Huffpost Women
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Kayla Williams Headshot

Military Women Know How to 'Lean In'

Posted: Updated:

There have been dozens of op-eds and blogs circulating recently in response to Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, and I've been devouring them in my limited free time. As a member of one of the key demographics her book targets -- a working woman with small children -- that means I've peered at many of them on the tiny screen of my smartphone in spare moments on the train or while my kids nap. The cross-talk about structural changes is, of course, valuable as we lobby for necessary systemic shifts.

While reading all the opinions, I realized that the Army already taught me how to lean in on a personal level. Serving in the military taught me a number of skills that have been essential to my success since I reentered the civilian world -- and contain valuable lessons for other women:

1. Presentation Matters

How you present yourself in the military is often governed by regulation: the wear of the uniform, acceptable haircuts or hairstyles, even authorized shades of eyeshadow or nail polish are laid out. Part of this is for uniformity -- but the degree to which you choose to obey the regulations in given circumstances and how much care you put into your appearance sends other signals as well. Showing up to a promotion board in a wrinkled uniform and unpolished boots would be noted unfavorably by those rating your readiness to rise in the ranks. In the early stages of my Army career, my male colleagues often ignored me because I didn't communicate with confidence -- what is known as 'command voice' in the military.

This carries over in the civilian world. Though dress codes are not laid out in regulation, the informal rules about appropriate attire can be just as important. People consider women wearing some -- but not too much -- makeup more competent. The evidence shows that women have plenty of experience listening to "mansplaining": research has shown that men tend to lecture women even when women have more expertise on a given topic. The unfortunate habit of ending sentences on a questioning 'up-note' may add to that by making some women sound unsure of themselves. Posture is another key part of self-presentation: I can often recognize my fellow veterans by that alone. Those who have served in the military tend to stand up straight. When we lean in, it is not with slumped shoulders. And it matters: not only are others more likely to respect those with expansive posture, it also makes you feel more powerful and be more likely to take action.

2. Emotional Control

I got fired from my second job out of college partly because I couldn't control my emotions in the office. My new boss and I did not get along, and she was a yeller. Several times after she publicly yelled at me for perceived failings, I cried in front of my colleagues. This experience indirectly led to my enlistment: when weighing my options, I clearly remember thinking "I bet in basic training I'll learn to get screamed at without bursting into tears." And I was right: I developed the ability to push down anger, frustration, humiliation and grief until the time was more appropriate.

This skill was particularly important as a woman: We are automatically assumed to be more emotional. Men who tear up after tragedies are seen as compassionate; women who do the same as weak. I may find this ridiculous and work to change that misperception, but in the meantime, I also know that I have to work harder to overcome that stereotype. In the civilian world, my ability to remain calm, cool and collected while men around me lost their tempers has given me tremendous credibility -- and when I do show a flash of genuine anger, it is taken more seriously for being rare. Emotional control is a tremendous asset.

3. Prioritization, Planning and Decisiveness.

When I was in Iraq, I was promoted to sergeant and put in charge of a team. As the team lead, I was responsible for accomplishing missions while also ensuring my team had all necessary equipment and supplies. We had a limited amount of space to carry our technical equipment, food, water, clothing and other personal supplies, weapons, fuel and more. As the leader, you can solicit input -- but when it comes down to the moment, you must be decisive -- and possibly ruthless in choosing priorities. The military teaches a process called "backwards planning" that is inherently logical: You take the desired end state and figure out what interim tasks need to be accomplished in order for that to be reached. I use this constantly both at work and at home: If a report is due on the last day of March, I sit down and count out exactly how many days it takes to go through the publications process and review to determine when a final draft must be complete, count back from there to determine when a rough draft is due, and so forth.

My husband and I both have full-time jobs, and we have two small children. Each day is a careful dance: if we leave the house fifteen minutes late, worsening traffic means we'll actually be half an hour late to work. We've decided to prioritize eating home-cooked dinners together as a family, and making that happen requires careful menu planning, grocery shopping, timing and communication. I value sleep more than cleaning -- so the house gets messy, and we pay a cleaning service to come every two weeks. If we want to go on a date, we have to arrange for a babysitter weeks in advance. Personally and professionally, I constantly rank priorities, backwards plan to accomplish goals and make swift decisions when necessary. Too many people hem and haw on decisions until it is too late and their preferred option is no longer available or are unable to backwards plan and end up delivering projects late; managers seem to genuinely believe they can tell subordinates that "everything is top priority."

4. Perspective

On my wedding day, the organizer repeatedly told me I was the calmest bride she'd ever seen. This baffled me -- it was a happy day, a celebration of love. What was there to worry about? My sister, who had my dress, had gotten lost and was running a bit late. I wasn't worried -- the event would not start without me! The same thing happens when I give speeches or appear on television; people are surprised that I am calm. "What's the worst possible outcome?" I ask, then answer: "I'd be temporarily embarrassed if I say something stupid. No one is shooting at me." That sense of perspective may be the most important lesson I brought back from Iraq: if no one is going to die, it probably isn't worth a high degree of panic.

5. Strength

I didn't know if I could make it in the military when I enlisted. The Army invests a great deal of resources training troops -- by the time we went to war, in addition to training on how to speak Arabic and do my job, I'd spent hours drilling on how to use my weapon, work with my team, perform first aid and more, not to mention the daily physical fitness training. After years of vaguely feeling that my body was just something men looked at, it was something of a surprise for me to learn that with practice, it could run 7 miles, carry a 35-lb rucksack 12 miles in under 4 hours, do 55 pushups in two minutes, and more. (After my daughter was born, I had a similarly-startling realization that my breasts are not just ornamental, they can make food for another human being.)

When I was called to translate as we provided first aid for three injured civilians, it was tremendously calming and affirming to feel that training kick in: Knowing where in the medical supply kit to find what supplies was practically muscle memory. I could see the infantry troops naturally take up a defensive perimeter and scan their sectors of fire: It was a fluid, practiced event. For hours, I did what I had to do, forgetting to eat or drink. It wasn't until we got in the Humvee to head back that the emotional side hit me -- along with hunger and thirst. I hadn't fallen apart or freaked out. I had done my job. Being prepared was an important part of that, as was not having to do it alone: I was powerfully aware of being part of a team.

Today, that knowledge of my own strength and competence stays with me like a talisman. It gives me pride and confidence to know that if I see a car accident on the way home, I can stop and provide emergency first aid until professional assistance arrives -- I won't faint or panic at the sight of blood or gore. When things are rough, I tell myself, "If I could handle a year in Iraq, I can handle this." I'm not special --but humans are tough. But numerous studies have shown that women underestimate their abilities. Find ways to recognize your own strength.

The military is not right for everyone, and it can be a tremendously difficult place for women. Women in the military face promotion gaps at some ranks in some services, are less likely to reenlist and disproportionately face sexual harassment and assault. But military women get equal pay for equal work: base pay is calculated from time in grade and time in service. We also have access to the same health care, family support and education benefits that have made military service attractive to so many.

The internal benefits, however, have been most important to me. My time in the military taught me how to present myself effectively; control my emotions; prioritize, plan and be decisive; maintain perspective; and know my strength. Some women may gain those abilities in other settings, but college and work alone had not developed them in me. These skills have been both professionally and personally valuable: today, I'm a published author and recognized advocate who balances full-time work, motherhood and an active public role. The Army taught me to lean in -- and to stand up straight and use my command voice while I do. I'm grateful.