Work-Life Balance isn’t just a millennial thing

Kaylah Jackson
August 15, 2018 - 12:41 pm

(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Collin Schmidt)


For female officers, the Air Force makes it pretty hard to "have your cake and eat it too"— making the decision to excel in the ranks often means deciding whether to start a family or stay in uniform.

The RAND Corporation recently published a study that analyzed what barriers are keeping female officers from staying in the Air Force. It turns out, women intend to leave active duty at a higher rate than men and for more reasons than one. 

According to the study, "female officers currently make up 21.1 percent of officers in pay grades O-1 (second lieutenant) through O-5 (lieutenant colonel), but only 13.9 percent of officers at the O-6 level, and only 7.5 percent of officers at brigadier general (O-7) or higher."

A variety of factors contribute to these numbers: career trajectory, leadership and work environment, and family life, but all of the concerns brought up one common topic: work-life balance.

While the study group included women from various career fields, and ranging in ranks from O-1 to O-5, many women consistently voiced opinions on the idea that being an effective leader was an either-or dynamic.

As with the civilian workforce, in the military, with promotion comes more responsibility but if you're a woman, the Air Force hasn't always had the support in place for those working moms with more rank.

Professor Rachel E. VanLandingham, a professor at Southwestern Law School and retired Air Force JAG officer returned from her then-allotted six weeks of maternity leave to find her supervisor wanted her to deploy to Qatar, a mission she explained would have negatively affected her ability to breastfeed her newborn.

“We had like six other judge advocates who were very competent, who knew how to write, speak and, create PowerPoint slides…I said ‘you don’t need me for this administrative task, have someone else go in the office that you can trust.’”

As a result of that incident, she researched what the department’s breastfeeding policy was and found out that because she was working in a joint environment, she could have been sent downrange essentially a day after she returned to work.

While changing DoD policy may not be the quickest route, VanLandingham does mention that good leadership in the Air Force is how to achieve this balance, something she took into account while working at the Air Force Academy.

"I was a married female with a young child and then I become pregnant and gave birth in that job and I made it a point to go out and tell people to go home, get your families fed, pick up your kids, do what you need to do and then work on your lesson plan late at night," says VanLandingham.

While she offered guidance to Airmen who like her, had families, many women in the study felt they needed to choose between their career in the Air Force and family. VanLandingham, for example, waited to have her first child at 39 for fear of derailing her career progression.

In fact, participants said that as a result of not seeing many female leaders married with children, "the perception among younger female officers is that it is not possible for women to both, have a family and make senior leadership in the Air Force."

“At some point for a lot of women, a clock that we have that is internal decides it wants to start ticking and so you start making decisions based off of what you want out of life and at the end of your career,” says Alisha Mason.

Mason, an Air Force security officer had a myriad of reasons that solidified her decision to separate. But as she explained, as a woman you often start thinking of the end goal earlier than your male counterparts.

“You start to focus on ‘okay this isn’t gonna last forever what do I want my life to look at after this is done?’ Do I want to be alone?’ And that makes it sound bad but it’s not a negative. There are a lot of women that don’t get married and they focus on their career and they do amazing things afterward and there are some that say ‘I need something else too,’” says Mason.

The idea of equally matching home and work responsibilities seemed like a foreign concept up until recent years but as more research is done about the effects of work burnout on overall health, the Air Force and other service branches should take notice. 

"85 percent of our focus groups raised long hours or shift work leading to burnout and work-life balance challenges," according to the study. Eileen Isola retired Air Force Lt. Col. and treasurer for Women Military Aviators, says that the Air Force recognizing this balance is beneficial.

"We'll actually be a better Air Force because we've got people that really understand and embrace wellness across the board and have balance in their lives that make their come to work and pick up an M16 or strap on a jet and be absolutely the best that they could ever possibly be, " says Isola.

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