Organizers had to add extra chairs to the Pond Room in the Michigan Union Thursday to accommodate an audience of about 40 students, veterans and other Ann Arbor community members for the Women in the Military Panel.
The seven panelists were all female veterans and students at the University of Michigan or Eastern Michigan University, and spoke as part of the University’s Veterans Week, which honors military service leading up to Veteran’s Day Friday.
The panel was facilitated by Melissa Spaulding, a counselor with VetSuccess on campus, a program that helps veterans transition to college life. She asked panelists to share the ways they confronted stereotypes in their experiences both in the military and in life after their service. Many panelists cited instances in which they were asked if they’d served even while attending veterans events. Others described times during their military service in which men believed they couldn’t perform tasks at the same level as men.
LSA sophomore Cassaundra Peterson, a panelist who served in the U.S. Air Force, outlined her experiences performing maintenance tasks, and said men often offered to carry her tool box because they assumed she wasn’t capable.
“There was a brief time where people assumed I didn’t know my job or I couldn’t do my job as well as someone else, despite having the roles that I had taken on or the things I had volunteered for,” she said. “I remember thinking ‘OK, I have two choices: I’m everything they want me to be and say that I am or I put my nose to the ground and I grind it out.’ ”
She said despite these prejudices, she was able to prove that she was competent and change the viewpoints of those around her.
“It was a good lesson for me, and at the time I didn’t know I was learning it,” Peterson said. “But those kind of stereotypes, and that viewpoint, it is what you make of it, you can find positives, spin it, and you can change people’s minds. It’s not something that I feel like you have to give in to.”
Another panelist, LSA senior Riva Szostkowski, who served in the U.S. Air Force, said one supervisor told her to “grow a thicker skin” regarding the discussion of sexual activity in the workplace, and another told her not to wear makeup to avoid the impression that she “was trying to sleep with everybody there.”
“It’s very strange the way military men tend to treat you,” Szostkowski said. “They both want you to be like one of the guys, so they can discuss whatever they want to around you but at the same time reserve the right to hit on you whenever they choose.”
According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, women tend to be underrepresented in the military, with only 14.6 percent filling active duty roles. Because of the relatively low numbers of enrolled women, Spaulding asked panelists what advice they would give to any female students in the audience considering joining the military.
Rackham student Allison Tyler, a panelist who served in the U.S. Navy, said they would have to prove themselves to their superiors and peers.
“Be prepared to prove yourself, more than the men will have to … People will tell you that you can’t, people will tell you that you’re not good enough, people will tell you that you should have done it faster because you should have proven yourself more,” she said. “The fact that you’re doing it is proof enough. Just be prepared for it and don’t quit. Don’t give in to the people who tell you that because you’re a woman, you cannot do it.”
LSA junior Andie Bulbin, said she attended the panel because she was part of an organization interested in post-traumatic stress disorder and wanted to further her understanding of veteran’s experiences.
"We’re actually doing a project with PTSD awareness," she said. "So we just wanted to come hear and stuff. I thought it was really cool."