The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Top Pentagon women discuss leadership

Lesley Stevenson | Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Two of the highest-ranked women in Pentagon history spoke Monday in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the opening discussion of the Notre Dame Forum 2013, whose theme this year is “Women in Leadership.”

Ann Dunwoody, the Army’s first female four-star general, and Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy and the highest-ranking civilian woman in Pentagon history, spoke to students and guests after an introduction by University President Fr. John Jenkins. Notre Dame alumna Anne Thompson of NBC News moderated the conversation.

The discussion covered topics ranging from issues such as sexual assault to different leadership styles according to gender.

Dunwoody said sexual assault in the military is one of the main issues that organizations like the Army must address within their own chain of command.

“This is a leadership failure, in my mind,” she said. “If we expect our leaders to train our sons and daughters to fight in our nation’s war, we should expect our leaders to be able to tackle this soldier and discipline in an organization where people feel safe, and if they’re not safe that they can report it.

“Until we see sexual assault as egregious as something as racial discrimination, I’m not sure we’ll be through,” she said to a round of applause. “It is a crisis, and we should recognize that and we have to hold the leadership accountable.”

Dunwoody also addressed Thompson’s question of whether women in the work force “can have it all.”

“I think we’ve let someone define what ‘it all’ is,” she said. “Men have ‘it all’ if they have a family and a job. Is that all? You define what is all.”

Thompson asked Flournoy about obstacles she faced as a young, non-military and Democratic female entering the Pentagon workforce.

“In many places, none of those things matter, but in some corners it just meant that people came in with a bias,” Flournoy said. “What I learned very early on … was that if you encounter that kind of bias, let it be the other person’s problem.

“Focus on being excellent. Focus on being the best possible player in your position so that there’s absolutely no question about your competence. At some point I just decided that the absence of women who paved the exact path was not going to bother me.”

Dunwoody also said excellence is the bottom line in the face of potential discrimination and double standards for women.

“You take their comments with a grain of salt and then you just … let it be their problem,” Dunwoody said. “But when you perform and you meet the standard, [even] exceed the standard … those biases dissolve.”

Thompson asked the women if they had to put aside their femininity to earn the respect of male subordinates.
“I just tried to be myself,” Flournoy said. “I know that there are some women who have tried to be more masculine as a way of being in a man’s world or more feminine.”

“I have tried, I have figured that the best thing I can be is just to be myself and let that speak for itself and focus on making a contribution and being excellent and helping the team accomplish its goals.”

“I don’t believe you have to give up your femininity to be in any profession, nor do I believe you have to use your femininity to gain anything” Dunwoody said.
Thompson asked Dunwoody about the challenges in commanding large groups of men after the integration of women into the army.

“I see soldiers in uniform; I don’t see men and women,” Dunwoody said. “I see soldiers. And I wanted to be the best soldier I could possibly be and the best leader I could possibly be and a leader is taking care of people.”

“When you care about your people and you take care of them and they trust you, they will follow you. And they know that you’re trying to do the right thing for the right reason. They will follow you.”

Flournoy said a poster hung on the first day of the transition to the Obama administration in Pentagon headquarters captured the guiding principle in her work.
“No ego, no drama, this is not about you,” she said. “You have to come to work every day willing to lose your job if it’s important to speak up, to say what you think is true even if you think it could make you lose your job. If you’re not willing to do that, you should not be here.”

Thompson asked Dunwoody and Flournoy about the difference in leadership styles between men and women.

“I think women generally, normally are better engagers and communicators, because they care,” Dunwoody said. “How we have to challenge that is overcoming the perception that leadership is macho, yelling, screaming, telling and men are decisive … and women are emotional, indecisive and impassive.”

“But look at every profession now,” she said. “Women are at the top.”

Contact Lesley Stevenson at    lsteven@nd.edu