verify he was actually a pilot, even though he wore the standard pilot uniform, because they weren’t used to seeing Black pilots.
That sense of being alone because you are different can cause self-doubt, confirmation bias, and imposter syndrome, he said.
“Self-doubt can be crippling…, we may feel less confident in our own abilities, or feel pressure to perform, to represent not just ourselves but also those who look like us, who haven’t had the opportunity to be in that room,” he said. “I really think that if you’re confident in yourself, there are others who will also have confidence in you.”
Brown went on to give an example of how to boost confidence and fight for good ideas.
“I often talk about the five stages of no: Hell no, no, we’ll think about it, not a bad idea, and why aren’t we doing that already,” Brown said. “They can’t say yes if you don’t ask, and the answer is automatically no if you don’t ask…We all have setbacks, but you only fail when you quit trying or you limit yourself with that doubt.”
The symposium’s intent was to inspire meaningful conversation about the inclusion of servicewomen, encourage understanding of every person’s diverse backgrounds and experiences, and validate each other’s experience by listening to one another. The event also hopes to improve a culture of readiness and innovation, respect and inclusion across the Department of the Air Force.
“The strengths and talents of servicewomen continue to be vital within the Space Force and Air Force, and it’s propelled us to new heights,” Raymond said. “As we build the Space Force, we’re trying to build a workforce that values diversity of opinion, diversity of thought, diversity of specialties and diversity of experiences.”
Those experiences manifested during the symposium as participants shared their stories and offered encouragement. Bass took the opportunity to offer advice on how to deal with unconscious and intentional bias.
“I’m sure I’ve been the victim of bias, but I never focused more on that than the way forward and where I need to go,” Bass said. “So that gets back to who’s in your tribe and not allowing yourself to be deterred from your goals. I was always very deliberate about that in my career…I am the master of my fate, so let me be focused on where I need to go, and not make decisions based on how other people make me feel.”
Focusing on how others make you feel can get in the way of respect, whether for yourself or others. The nation is full of people from a variety of different backgrounds, and those different experiences and cultures are to be respected because they make our military strong, Towberman said, the senior enlisted leader of the Space Force.
“We tend to call America a melting pot, but it’s not a melting pot – it’s a stew,” Towberman said. “Every individual ingredient retains its flavor, and together it’s wonderful. It’s not melted into one flavor or all blended in and mashed together; it’s all these individual flavors of every kind – diversity offers its own flavor.”
Diversity is evident in venues like this symposium, allowing servicewomen to bring these important topics up for discussion so leadership can listen and understand how to be more inclusive, said Van Ovost, the first female commander of a major command.
“This symposium has been powerful from minute one,” she said. “The panels have been passionate and energetic…I can relate to the stories and reactions both by men and women in these sessions.”
Brown was correct in identifying imposter syndrome and self-doubt as contributing factors tempting someone to follow a different path, Van Ovost said. Thinking the same way will only get the same results.
“We have got to flip the script, as Chief Brown says, we have to accelerate change or risk losing our talents,” she explained. “My hope is that the suggestions and the feedback that we got from this symposium allow us to go boldly forward.”
Van Ovost said next year she wants to be able look back at the progress that resulted from the feedback and suggestions this week.
“I hope the work we have done together has made a difference for women who want to join, or are in the military today,” she said. “But the one thing I do know is it’s going to take all of us, Airmen and Guardians, to embrace a culture of inclusion to make it all work.”