MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. All month long we've been featuring conversations about women in tech, and we've brought that conversation to Twitter using the hash tag #NPRWIT. Today, we bring you a conversation with a woman who's broken many glass ceilings on her way to becoming the first female superintendent of the United States Air Force Academy. Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson's accomplishments are too numerous to list in this short space.
She was a standout basketball star, the second all-time leading point scorer at the Air Force Academy. She was the first female Rhodes scholar from the Air Force Academy. She served as NATO's deputy chief of staff for Operations and Intelligence in Belgium in 2011. And in case you were wondering, she's also the mother of twins. And somehow, she found time out to sit down with us, and she is with us now. Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you for your service.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL MICHELLE JOHNSON: It's my complete pleasure to be with you. Thank you so much for asking me in.
MARTIN: Would you tell us how you became interested in a career in the military, and specifically the Air Force?
JOHNSON: Right, well, for those of us of a certain vintage, you remember the '70s, President Ford signed legislation in 1975 allowing women to attend the federal service academies. And when I was a teenager, I didn't necessarily follow that closely. I realized the implications. But I did go to a career day at my high school in Spencer, Iowa, and a liaison officer from the academy said this possibility was there. My family really did not have a military background. But it seemed an opportunity to serve but also to get a great education, but also to be able to play basketball, frankly, and to play at the college level, which wasn't so common back in the '70s.
MARTIN: You remember the Air Force's second class to enroll women to train for a career as an officer. Do you mind if we ask you what the environment was like and were there ever moments when you wondered if you'd made the right decision?
JOHNSON: I have to say yes to the latter because it was a time of tremendous change. Time has given me the perspective to understand that people act out sometimes really hostilely and violently regarding change. So when I entered the academy, I faced many people who questioned why people like me were here, and when we said for the same reasons anyone else comes, it was hard to understand. So it was a shock to me to come from being 51 percent of the population in Iowa to being a minority of about 10 percent. And so quite a reverse to what's in normal college demographics.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that because the class entering the Air Force Academy today, the class of 2017, about 24 percent are females so, of course, the rest are male.
MARTIN: Most college campuses, women are at least equal, and in many, they are the majority. And they are the majority of people getting degrees. And I just wanted to ask you why you think it is that at your institution there's still such a distinct gender imbalance.
JOHNSON: One of the things that's very eye-opening for people when they learn more about all the service academies - that includes West Point for the Army, Annapolis for Navy and obviously Colorado Springs for the Air Force Academy - is that our accessions process looks more like the electoral college than one linear order of merit. The way people come into the service academies is through congressional nominations, whether it by the Senate or the members of the House.
We look at diversity based on socioeconomic factors, as well as, you know, race, gender, age, nationality and that sort of thing. And so we have about 30 percent of our cadet wing are people of color, minorities, and about 23 percent are women. And we cannot specifically target particular groups, but we can target underrepresented congressional districts and hopefully allow people, you know, a little bit like me, who maybe hadn't considered the possibilities of getting this great education, serve for five years and get to see the bigger world and see something greater than themselves and then go about their business if they want. Or, if they're like me, they stay in much longer.
MARTIN: What difference does it make, do you think, to have that kind of representation? There are those who argue that it doesn't - as you mentioned, the selection process is very rigorous, it takes into account any number of factors. There are those who even question why we're having this conversation. So I'd like to ask you why you think it matters.
JOHNSON: Well, life is coed isn't it? And so - and it's a big world out there and we're dealing with very complex issues. We need every aspect of our national strength to really deal with these complex issues. I think in terms of leadership and being well-rounded - understanding our own motivations and talents and understanding those of others - that's why we find ourselves really valuing the humanities, the liberal education part of our education program, in addition to science, technology, engineering and math because a lot of their challenges are human challenges, it's about the human condition. And so we don't want to be daunted by the technology, but we need to also understand the people that go along with it.
MARTIN: I do want to talk a little bit more about STEM, if you would, which is science, technology, engineering and math. I don't know if I mentioned that you are a pilot - so clearly, you have to have given some thought about the whole presence of women in STEM. Have you found that there are distinct approaches that are valuable in encouraging that kind of gender balance that you hope for?
