#KnowYourMil: Women Leaders in Defense and Security

WPSP Hosts Women's History Month Series on Women in the Military

This Women's History Month the Wilson Center's Women in Public Service Project featured women leaders serving in national defense.

Group PhotoAir Force Major General (retired) Sharon Dunbar, Army Lieutenant General Nadja West, and Air Force General (retired) Janet Wolfenbarger joined Wilson Center staff, scholars, and interns as part of the center’s Global Women’s Leadership Initiative, Women in Public Service Project.

Group PhotoThe series was designed to share military and defense contributions to national security, highlight opportunities for women in defense, and serve as a bridge between the military and Wilson Center scholars whose independent research informs pubic policy solutions for the nation’s challenges.

Group PhotoDuring the series, each speaker shared their military service journey and key components to success.


Major General (retired) Sharon Dunbar

First Female Commanding General of the Air Force District of Washington

Sharon Dunbar

Dunbar, who serves as the vice president and general manager of General Dynamics Federal Systems, began her service in the third class of women to graduate from the United States Air Force Academy. She later became the first woman to command the Air Force District of Washington, which hosts operations for Air Force One among other high visibility operations.

The first Air Force officer embedded as a fellow with Congress, she led the Secretary of Defense’s review on sexual assault and harassment in service, the Air Force’s response to the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, and the Air Force’s repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Dunbar shared her challenges with dual military careers, aging parents and raising her children to be good citizens while serving. Her advice for achieving better work- life balance: “You have to ask ... people cannot read your mind.” She emphasized the need for women to be more vocal and use the “power of ask” to achieve institutional support.

As a lieutenant colonel, she recalled timidly asking her boss to attend her son’s last concert of the year. He responded asking why she waited until the last concert, encouraging her to attend. “You can’t plan life,” Dunbar said, “You have to ultimately decide what your compass is, what you are drawn to, what your interests are and preserve the core ... family, and the people that mean the most to you.”

Lieutenant General Nadja West

First Black Female Army 3 Star General and Surgeon General

Nadja West

West was among the third class of women to graduate from the United States Military Academy, more commonly known as West Point. She shared her journey to becoming the first black female three-star general in the Army and the first black female Army Surgeon General, the highest position for an Army medical officer. She discussed the full spectrum of opportunities open to the 174,000 women in today’s Army including intelligence, cyber, medical, legal, logistics and more.

West, who earned a doctorate from George Washington University School of Medicine, noted that “people have to see representations of themselves,” when discussing the need for more gender-inclusion. She also acknowledged the strength of diverse teams, noting that “diverse groups have proven to be the most intelligent groups producing the best innovations.”

She credits leaders such as Army General George Casey, who championed more inclusive public affairs images representing his Division when he commanded the 1st Armored Division in the late 90s. She also credits Air Force General David Goldfein for instituting more diverse Joint Staff hiring slates for springboard positions to higher ranks, for challenging the status quo and creating more inclusive environments. “These men took a stand for equality, changing history, and the military Services are better because of them,” West said.

West also credits a strong family foundation. West’s father, a retired Army soldier, and mother, who lobbied for the de-segregation of Arlington cemetery, adopted twelve children. Ten of those children served in the army, the Women’s Army Corps, the Women in the Air Force, the Navy, and other public service positions.

“There will always be people observing you and looking for reasons why you shouldn’t be where you are,” she cautioned, but that did not stop her from pursuing higher leadership opportunities as there are many others willing to support and mentor along the way as well.

General (retired) Janet Wolfenbarger

DACOWITS Chairperson and First Female Air Force Four-Star General

Janet Wolfenbarger

Wolfenbarger, who advises the Secretary of Defense as the Chair for the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, shared her journey from the United States Air Force Academy’s first class of women to becoming the first woman in the Air Force to achieve four-star general rank.

An MIT-trained engineer, she enjoyed a military career as an acquisition officer culminating as the Commander of Air Force Material Command, the Air Force’s lead command for weapon system test, evaluation, maintenance and management. “It was important to me to be recognized for what I did and not for my gender,” Wolfenbarger said when reflecting on her career and legacy as the first female major command commander.

When discussing how women have not yet achieved critical mass, which is defined as approximately 30% of an organization, Wolfenbarger said, “We’re not done yet. Twenty percent is not representative of the demographics of this country and so we continue to embrace programs that will allow us to attract and retain women in service.”

She also discussed recommendations from the most recent Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services report to the Secretary of Defense championing co-location of dual-career military families, revising marketing campaigns to reflect opportunities for women to see themselves in service, mandating of diverse gender slates for positions considered springboards to higher ranks, and expanding childcare resources.

“I’ve spent my career working hard and doing the very best I could in every job that was given to me, with the belief that I would be treated equally,” said Wolfenbarger. She continues to champion gender inclusion developing recommendations for the Secretary of Defense to remove barriers for women serving in the military.

All of the speakers broke barriers and paved the way for greater inclusion of women in defense. The speakers also acknowledged there is still work ahead to achieve more gender parity in military service. “Recruiting and retaining more women in the military is a national security imperative, “said Gwen Young, Global Women’s Leadership Initiative Director. “Public policy decision making is best served when we leverage the full capabilities of America’s talent and that means growing more women in military service.”


Colonel Eries Mentzer is the current Air Force Fellow at the Wilson Center. Her research is focused on evolving talent management practices for today's all-volunteer force.