Celebrated globally on March 8, International Women’s Day recognizes the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. AECOM has devoted the Impact blog to featuring women leaders across the globe throughout the month of March. This week, AECOM board director and retired Air Force General Janet C. Wolfenbarger discusses her decorated career.
How can we overcome workplace and diversity challenges?
My response stems from my experiences in my 35-year Air Force career. When I first came on active duty, about 10 percent of the Air Force workforce was women. Today, just under 20 percent of the Air Force workforce is women. Throughout my career, I wanted to be recognized not for being a woman, but for working hard and accomplishing the mission. I was very fortunate to have been given positions of increasing responsibility from which I could learn and grow. Every one of my jobs was challenging, exciting, on the cutting edge and always worth the hard work I invested. I’m sometimes asked to what I would attribute my success of achieving the highest rank possible and serving as the first-ever woman four-star general in the Air Force. My recipe for success is really very simple.
It has just two ingredients. Number one: I did the best I could at every job I was given — as an individual and as a teammate — because nothing in the Air Force gets done in a solo fashion. And number two: I brought a positive attitude with me to work every day. I learned early in my career that you can’t always control what your job (or what life, for that matter) brings. You can ALWAYS control your response. I have made it a point to be as positive as I can be in my response. I’ve learned that when I’m positive, others around me are positive as well. And when you have a team of positive people who are willing to give their jobs their very best, you can’t help but succeed at your mission.
How have you balanced/integrated your personal and professional lives throughout your career?
Serving in the Air Force is a 24/7/365 responsibility. The missions we execute are critically important to our nation and others, so there is a tendency to feel as though we are never done, that there is always more that could and should be done. Because of that dynamic, I encouraged all my folks to seek out an optimum work/life balance for them. There is no “one size fits all” for that balance; it’s uniquely personal for each individual and something that each of us needs to focus on and pay continual attention to. For me, I realized that someday, my career would end. And when that day came (which, in fact, happened on July 1, 2015), I wanted to have three things waiting for me: my family, my friends, and my health. So it was important to me to nurture those three areas throughout my career, to spend time with my husband and daughter, the loves of my life, and to carve out time every week to maintain my physical fitness. And it worked — my quality of life in retirement couldn’t be higher!
How have attitudes toward U.S. servicewomen changed in past decades? What advice would you give to young people considering joining the military who look to you as a role model?
I have seen numerous, substantial, positive changes relative to gender diversity in the Air Force just in my lifetime. I noted above that when I commissioned, women made up approximately 10 percent of the Air Force. Now, women comprise more than 19% of the Air Force, almost double. That’s a substantial change, but it is still not representative of this country’s demographics — so we’re not done yet! Relative to career progression, for the first time in history, we have now seen women at the highest rank, the four-star level, across all the services except the Marine Corps. And we have dozens of women general officers of lower grades serving throughout all the services. I maintain that trend will continue.
When I entered the Air Force Academy in 1976, there was still an executive order on the books from 1951 that gave the services permission to discharge a woman if she became pregnant, gave birth to a child, or became a parent by adoption or as a stepparent. Today, women (and even men) are granted parental leave, which has just recently been extended from six to 12 weeks. That’s progress! When I first came on active duty, several career fields were completely closed to women. Today, all positions, even those relating to direct combat roles, are now open to women. I maintain you don’t have to look any further than what our military women are doing today, all around the globe, to see how far we have come. Women have proven that they can succeed and that they can lead…on every battlefield!
My advice to anyone considering serving in the military is to join! There is no greater duty than to serve your country, whether that’s for one enlistment or for an entire career!
General Janet C. Wolfenbarger, USAF Retired, joined AECOM’s board of directors in August 2015. General Wolfenbarger is a 35-year veteran of the Air Force and was the branch’s first female four-star general, commanding the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Ohio, from 2012 until her retirement in 2015. She has also served as the military deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition and as the Services Director of the Acquisition Center of Excellence at the Pentagon. General Wolfenbarger directed the B-2 System Program Office and commanded the C-17 Systems Group for the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson.