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Commandant's Corner : Athenas Arena Conference Remarks

Written draft of opening remarks for the Athena’s Arena Conference

USMA, West Point April 28, 2016

By BG Diana Holland, Commandant of Cadets

Good evening distinguished quests, general officers, fellow graduates, staff and faculty, families and friends of West Point, welcome, or welcome back as the case may be, to the United States Military Academy. Thank you for showing interest in, and supporting this conference. As you can imagine, a lot of thought, planning, coordination has gone into this effort so your presence makes it all worth it.

Speaking of the thought, planning and coordination…thanks to everyone who made this conference possible. I know it wasn’t easy. In addition to the normal complexity of organizing something of this magnitude, the team certainly received lots of help and good ideas (for the record, I was NOT one of the good idea fairies). Anyway, these events are challenging partly for that reason, but all that input is a reflection that people care, a lot, and that’s not a bad problem to have. Thanks again to our team. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a round of applause for those responsible for this event.

What a great thing that we started this conference off on the right foot, with the Memorial Service. It’s so important that while we celebrate, we remember those who can’t be with us.

Preparing for these remarks, I asked myself, what does it mean that women have been at West Point for 40 years? Aside from that fact that it’s really cool. Do we take for granted that women are still attending the academies? We all appreciate that the first few years were really hard, certainly harder than they needed to be. But the desire of women to attend West Point endured. The desire by the institution to have women attend endured. Society’s support for attending the academies, endures. Despite the challenges and hardships, the propensity for women to apply to West Point has not diminished. If we asked someone from 1980, they might say they expected there would be more women here 40 years later. Talking with the expert, COL Debbie McDonald, our Director of Admissions, about our recent trends…from the early 90s until recently, the numbers of female applicants and qualified files were generally unchanged. The last four years, there’s been an appreciable increase in both numbers. That bodes well for our future and it’s important we harness that enthusiasm going forward.

But thinking of this conference reminded me of another milestone – March, 2002, the 200th anniversary of the establishment of West Point by Thomas Jefferson. I was teaching in the History Department during the lead up and execution of the Bicentennial Conference and I distinctly remember the debate within the Academy about whether this was to be a celebration of 200 years of History (after all, no lack of things to celebrate!) or was it to include an evaluation of the past and hence identify some areas that needed refinement going forward? Ultimately, it was largely a celebration, the evaluation was delivered by other means.

So, the more I thought about this opportunity to speak, the more inclined I was to celebrate the past 40 years, and express gratitude to those who made much of it possible, but also offer some thoughts on the way forward.

I’d like to start with the latter, just a couple of observations.

I would title the first observation – now that we’ve had the first, who will be the second?

We have our 3 women who earned their Ranger Tabs last year. Heroes in my book. Amazing achievements. But - we need number 4, 5, 20, and 100. In the big picture, for cultural change to happen, we’ll need more. We have our first female graduate of the Maneuver CPT’s career course. We will see our first women enter the Infantry and Armor Basic Officer Leader Courses at Fort Benning this summer. For the ones who will graduate from here next month and go to those courses, I know they will be great! Their files are impressive, they will be superb “firsts” in those newly opened LT positions. I know we all look forward to celebrating their course graduation with them at the end of this year. But we will need the Classes of 2017, 2018 and beyond to take that step as well. It won’t be enough to have a “first” cohort of female IN and AR lieutenants…it is essential to have “second,” “third,” and “50th” cohorts. Without the follow-through in all of these communities, women will remain such an obvious minority it will be tough to get past the focus on identifying and categorizing by gender. We’ve seen it in other fields. Branches that have been open to women for two decades, or more, but whose demographics from the perspective of gender have barely changed in that timeframe. I’ve asked myself over and over, why has that happened? Probably many reasons. But I think part of the challenge is that our society isn’t encouraging girls to be Soldiers and particularly not encouraging them to be bull dozer operators or mechanics or other specialties traditionally, in another time, considered only appropriate for men. This could be a problem as we look at society’s encouragement for daughters to be Infantry Soldiers.

The point is, what do we do about this? Well, we, West Point and the Army have to facilitate the conversation between those who are in the pipeline after graduation and the cadets about to be in the pipeline. Ensure that our cadets are hearing the latest from the first cohort working their way through the Infantry and Armor courses and then how it’s going in their first assignments. Back here we need to keep mentoring and managing talent. We do have to be careful about how we go about this. I’ve met few women who appreciate being separated out, viewed as receiving different treatment – it’s always been a pet peeve of mine and it’s a consistent concern expressed by cadets. So we have to actively mentor cadets, male and female, being mindful that we may have an opportunity to encourage a young woman to go to Ranger School or into IN or AR.

And everyone can help. I’ve looked over the RSVP list for this conference and seen the array of the professions and positions in which you are operating. Many of us have the opportunity to influence young people. We have to encourage our young women to consider the Army and further, to embrace the challenge of being a first, or one of the first, a second, third, or an only. Just because there are few female Army leaders, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of leaders that they can emulate and then ultimately be successful on the path they choose. If everyone waited until they saw someone or “enough people” who shared their particular demographic to succeed, we’d have no “firsts.” And I can report from the numerous interactions I’ve had with the cadets here, they are smarter and stronger than previous generations…they are more agile and they are just as patriotic and ready to serve…there is every reason to believe they will be successful in whatever branch or field they choose. They should not be hesitant.

