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Women in US military


My lesson as a woman leader in the US military? Don’t be your own worst enemy 

Published 25 March 2024 in Leadership • 7 min read

After 20 years of service as a physician and clinical leader in the US military, Renee Pazdan discusses why women should learn to recognize when they might be inadvertently holding themselves back.

Many people might expect the US military to be a hostile place for women leaders. After all, the ban on women serving in combat was not lifted until 2015, and we are far away from gender parity among active-duty personnel. Yet, in some ways, I believe the military has been at the forefront of equality, especially among employers in the United States. This is in part down to the organizational setup. There is a very clear rubric around the criteria, skills, and standards needed to progress to the next rank. And the pay structures are transparent. While women only comprised 17.5% of the total active-duty defense force in 2022, the relative percentage of women as officers was higher, with females having a ratio of one officer for every 3.9 enlisted personnel and males having one officer for every 4.7 enlisted personnel.

I started my military career in 2001 as a neurology resident at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the National Capital area. I was on call as an intern when September 11 happened, and we watched the Pentagon burn from the top floor of the hospital. In 2006, I was sent to Germany on my first duty assignment, where I worked in a major hospital for service members air evacuated from the military theater. As a physician, there were quite a few women working alongside me, but the patients I treated were mostly young men with brain and nerve injuries who had been flown in from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. When I was sent to Germany, my eldest child was one year old. During my four-year assignment, I had two further children. At the time, maternity leave in the military was six weeks, and it was possible to get deployed at just three months post-partum. This goes against guidance by the World Health Organization, which recommends that women exclusively breastfeed for the first six months and then gradually introduce age-appropriate foods for the next six months.

In my first taste of advocacy, I worked with the local authorities to establish a policy that guaranteed that women would not deploy and not have a prolonged separation from their infants for the first year after giving birth. This was partly self-interested because I wanted to provide this evidence-based optimal care for my children, but I also knew it would benefit the military because if they take care of women and their families, it leads to higher retention.

Although women comprised only 17.5% of the total active-duty defense force in 2022, the relative percentage of women as officers was higher

The parental leave policies in the military are now superior to what is on offer in much of the private sector. The United States is one of only six countries worldwide without any form of national paid medical leave, and the number of employers offering paid parental leave has dropped in recent years, according to a survey. In contrast, the Pentagon expanded military parental leave to 12 weeks in 2023 (in addition to authorized medical convalescent leave for service members who give birth) and made both primary and secondary caregivers eligible. Providing paternity leave not only gives fathers the opportunity to bond with their children, but also helps women by normalizing shared caregiving and reduces the work stigma that comes with having family commitments.

From my perspective, when I finished my four-year duty assignment in Germany, I felt, as a mom of three young kids, that I should step back from my career and take a part-time position as a physician so my husband’s career could take off. Fortunately, he disagreed. He told me my earnings potential was higher than his and pointed out that I enjoyed my work more and his job as an engineer inherently offered more flexibility. So, we moved to Colorado, and I transferred services from the Army to the Public Health Service, where I ran the traumatic brain injury center and later established a newly formed department of rehabilitation services on a large Army post. My husband continued to work remotely as a trailing spouse.

In my case, I had no external pressure to step back from my career, but I had somehow internalized the societal expectations around motherhood and caregiving that had made me think this was what I should do. This brings me to the following three valuable lessons for women leaders.:

Don’t stand in your own way

I consider myself a very confident person who is always prepared to speak up and call out inequality when I see it. But there have been times during my career when I have acted in ways that have held me back. When I was running the brain injury unit at Fort Carson, I had to present to our hospital commander, essentially the CEO of our hospital, about a program we were developing. When we walked into the meeting, I chose not to sit at the command table even though I was the subject matter expert, and it was clearly the right place for me to be. I had put myself in the corner, which makes absolutely no sense. I doubted myself. On other occasions, I turned down promotions or opportunities because I thought I didn’t have the skills or experience.

Once I recognized that I was my worst enemy, I applied to the inaugural Women Leading in Neurology program organized by the American Academy of Neurology, where I learned to unpack certain behaviors. It taught me how to recognize my accomplishments and feel comfortable acknowledging and promoting them. The program also gave me the skills to help promote women’s leadership in general.

“As a woman leader, you must be aware of how you are perceived.”

Create communities to support other women

Sometimes, women can inadvertently be the worst enemy of other women. I recall a time when my deputy chief at the Brain Injury Center, a tall, assertive woman with a powerful presence, had been repeatedly told that she needed to work on her communication skills. We discussed this feedback together, and I found myself suggesting that she try softening her tone. Then we realized I would never give her this advice if she were a man. As a woman leader, you must be aware of how you are perceived. Women are often told to watch their tone and walk a fine line between being assertive but not cold. There is no reason to soften your tone or apologize unnecessarily. You can state factual things as facts without such self-deprecating phrases such as “I’m sorry,” “I think,” and “Does that make sense?”

Now that I have this self-awareness, I try to use it to help other women recognize what might be holding them back sooner than I did. A colleague once received a written evaluation from her supervisor that she was “aggressive.” I suggested that she get that corrected to “assertive.” This is, unfortunately, a common unconscious bias, where men are called assertive and women aggressive for the same behaviors. Knowing my colleague’s supervisor, his narrative was not malintended, but his choice of words could have had consequences for this female officer down the road.

While I worked at the hospital, we started a Women’s Leadership Forum. This created a space to regularly meet and discuss our experiences. We had guest speakers, including women who had successfully climbed the ranks to become female generals, who imparted their advice. Forums such as these can be great ways to help women recognize that there are other phenomenal women doing groundbreaking things who have also faced the same struggles.

Learn to own your authority

One of the advantages of being a leader in the military is that you have a rank that automatically lends you a certain amount of authority. Before I stepped down from the military in November 2021, I had reached the rank of Captain and wore a stately eagle insignia on my shoulder. After I hung up my uniform and transitioned to a new role as a civilian still working for the Department of Defense in the Defense Health Agency, I had to figure out how to show up as a leader without a visible rank. Although I am the same person, there is a different way that people look at me. I have to find my way as a leader, as Dr. Pazdan, rather than Captain Pazdan. I am not sureI have completely figured it all out yet, but having this awareness is part of the first step in the journey.


Renee M. Pazdan

Global Medical Director of the Tricare Overseas Program

Renee M. Pazdan is Global Medical Director of the Tricare Overseas Program, where she is responsible for the healthcare oversight for nearly 500,000 service members and families stationed overseas. She served in the US military from 2001 to 2021 as a physician and clinical leader with numerous disaster deployments. She completed her EMBA at IMD in April 2023. 


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