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‘Making our Airmen more lethal than we were’: Setting the standard for gender equality in the DoD

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Elora J. McCutcheon
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs

For the first time in more than 10 years, a dual team of women are leading the charge of six-dozen Airmen in the 741st Maintenance Squadron who serve as part of Air Force Global Strike Command’s backbone for Minuteman III launch facilities and missile alert facilities throughout Montana. 

The gap in female leadership was not for lack of qualified candidates, but a statistical inevitability: 1st Lt. Jennifer Newell and Senior Master Sgt. Randee Eskew Frost, 741 MXS resources flight chief and flight commander, represent the women who make up less than 10% of the Missile and Space Facilities (2M0X3) and Munitions and Missile Maintenance (21MX) career fields. 

Eskew Frost and Newell oversee five diverse sections within the 741 MXS: electronics laboratory, aircraft aerospace ground equipment, mechanical and pneudraulics, vehicles and equipment, and power, refrigeration and electrical laboratory. 

Beyond the responsibility they shoulder to plan and monitor production efforts of the unit’s maintenance technicians, conduct ancillary and technical training, and mission readiness, they serve as role models for developing a force more inclusive than the one they grew up in. 

The two enlisted for what they planned would be a modest, single term contract to receive education benefits, career stability and a chance of starting over. 

In 2006, Newell was being overworked and underpaid as a high school teacher. 

“I loved teaching, but I didn’t love the extra work,” she said. “I was working 60 to 80 hours per week for basically $28,000 a year. I was young and single, getting further into debt, and there was no way to get out of it. The only path I saw was joining the military.”

The 27-year-old college graduate initially attempted to commission but was advised by a recruiter that her English degree would not suffice for a career as an officer. Undeterred, she enlisted as an airborne cryptologic language analyst instead.

“I took him at his word—you know, as we do—and I joined for four years to get money for and get out,” she explained. “I didn’t expect to love it.” 

In a parallel universe one year later, a teenage Eskew Frost was finishing her final year of high school and scrambling to put together a plan after realizing her chronic passivity left her as the only person in her friend group who did not apply for college. 

The military was a tantalizing option for the 18-year-old, who feared that remaining in her small hometown would push her down a path of struggle similar to that of her teen parents. 

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do [in the military],” Eskew Frost said. “I just wanted to carry a big gun and travel the world. I thought I’d do four years and maybe figure my life out…ultimately, the structure and regulations of the military saved my soul.”

Within the first five years of their careers, both women realized that the Air Force gave them exactly what they were looking for: For Eskew Frost, it was structure and purpose; for Newell, it was camaraderie and adventure. 

Beneath the placid surface of the fulfilled Airmen, though, lay dormant an intermittent feeling of alienation in the male-dominated career field that is the military. 

As described by Newell, there was a new, unavoidably acute awareness of her femininity that contributed to feelings of discomfort when working with men in her day-to-day operations. 

The prior master sergeant was feverous in her line of work as a language analyst, soaking up the Chinese language, flying on a variety of aircraft for secret missions and deploying to Africa and Afghanistan, but her experience was not entirely unmarred. 

“I came from teaching high school, which is a predominantly female career, into a predominantly male career,” she said. “It made me feel like I had to put on a masculine front. It made me super aware of making sure I didn’t allow myself into situations where there could be any misconception about me.”

Eskew Frost similarly questioned if a difference in her outward appearance or personality would have mitigated some of the hardship she faced.  

“I wore makeup to work, I had my nails painted, I did my hair,” she said. “I didn’t really care that I was changing oil and stuff like that. I wanted to still be a woman, but I do think that played a role in people not taking me seriously.”

Beyond challenges like harassment, belittling and unprofessional treatment, the women faced operational and logistical barriers. 

“When I had my first child, it was before we had mandated areas for breastfeeding,” Newell explained. “I had to fly on these long [missions], and I would--oh God, I still remember the humiliation--I would have to go up to the pilot and ask to skip part of the pre-brief to pump.

“I would go in the locker room and be so rushed and stressed about getting to the bus on time. [The pilot] wasn’t trying to make me uncomfortable, he was just uninformed.” 

Until recently, it was not mandatory for units to provide dedicated spaces for nursing mothers. The Air Force mandate was issued in 2019 with the intent of eliminating the feeling of needing to choose between serving and being a mother. 

Currently, women still face barriers affecting basic access to hygiene resources. For career fields that may require working in remote field conditions for up to (or more than) 16-hour days, miles from any sort of toilet facilities, women are left to their own devices to manage menstruation.  