It is equally critical to encourage our young men to be a part of this venture. Without the support of men, we wouldn’t be where we’re at. There’s plenty of literature out there that attests to the success of gender integration at least partly depending on the encouragement and support of men in the work place. The Army is no different.

The second challenge I’d like to get at has to do with messaging to a younger generation.

It goes without saying that we have to be thoughtful about messaging. Whether on social media, in the press, or around the dinner table. I will give two examples of what I consider to be…I won’t call them failures in messaging about women and the Army…but let’s just say “less than ideal.” During the Founder’s Day circuit, I had the opportunity to meet a number of future female members of the Class of 2020. On more than one occasion, they asked me if they’re going to be accepted into the Corps. Did I think they were going to be treated fairly? Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by this question, but I was. The first thing that came to mind was, what a shame that that’s the message being transmitted and received by teenage girls who haven’t even been in the Army yet. Don’t get me wrong, I was glad they asked me so that I could share my perspective. But still, it was discouraging to me that at this juncture, in 2016, this was the conversation I was having with young, confident, high-speed, soon-to-be cadets.

Here’s another alarming message. I met a public figure not too long ago. A woman who had served a career in the military now serving in another profession. Perhaps 8-10 years older than me. When she and I were introduced, she got a big grin on her face and said, “that’s great! You’re going to show those guys…knock some heads, aren’t you?” Maybe she was exaggerating and maybe I took it too literally, but in any case, I was offended. Horrified. I’ve mostly served with men my entire career. I’ve never worked for a woman. Never been rated or senior rated by a woman. My career has been rewarding because of the inspirational Soldiers, men and women, who serve in our Army. I thought it was insulting that she would say such a thing. I recovered enough to give some diplomatic answer like, “I look forward to having a positive impact on all of our cadets.” She’s the only one that was that extreme, but there have been undertones of a similar nature from women in other corners. And all I can say to that is, that’s not what gender integration looks like and it’s not what’s going to get the team across the finish line. Equal standards, positive command climate that fosters everyone’s ability to reach their full potential. That’s what our Army is looking for and that’s what will be required.

So, to summarize up to this point. There are a lot of potentially great leaders out there and they are listening carefully. They have options other than West Point and the Army. But we need them to join us. We are in a tough competition for talent. What we message, directly or indirectly, matters. We need more young women who are willing to be a “first,” “one of the first,” a “second,” an “only,” or “one of the few” if we’re going to maximize the participation of talented women at West Point and ultimately in the Army of the future. We want their first question NOT to be, “what are the reasons I shouldn’t do this,” but rather, “what do I need to do, TO do this.” Whatever “This” is.

Speaking of positive attitudes, I’ll transition to the celebration of an awful lot of women who have demonstrated courage and can-do attitudes. We don’t have enough time here tonight to talk of the enormous success of those who’ve graduated 1980 and since – male and female. I could name the “firsts,” there are many and they were great trailblazers. But I think everyone would agree that there are many, many stories of successful female graduates who often go unmentioned yet who were essential to our overall success. Every woman who graduated in the Class of 1980, as well as the first several classes that followed…the first women who commanded companies comprised of only male Soldiers, the first West Point women who served as Aide de Camps to general officers, commanded at the BN level, deployed into combat, commanded in combat, became general officers…and on and on…and let’s not forget the countless achievements of those who left the Army to fulfill other callings…focusing on their families (and by the way, sometimes with the outcome of sending their children to West Point) and/or they left to contribute in other ways in the civilian world demonstrating the values of West Point and furthering the great reputation of our alma mater. And those who remained on active duty and balanced that career with having children. There are so many accomplishments in the past 40 years, individually, they may not all have made a media splash, but they undoubtedly, in the aggregate, helped to normalize advancement and ultimately more highly-publicized accomplishments. Thank you all, no matter what year group you are, no matter what path you chose, for joining the Long Grey Line and for serving our Army and Nation. Every one of you, and those who couldn’t be here tonight, made a difference in some way.

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank our families and loved ones. Army life is tough, requires much patience…some days, you just have to love it. Having someone at your side is a blessing. I couldn’t do what I do if it weren’t for my husband Jim. He’s not here tonight because it is such a busy week, we had no choice but to divide and conquer. He has been a first as well. I would suggest that being a male spouse is harder than being a female uniformed leader. In any case, I couldn’t do this without my best friend at my side. I know most of you would say the same. Hearty thanks to all those loved ones who have supported us.

As we look at the last 40 years and think about the decades ahead, I hope we ask ourselves, what does success look like going forward? I think, and this is not original thought, that success will be when a woman joins the Army, goes to West Point, becomes an Infantry company commander, a division commander, earns their Ranger Tab, becomes a general, commands a Special Forces team, that their gender is not even mentioned. That the heading merely announces, X unit changed command today or X was promoted today to the next rank. That the only way you know the gender is from the photograph or perhaps the person’s name. The path to that goal began decades ago, we continue on that path now – it is certainly an exciting time to be at West Point and to serve our Army.

In closing, again, thank you for your attention, for being at West Point for the next couple of days, and for all you do in support of our great institution.

And as always…

Go Army! Beat Everyone!