NEWS | March 9, 2021

Revisiting the 2019 Women's Workshop

By Maj. Sarah Pahlete Vermont National Guard

In November 2019, I attended the Women’s Workshop at St. Michael’s College curious and eager to inspire change. At that point, I had been in the military for 15 years. While I found success, there were unique challenges. For me, it was childcare: Navigating through a dual military family, and having children of my own, I know first hand the stress of balancing shared childcare duties (especially as drill weekend approaches) with military responsibilities. Too often, the lack of practical childcare options has led to anxiety, frustration, arguments, as well as, the inevitable discussion about one of us getting out of the Guard or putting our career on hold. I have to admit I was skeptical. This wasn't the first time a workshop was held for women at the Vermont National Guard. Was this going to be different?

Walking into the auditorium, I was pleasantly surprised to see more than 200 women service members who, like me, were ready to create a Guard culture that could maximize our potential. I eagerly absorbed the stories of the keynote speakers, advocates of change, and leaders who shared their journey through the ranks of our changing organization. The highlight of the workshop was splitting off into small groups and brainstorming about changes we needed if we were going to create an organization where leaders at all levels could achieve their maximum potential.

My key takeaways from the workshop were:

  • To improve communication, we needed a strategic media presence that keeps everyone informed.
  • We needed to grow our junior leaders into the next generation of senior leaders.
  • Command climate surveys needed to be leveraged more effectively.
  • Childcare solutions needed our full attention.
  • Flexible drill schedules would help promote maximum participation while maintaining unit readiness.
  • Formal and informal mentorship opportunities must exist if we are going open doors and create transparency.
  • To achieve equitable and unbiased selections, we needed a blind promotion/selection board process.

It has been over a year since these recommendations were made. So where are we now? Too often we walk out of well-meaning workshops and our hard work is lost. The good news is that despite many hurdles, like turnover, and yes, COVID-19, advocates of the women’s workshop have been meeting behind the scenes to make progress.

Small steps lead to larger improvements. For instance, the release of the Vermont Army National Guard App, similar to the one developed by the Vermont Air National Guard, earmarks a change to build a strategic media presence. The app, along with TAG’s town halls on Facebook, are helping us stay connected. There has also been a series of councils developed to plan the way forward with respect to leader development and mentorship. And we finally have a Human Resources Equal Opportunity Advisor. Having someone in this position allows us to analyze command climate surveys, extract trends, and provide recommendations through the Chain of Command.

The issue closet to me - childcare - remains a tricky issue. I also appreciate that it is especially difficult for our traditional service members. While our Air Guard provides some support for childcare on weekends, it does not meet the demand. Support from the Army Guard is worse.

My response to the childcare dilemma is solutions-based. We currently have motivated service members studying programs in other states, like the “Little Heroes” program in Delaware. Looking at best practices like these may help us design our own program. In the meantime, we have to understand the needs of our members. At the time of writing this article, a survey on childcare was being distributed to our members.

Of course, more work needs to be done. But our team of committed professionals are pressing forward. Maybe we are not as courageous as our suffragette sisters, but the spirit of change, hope, and progress remains the forefront of our minds too.

(Editor's note: This commentary was originally published in the February 2021 Joint Diversity Executive Council newsletter.)