‘We bring so much to the fight’: a conversation with Rear Admiral Margaret Klein
Women’s Leadership Conference emcee Natalie Allen, an anchor and correspondent for CNN International, introduced last Tuesday’s featured speaker this way: “Y’all! She works in the Pentagon, but she made time for me!” It is indeed awe-inspiring to find oneself in a one-on-one interview with such a highly starred and striped individual as U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Margaret Klein. But Desert Companion’s Heidi Kyser managed to keep it together well enough when she did so on July 14, following the admiral’s onstage interview with Allen, to discuss a few issues of importance to the thousands of Nevada women in uniform and their families.
We have so many enlisted women in Nevada— 1,354 in the Air Force alone. What’s their biggest challenge, and how can they overcome it?
Individually, it’s really hard. Most women grow up thinking, “Well, I’m going to have a family,” and the military, especially for the last 15 years, includes deployment. So I see a lot of young women assuming that there’s going to be a conflict between a deployment schedule and family. Don’t ever make that decision earlier than you have to. I was able to work it out where my husband could cover my deployments, and we made it work. There are plenty of people who have actually figured out ways to balance family and this work. Don’t ever close those opportunity doors before you have to.
Do you use your position to address this, through mentoring, for instance?
I talked to a woman on Friday, and I said, “Okay, tell me about your husband, your kids.” Then I said, “Now tell me where you’ve been in the three years since we last talked.” Then you can start talking about how what you want to do works going into the future. … A lot of times, people think they have to plan out 20 years, like, today. Actually, no you don’t. It’s great to have a plan, but it’s also really important to let life vote on that plan.
Women make up 15-20 percent of the Army, Navy and Air Force (fewer in the Marines). There are 362 female officers in the Air Force in Nevada, compared with 1,445 male officers. Does the military have specific goals to increase those numbers?
I think each of the services is doing a good job bringing women in. The significant challenge is retaining them. Women leave at a higher rate than men do. So, how do you fix that? I think mentorship is a really significant component to that. … The services are all finishing up their reviews of what jobs can be open to women that aren’t currently. That will probably make some minor changes, but it will be small numbers. The part we have to work really hard on is helping women understand that they, too, can succeed regardless of the fact that they’re currently in the minority in their job, in their service.
I would think some basic practical changes would help too — things as simple as child care and maternity leave.
Yes. All the services are looking to expand child care. The Navy just doubled their maternity leave allowance.
There's a lot of talk right now about women in combat. NPR recently did a report on it. What is your take?
The reality is, we’ve had women in combat for a number of years, since Desert Shield and Desert Storm. When we think about women in combat, we think about a hard line between combat and noncombat, but that line has been blurring since the ’90s. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the women who are in supporting roles are as much at risk as the women in combat. So the services are all proceeding deliberately with what I perceive as an open mind as to how this can work. I think as long as women can meet the objective standards that are out there, and the services make sure that their standards are objective, women bring so much to the fight.
Personality — the way we’re wired. Many men approach problems with an authoritative mind-set. Women stereotypically approach problems with a collaborative mindset. Now, that doesn’t mean one is good and the other is bad. But there is science out there that says the most innovative solutions come from a diverse group of people sitting at the table trying to solve these problems.
I’ve heard stories from formerly enlisted local women about sexual harassment and assault during their service. Do you expect the chain of command for reporting such incidents to change?
I think we’ve actually turned the tide. I watched (Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman) General (Joseph) Dunford's confirmation hearing, and U.S. Senators (Kirsten) Gillibrand, and (Kelly) Ayotte and (Claire) McCaskill (all previous critics of the system) — none of them asked to change it. They all asked to look at what the services are doing to decrease the fear of retaliation. So I think we’re past the chain of command issue, and really trying to address how we combat the fear of retaliation.
Is that part of what you’re working on in your role advising the Secretary of Defense on military professionalism?
Yeah, culture is a huge part of that. Not because of sexual assault problems, but it’s so foundational to how we operate as units, that positive culture that values everybody’s input, not just the majority’s. Oh, and by the way, it will help us reduce fear of retaliation, too.
Anything else you would tell Nevada women in uniform about their jobs, their future, what they’re going through now?
Yeah, I would tell them that their work, as we wind down from 15 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, is going to continue to be important. They have to continue to innovate, and their voices are just as important as anybody else’s. The diverse perspective they bring to any problem is hugely valuable and they need to remember that.
And how about our Nevada residents? What would you tell them?
We always appreciate those who’ve done service, and many people will tell them so. We appreciate all veterans, but just think about those female vets you meet. Ask them what they’ve been doing during their service and since then, and don’t assume.