Wendy Kay is the Director of Security, Special Programs and Information Protection, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Pentagon, Washington, DC. Kay is responsible for AF-wide Personnel, Information and Industrial Security Policy, Special Access Programs (SAP) Policy and Access Management for SAPs. She oversees the planning, programming, budgeting and execution of Air Force personnel security investigations’ $130M p/y budget, which funds background investigations for every accession, suitability and security clearance for over 600,000 military (Active, Reserve and Guard) and civilian employees. She advises Air Forces’ top leadership—the Office of the Administrative Assistant (SAF/AA), VCSAF, USECAF, CSAF, and SECAF—on security matters.
Christopher P. Skroupa: How did being a woman in a male dominated career field impact your position as a senior executive?
Wendy Kay: Often times when I walk into a meeting, I may be the only one of two or three other females in the room and this really has not changed since I joined the Navy and attended Officer Candidate School in the late 80’s. What has changed is there are more females in leadership positions sitting at the head of the table at these meetings. I sincerely believe that being in a male dominated career field has made me stronger as a person and as a leader and senior executive because I have to be prepared. It also toughened me up quite a bit. Leadership can be a bruising endeavor and thick skin, confidence, and competence are essential qualities regardless of gender. However, it does not mean that I am not cognizant of the potential biases that exist about a woman being in a leadership position because I am. I understand, consciously, that I have to be more than well versed on the issue or issues at hand. Frankly, I would expect this level of preparation from any successful leader. I have always told myself that rather than fight against the real or perceived biases between genders that I would prove every day that I am capable of leading and accomplishing the mission. The interesting thing about working for the Air Force is the mission is paramount and it has been a barrier-breaking service since its inception in 1947. Accomplishing it is what matters not my feelings. If I accomplish the mission of my organization – great – but if I cannot then someone else will and rightfully so.
Skroupa: You’re on a team which discusses and concerns itself with multiple levels of restricted access, classified information and special programs. Has being a woman affected your ability to gain the trust of your male peers with this classified information?
Kay: In a word, no. I believe that I bring a different perspective and skill set to any job I am in but ultimately the way I gain the trust of anyone, male or female, is to be supremely competent in my job. I know what I am doing and I know the subject matter of the topic at hand. I have also had the benefit of working with classified information my entire career. I gained that foundational knowledge when I was trained as an intelligence officer with the Navy. I spent hours studying how to protect and handle classified information during my intelligence training. I understand it, I know how to handle it, and why it requires specific protection. I also believe it takes persistence, integrity, and consistency to build trust. When the going gets tough, I show up. I may not have all of the answers but I will not shrink from the responsibility. When faced with difficult choices, I strive to make the right decision not the easy decision. I endeavor to treat everyone the same way and use a structured approach to leadership. I think these are universal qualities of a leader. Exhibiting them every day is how I have gained the trust of my male and female peers.
Skroupa: Can you talk about some of the sacrifices you’ve had to make in your career because of inequality in the workplace? What were the pros and cons, and what have you learned?
Kay: Perhaps I am fortunate that I personally have not been aware of any workplace inequality that may have occurred in my career. I am not saying it did not happen but I found out early on that I have a tremendous ability to be hyper focused and not be distracted because for me it is always about the mission. That is not to say I have not made sacrifices because I have. I made sacrifices because I wanted to be successful and I believed in the mission. That immense drive to succeed has meant I have missed many family events like weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and funerals. I also think being a leader explicitly implies sacrifice. It is part of the job and I accept it. There are pros and cons to any job or work environment because everyone I work with comes with his/her own biases and experiences. The challenge is getting everyone to generally move in the same direction to accomplish a common goal. What I have learned over the years is that respect is not given it is earned. I have seen many peers, male and female, assume that the position conveys respect. It does to a certain degree, but ultimately it is about earning it.
Skroupa: What advice can you offer your female colleagues who may have concerns about gender inequality?
Kay: The first piece of advice I can offer is to continue to push to have a seat at the table, whether that is in a boardroom or the conference room. While gender inequality is certainly problematic and troublesome, I encourage anyone who has ability, competence and solid core values to not be deterred. Eventually, your talents and ability will be recognized and when they are, be ready to take advantage of the opportunity. The opportunity may not occur in the job you are in now but it will happen. Especially, when you take control and remain in control of your career. I have had many mentors tell me the only person who is in charge of my career is me. Once I embraced that concept and accepted it, my career took off. So embrace this foundational truth and you will overcome the inevitable career obstacles.
The second piece of advice I can offer is to believe in yourself. I am in the job I am in because I was working on a project with a colleague who is now my boss. She recognized my talent, saw what I was capable of and that I delivered. A year or so after I left the project, she called me out of the blue and offered me a job. I took it even though I was unsure what the job really entailed. The point is I knew I could do it and I recognized it was a tremendous opportunity. Also, as I just mentioned, I am the only person who can manage my career.
The third piece of advice is gain as much experience in a variety of areas and understand that gaining that experience takes time. The diversity of your experiences begets diversity in your thought processes. It is this combination coupled with talent, drive, and a solid foundational set of values that will shine through at the end of the day.
Kay will be giving a keynote speech at the Gender Equality in the C-Suite & Boardroom conference entitled Competence, Ability, and Core Values on November 15-16 in Chicago, IL.