“It’s like, do I hide [my period] from [male colleagues] because I don’t want to gross them out?” Eskew Frost retorted about working in the missile field. “Do I not say anything because that will show my ‘weakness?’”

The notion that women face biological disadvantages and therefore do not belong in the military is a perpetual one that begs to be defied by those who demand equality.  

Since the first moment they could join the Air Force in 1948, women have been working to prove they deserve a spot amidst the ranks of the nation’s greatest visionaries, innovators and leaders. 

Historically, women have served at a higher rate in career fields like administration, medical and legal, compared to engineering, construction and maintenance. Additionally, statistics show they continue to remain less likely to stay in the military beyond 10 years of service, fulfill command positions or become general officers.

These numbers continue to shift though, and significant achievements by women in the Air Force have shattered enough glass ceilings to encourage those who follow in their footsteps to continue shooting toward the infinite sky.

In 1976, women were admitted to the United States Air Force Academy for the first time. 

In 1995, Lt. Col. Eileen Collins became the first woman to command a space shuttle mission.   

In 2000, Lt. Col. Shawna Kimbrell became the first Black female fighter pilot. 

In 2012, Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger became the first woman in the USAF to achieve four-star rank.

And in 2020, JoAnne S. Bass, 19th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, became the first woman to serve as the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer of a U.S. military service. 

A future where successes are less about an individual’s gender and more about a nation’s collective greatness is possible, especially when an organization can mold lessons learned, into lessons taught. 

“I think it’s so important to support each other,” Newell said. “It’s almost like a competition sometimes, when women who go through [trials] are tougher on other women because we feel like we have to be. I think we should still hold each other accountable, but support other women.”

Between 2006 and now, the Air Force has initiated a multitude of quality-of-life improvements to recruit and retain women in the ranks.

“I think, one, we do a way better job of getting resources to people, which is huge, and two, we take what people say more seriously.” Eskew Frost said. 

“It’s not making the Air Force weak if we have lactation rooms, and pregnancy flight suits so women don’t have to completely retrain after having a baby,” Newell said. “Empathy is not the same as weakness.”  

Within the past five years, the Air Force introduced improved, protective vests with curved chest plate and shorter torso size; updated policy allowing aircrew to voluntarily request to fly through all three trimesters of pregnancy; changed anthropometric standards for future weapons programs to make pilot and aircrew jobs more accessible to women; authorized 12 weeks of parental leave for birth parents, adoptive parents and eligible foster parents; and expanded its female hair standards to circumvent migraines, hair damage and hair loss. 

“I hope that the changes we are making bring in the people who want to be in the military, plain and simple,” Eskew Frost said. “It’s a privilege to be in the military, not a right. I think as long as we open up the right doors to allow that privilege, then we’re going to get the right people.”  

The two leaders entered those proverbial doors 17 years ago without realizing they would face resistance that would fuel their passion for change and equality. 

“Why should I intentionally make someone’s life harder just because other people did that to me?” Eskew Frost asked. “If I do that, I am no better than the individuals I hated for treating me the way they did.’

Now, armed with nearly two decades of professional feedback, self-reflection and experience, they have the power to significantly impact the lives of their peers, and those under their charge.  

“I feel a strong sense of responsibility for my Airmen and their mission,” Newell said. “I never want to be the person who stands in the way of progress because of ignorance, incompetence, or refusal to take action. We should always be striving to make sure our Airmen are safer than we were, more capable than we were, and more lethal than we were. We don’t do that by blocking progress.”

The Department of the Air Force continues to work toward a more diverse, equitable and inclusive force. An optimal team constructed of people from different backgrounds will create an environment where ideas start flowing, the right questions are being asked, and better processes are implemented. 

For this reason, it is critical that young girls and women are encouraged to approach science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines to eliminate a multigenerational negative stereotype and close the gender gap; currently, women only account for just under one-third of the STEM workforce in the United States. 

With a larger pool of candidates whose potential will support military innovation, an enduring advantage in the emerging era of great power competition is not only achievable, but guaranteed. 

The changes that will develop people, generate readiness, project power and develop capabilities can only be implemented when leaders create an organization of respect and empowerment. 

“Often we’re afraid to admit when we don’t know something, and don’t take the time to ask the right questions or listen to the answers,” Newell said regarding leadership pitfalls. “You have to care. You can’t make positive change if you don’t know what needs to be changed, and why.” 

The pace of adaptation toward a more conducive institution must rapidly evolve to fit the dynamic 21st century environment, which requires an intentional change in mindset.  

It starts with leaders like 1st Lt. Jennifer Newell and Senior Master Sgt. Randee Eskew Frost, who are molding the next generation of warfighters to be better than the last.