We belong at the table: Women’s Equality Day interview with Colonel Elizabeth Keller Published Aug. 25, 2023 By Britianie Teston 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Introduction Women’s Equality Day holds a profound significance, as it not only commemorates the hard-fought achievements and relentless dedication to secure women’s right to vote in the United States, but also celebrates the voices and accomplishments of all women – past, present, and future. In honor of this day, Colonel Elizabeth Keller, deputy commander, 377th Air Base Wing on Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, shared her experience as a female military leader and how she has found success, inspiration, and comradery in her field. Colonel Elizabeth Keller: Carrying the Torch in the Military Keller graduated from Indiana University before she commissioned in 2002, where she served as an intercontinental ballistic missile operator, evaluator, and Flight Commander. “My family ultimately led me to this path,” Keller said. “I have five relatives who served in the Air Force, including my brother.” With a career spanning over two decades, she has navigated challenges and achieved milestones that have not only opened doors for herself, but also paves the way for countless aspiring women in uniform. Representation Diversity, inclusion, and equal representation are impactful and important, as they challenge historical imbalances and stereotypes. Representation also allows a person to look ahead and believe – in themselves, and in the reality and attainability of their goals. Representation, at its core, inspires. “I was fortunate in my career to see women ahead of me at every step,” said Keller. “I served under women squadron commander, operations group commanders, and wing commanders. I have never looked ahead and saw a barrier or a glass ceiling.” Up until the late 1970’s, women weren’t permitted to serve as intercontinental ballistic missile operators, or missileers, in the U.S. Air Force, as Keller has. Even when regulations changed, throughout the late 1970’s and most of the 1980’s, alert crews were still exclusively male or female. Keller recalled seeing a 1970’s Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps missileer recruitment brochure titled ‘For Men Only’ and was shocked by that type of gender separation. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that some of these bigger gender barriers were removed and crews became mixed, eventually making female missileers commonplace. “I feel indebted to those women who pushed through boundaries and made it the standard,” said Keller. Although Keller feels fortunate that she has had many female leaders and coworkers, she knows that there are still many underrepresented groups across the military. “All of these underrepresented groups need to be able to look ahead of them and see leaders who look like them,” Keller said, noting that we still have work to do to increase minority representation in the military, especially for people of color. Vulnerability Leadership encompasses more than rank or authority, it’s about authenticity. Keller explained that in showing up authentically, she does not fake confidence where there is vulnerability, and she is not afraid of showing emotion. “It’s ok to be vulnerable, or to cry at times,” said Keller. “It’s not a woman thing, I think it shows that a leader is human.” Keller shared how in the past, crying or showing emotion was perceived as weakness for both men and women. The shift in this narrative now allows leaders to show up more wholeheartedly for their people and their missions. “I have seen men cry, too, and I love that, because it shows emotion, love, and compassion,” Keller added. Keller shared that in learning to be vulnerable and allowing humanity in her work, she had great examples of leading with a loving heart. She shared that a previous boss had cooked her family a meal after the birth of her daughter, and how this boss still sends Keller’s nine-year-old a birthday card every year. “She really showed me what it is to love your troops and love your people,” Keller said. “Just showing me what love is, I think that is something I continue to carry with me.” Flexibility The armed forces have become more flexible in recent years – from hair regulations to parental leave – as they strive to be more inclusive and increase retention. Keller shared the positives of these new inclusions, including the extensions of parental leave for both women and men. When Keller gave birth to her daughter, she was granted six weeks of maternity leave, and she took an additional two weeks of personal leave. “Dropping my eight-week-old daughter off at daycare was really hard, and I thought about separating [from the military],” said Keller, detailing the difficulty of balancing motherhood and her military career. As of 2023, the Department of the Air Force now grants twelve weeks of maternal/parental leave following a qualifying birth event, adoption, or long-term foster care placement. “If it's important to have women in the workforce, and it is, for our diversity of thought and approach, you're going to have to have accommodations for family,” Keller said. In addition to extended maternal/parental leave, Keller explained the U.S. Air Force Career Intermission Program. “You can take a break and basically hit pause on your career to do a degree program or have a child. One example I’ve seen is a spouse used this program to move overseas with her active-duty partner,” Keller explained. She’s heard discussions of a future ability to weave in between the reserves and active duty, which would give servicemembers greater control over their career as their stages of life change. Women belong at the table Keller described several instances where she experienced mentorship with inspiring women during her career. In one instance, a woman leader gifted her a copy of the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, about how to empower yourself to be part of the conversation. “Not all women, but I think some, don't want to appear too ambitious,” said Keller, describing the double standard of men and women’s ego and assertiveness in the workplace. “But Sandberg said in the book – ‘at a meeting, take a seat at the table, not in the back row’ – and I thought, I always gravitate to the back row”. The fellow servicemember who gave Keller this book saw her as a future leader. This pushed her to grow in confidence, which led her to lessons about standing your ground, and a poignant reminder that women belong at the table. As the Operations Support Squadron Commander at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana from 2017 to 2019, Keller’s team was responsible for providing various support functions that contributed to the overall wing mission. The diversity of the roles they filled brought a variety of perspectives to the table. In her words, “diversity is important because we all rally around a common goal, but we all brought our different parts and pieces to it.” Keller believes this diverse array of talents and viewpoints is vital for their collective success. This experience not only made the unit’s work more enjoyable, but also highlighted the fundamental truth that diversity isn’t just about representation – it’s about the richness of knowledge, expertise, and backgrounds of every individual that contributes to the mission and the growth of those around them. Future generations To the future generations of aspiring women, consider the military not just as a career path, but as a journey of empowerment, leadership, and service. As we listen to the stories and accomplishments of past and present women servicemembers, Keller reminds us that a military career has a multitude of options. You do not have to choose between your life goals and a military career anymore. “We need leaders, and we need followers, and people can have different paths based on their goals or their family goals. So, I would say if you looked at a senior officer or enlisted leader and say, I don't want to be the colonel or that command chief someday, but I want to continue to serve, that's okay. The military is finding ways to listen, support, and retain its diverse talent,” Keller shared. “When I was a little girl if someone told me I would serve in the military, I would have laughed,” said Keller. “But I see women all around me and the Department of Defense is so much better for it. Not only are those women making it happen, but also, the military is making opportunities available for us. So, have confidence that you can do it and you can sit at the table.” Women’s Equality Day stands as a testament to the truth that a diverse and inclusive society is essential for progress and that women belong at the table.