Breaking Through the Brass Ceiling: Elite Military Women's Strategies for Success

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2007-11-27

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People who rise to the top of any organization must have a dedication and determination that distinguishes them from their co-workers. White men historically have held these positions due to discriminatory practices by employers, protectionist legislation, and social constructs about their leadership capabilities and motivation. Inroads into these elite positions are being made, however, both in the corporate world and in the military, by women and minority men. This study examines the women who have risen to the top of a masculine institution, and the strategies they used to "break through the brass ceiling" and become General and Flag Officers. Data were collected through several methods, including content analysis of their military biographies, self-administered surveys, and selected interviews. Results generally indicate that the women overcame the challenges they faced and took advantage of opportunities that arose. They rarely said "no" to a challenge; they did not question their ability to succeed simply due to gender, and they overwhelmingly had a positive attitude and loved the military institution. However, the ability for the women to navigate the masculine organization of the military would not have been possible without a vibrant support system, which included mentors, and supportive spouses and family. Mentorship was an important factor in the women's ability to navigate the system; mentors provided career guidance, opened opportunities, and provided personal support and advice when needed. Many also had an active family life. This was especially true for those in the Reserves; family formation was the most obvious difference between Regular and Reserve respondents. Results primarily varied by cohort, with earlier cohorts limited by institutional and legislative impediments to both their professional and family lives. This research is sociologically important because it helps to fill the gap in knowledge about the situations and behaviors that lead to career success for executive women. It is limited in that it looks only at the women in these elite positions and does not compare these findings with male generals and admirals or to women who did not rise to these levels. Suggestions for further research are provided.

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