JOHNSON: Well, we're trying. I would offer to you - everyone that graduates from a service academy, graduates with a Bachelor of Science degree, even if their major is in English. But what we do here is reach out. And so we have a STEM club at the academy and the cadets themselves go out to the K-12 schools in the local region, especially in southern Colorado here, and try to go out. And it's - it has more impact when they go out because they're cool and young and hip, and the kids can relate to them. I know I just said that about academy cadets, but they really are. In spite of our uniforms, they're just great young American kids and they reach out with a chemistry magic show and bungee Barbie and many, many different approaches to try to make young people, especially girls, understand that it's fun and rewarding to do that line of work.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson. She is the superintendent of the United States Air Force Academy. She happens to be the first woman in that post. I am interested in this whole question of how women and girls integrate into the service. The military has often - has long been held up as the most successfully racially integrated institution in our society, right. With women, somehow, it seems to be different. It's not a secret that you helped lead - you've come to lead the Air Force Academy at a time when the whole question of sexual assault in the military is very much a part of the national consciousness, certainly a part of the political consciousness. I want to drill down a little bit more on this whole question of the sexual assault piece per se, but it does seem to speak to an inability to accept women in these roles. I don't know how you see it.
JOHNSON: Well, it is complicated so thank you for seeing it that way and realize that generationally, things are different now than 37 years ago. The reactions to us were more overt and in-your-face and basically, hey, we don't want you. It's a different thing now because I find that there is mutual respect for accomplishment and for each other's dignity, which we want to emphasize. But what's different in the scenario is now the way people relate to each other - social media, the communication, this sort of interesting approach to privacy or not privacy. At a certain point, in watching television or getting off to one side or someone - maybe alcohol's involved sometimes - a line is crossed and someone is hurt by that. We have different scenarios. We have young people in situations where they would find themselves in residential dorms in other colleges. So we have this age group, 18 to 22, and they're finding their limits. And it's more of a disparity of understanding and exposure to the realities of what can happen if you're not respectful of the boundaries.
MARTIN: There's a story that is very much in the news at the moment where a senior officer was having a long-standing affair with a junior officer on his staff. But just sticking to the whole question of the service academies - according to a report released in December from the Department of Defense, in the last academic year, there were 70 reports of sexual assault among the Military Academy, Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy. And of those, 45 came from the Air Force Academy. I understand that it's a complex issue, but this has to weigh on you. And I'd like to ask if you feel that you are making any headway in addressing this?
JOHNSON: Well, I think we are, but in all humility, it's hard to know what's out there because we've all said this is an underreported crime and it's a crime indeed. The way we measure this probably makes it more difficult as well. Our reports went from 52 a year ago to 45 last year. But they include everything from hostile work environment, inappropriate comments to physical assault. It's a big spectrum. The number of actual physical assaults is really small, but we don't want any.
So we have tremendous numbers of presentations, formal presentations, for the young people and for the active duty as well. And we'll actually have Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, and have days where we stop doing the normal business and just talk about these kinds of matters. We have external speakers come in and just be pretty explicit about the scenarios and what bystanders could do to stop some of these scenarios if they're just tuned into it. So we take it very seriously, and we're trying to be as transparent about it as we can.
MARTIN: Overall, I know that as a leader, as a pilot, as a graduate of the academy, that you set goals for yourself and you have benchmarks for accomplishment. I'd like to know how you will know if you've succeeded in this role? How will you judge yourself?
JOHNSON: One label we've put on this is trying to achieve a culture of commitment and a climate of respect, and I paint it in a broad way so that people can feel committed to something greater than themselves. And as you are probably aware, many, many national issues play out on our service academy front yards because we are a microcosm of our services. We embody the institutional characteristics of our greater services, and people watch us really closely in our language, the way we treat each other, in our diversity - again, not just diversity of our physical appearance, but diversity of thought and backgrounds.
If we can achieve a climate of respect where people, even with their differences, can feel comfortable raising their concerns within our system, then I'll think we'll have arrived at a climate. I don't know if we can ever get to zero, but I hope for really close to zero reports of things that have happened, not because I don't want people to report - we want people to report - but because people would feel confident enough to let us know what's happening and hopefully not much will be happening.
MARTIN: Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson is the superintendent of the United States Air Force Academy. She happens to be the first woman to hold that position. She was kind enough to join us from Colorado Springs, Colorado. General, thank you so much for speaking with us.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.