FORT HOOD, Texas - While the Army is making great strides to achieve gender neutrality, women remain a minority within in the military. In 2013, women made up only 15 percent of the Army’s active duty soldiers.
This is one of the main challenges that women serving within the active duty military face, said Maj. Heather Gunther, the communications officer of 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.
“When [I] first got here, [I] realized that within a Brigade Combat Team formation of over 4,000 soldiers, women were statistically underrepresented,” said Gunther.
It was based on this observation that Gunther began planning the Women’s Mentorship Network, which held its first meeting on Feb. 7 at Club Hood.
The WMN is a program designed to cultivate young female leaders within the Army through the power of shared knowledge, networking, and strong female role models.
“Some of my best mentors and other role models are men, other male professionals, other male officers and enlisted,” said Gunther. “But there’s a power in role modeling other powerful women.
“When you talk about the power of diversity and being informed by many different perspectives and opinions, the less and less you’re represented, and the more challenging it becomes to contribute to that conversation.”
The program itself is a decentralized network of session facilitators who conduct their own hour-long mentoring sessions throughout the week. Each session involves different empowering activities that allow each person to play the role of mentor or mentee while encouraging active listening and the discussion of real-world problems.
“It’s creating an environment where everyone can participate,” said Gunther.
The WMN initially began as a series of Officer Professional Development sessions held by Gunther with some of the female officers in her command. She noticed that the interactions between the different ranks were having a positive influence upon the group.
“Not just in that traditional mentorship dyad of someone who’s older or more experienced giving guidance and advice to someone who is younger, there’s a lot of reciprocal mentorship there, across the formation,” said Gunther.
Seeing positive results within her own unit, Gunther decided that there was a need to expand. Gunther pitched the idea to a few other like-minded female soldiers.
“We decided to combine forces and open up the conversation to include the larger population and to really reach out,” said Gunther. “In order to inform this conversation we needed to have all ranks, all branches.”
The next step in the process would be to clearly define the scope of the program and generate members.
“We decided to have a launch clinic to really empower the edge and say ‘what would be relevant to you,’ and to try and shape a vision and strategic goals for the organization like what would this look like, how should we exist and who would it be open to,” said Gunther.
Gunther asked organizational expert Ori Brafman, New York Times bestselling author and adviser to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, to attend the launch clinic, held in July, 2013, and to help guide them in shaping the WMN.
Brafman was so enthusiastic about the program’s potential he paid to fly himself to Fort Hood to meet with the enterprising women.
On Jan. 10 and 11, Brafman hosted a leadership conference, during which he and the 60 women attending formalized a plan the get the WMN operational.
“It was so powerful to see the energy, and just the need, the craving to come together and meet the other women who are spread out across the organization,” said Gunther. “Before we knew it, it was growing like wildfire.”
The fledgling program did not go unnoticed. Efforts to form a mentorship program for women have been viewed critically in the past.
Recent approaches to women’s mentorship, such as Female 2 Female, the program in Fort Stewart, Ga., commonly referred to as “Divas in Boots,” have received ridicule on social media networks as well as by some news outlets for their focus on seemingly mundane domestic concerns.
According to an article published by the Washington Times, one female soldier said that the program sounded more like “group therapy.”
The core members of the Women’s Mentorship Network vow to keep professional development as their top priority.
“If we’re going to do it then we’re going to do it right,” said Gunther. “We want to make sure that we’re safeguarding that this is a professional organization and thinking that through so that people will come and feel empowered and safe to participate.”
“I have to say, at first I was very against it,” said Warrant Officer Adrian Rodriguez, an intelligence technician in 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
Rodriguez was among those who expected the meetings to be a celebration of femininity rather than a discussion of the professional challenges that women face within the military. In attending, Rodriguez found her fears abated.
“The people who founded this program are military professionals,” said Rodriguez. “They have been in the Army for 15-plus years and this is their profession, their passion in life.”
After talking with other soldiers at the social, Rodriguez found that much of the advice being sought was related to lessons which she had to learn on her own.
“I’ve been in the military for 10 years and have kids, have gotten in trouble, and stayed out of trouble,” said Rodriguez. “I have tons of experiences that I could offer.”
Most surprising to Rodriguez was the variety of individuals seeking information.
“Not only will you have young lieutenants or even captains seeking that advice, but you’ll have privates and specialists who are the same age seeking the same advice such as child bearing and how to manage your family and your career and the leadership challenges in the officer or noncommissioned officer world that a woman faces,” said Rodriguez.
“They’re parallel because a young NCO is the same age as a young captain. Even though one outranks the other, it’s interesting that they’re seeking the same advice,” said Rodriguez.
Spc. Tenia Russell, 502nd Human Resources Company, 4th Sustainment Brigade, was invited to attend by her commander. Russell viewed this as an opportunity to gather knowledge on building a career within the military.
“There are so many different officers or just other soldiers from different units and MOS’s who you can reach out to,” said Russell.
To young soldiers like Russell, having such a wealth of experience readily available is invaluable in guiding the path of her Army career.
“They’re females of all ranks, enlisted as well as officers, that are willing to … lift a hand and say ‘hey, I was there once upon a time, this is how you get to my level,’” Russell said.