It is still a time of “firsts” for women breaking through glass ceilings.
During a recent Port of Long Beach Women’s Leadership Circle, two female Army engineer commanders discussed how they were able to achieve those goals, while also balancing their military careers and family life.
Col. Antoinette Gant, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Pacific Division, and Col. Julie Balten, commander of the Corps’ Los Angeles District, were the keynote speakers at the virtual event.
The mission of the POLB Women’s Leadership Circle is to empower leaders by promoting camaraderie and leadership. This year’s theme was “Leadership: Renew and Replenish.”
During introductions, Michal Loving, president of the POLB Women’s Leadership Circle, listed Gant’s and Balten’s many academic and military accomplishments, from high school to present, and their current responsibilities managing projects throughout vast regions of the nation’s west.
The topic of discussion was: “How do you practice self-care and still strive to achieve life milestones, despite already reaching significant professional and personal goals during such an unprecedented last 18 months?”
Both leaders were then asked to share their experiences as high-ranking Army officers serving in an engineering command. Gant and Balten spoke about their lives and answered the panel’s questions by interviewing each other.
It was an earnest discussion about the challenges they faced as women and career Army officers. Both said they had to find a balance to become the best engineer-Soldiers they could be in a male-dominated culture and still have a family life.
In the process, they trailblazed a path for future women leaders to follow. Gant is the first woman of color to lead the Corps’ South Pacific Division.
“We really want to share with you some of our experiences,” Gant said.
“Hopefully hearing some things that have happened throughout our careers; things that we’ve done that will help you maneuver through the space, whether you are a new employee just starting out as a junior employee, a mid-level or someone who is senior.”
“It’s a great thing you are doing, having a women’s forum, where it’s not just about women; it’s also about males, who are part of your organization, to be able to be a part of it,” Balten added. “That is important because this is not just a women’s issue. This is something we want to make sure, all around, that everyone understands some of the challenges, especially with being a woman in some of the environments we’re in, and some of the challenges we face, so that we all can be able to help each other.”
OVERCOMING OBSTACLES, GROWING AS LEADERS
As female Soldiers, both women said they carefully considered decisions, such as whether to marry and have children, and how that would impact their careers (both are married to nonmilitary spouses). They described the similarities of their private lives and careers as they rose higher in leadership positions, while also raising their children.
Early on in her career, Balten said she was warned to avoid female leaders because “women are mean to each other.” After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, and earning her commission as a young lieutenant in 1997, Balten, who is now the 63rd commander of the LA District, found the truth to be the “exact opposite” after she served under two women leaders, one of them becoming her mentor.
“I firmly believe that we all have something to offer,” she said. “We should all hear our stories because we all can empower each other and can be there for each other. I just think this is a fantastic forum for that – to really believe in each other, share and build each other up and really learn from each other.”
Balten said it was her passion to serve her country and so she strove to excel as an Army officer and engineer.
“The experience outweighed the opportunities,” Balten said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat, even though there were some challenging days.”
Gant, too, had other opportunities, but as with Balten, the call to duty as an engineer officer was stronger. She strategized how an Army career would shape every aspect of her life after she decided to continue her military career, instead of leaving after four years.
“The plan was always to do four years and get out,” she said, knowing she had a civil engineer degree and could go anywhere. “It’s probably the same way between many of you all – you start moving up, and there’s another challenge,” Gant said. “It’s like, ‘I’ve done this already as a lieutenant; what’s going to happen when I become a captain?’ ‘They’re moving me here.’ ‘What’s going to be the next challenge I have to actually face? Am I ready for that?’”
Army life is difficult for family members, she said. Her family became accustomed to moving every two to three years. After her first child, Gant said she wondered if she should stay in the Army with its fast-paced, demanding grind. Gant said her husband supported her choice to remain in the Army and had her back. He assured her she had a helpmate and he would support her Army career together with her as a team. He made sacrifices that affected his career as a math teacher, Gant said, in support of her military career.
It was the challenge of “being all she could be” that kept her in the Army for 27 years, she said.
“There’s always been something different,” Gant said. “Every job has always been different. It’s allowed me to see places I never would’ve seen.”
During the event, Gant also shared one of her favorite quotes – one of many she tells herself daily to keep her motivated: “You may succeed if no one else believes in you, but you will never succeed if you don’t believe in yourself.”
ABOUT THE POLB WOMEN’S LEADERSHIP CIRCLE
The POLB WLC, established in 2013 by and for women at the port (men also participate), was created for all divisions of the Port of Long Beach community to empower leaders by promoting camaraderie and leadership.
The Port of Long Beach WLC seeks powerful role models when considering keynote speakers, including sharing the experience(s) of women entering fields commonly male-dominated, to empower Port of Long Beach leaders by promoting camaraderie and leadership through networking and mentorship; education and training; self-awareness; social awareness; self-management; and relationship management.
“Teammates of every gender and profession are essential, for we can’t advance the cause of women in the workplace without all hands-on deck,” said Loving in a mission statement. “The mission of WLC is to create a community of empowered leaders, and we need diversity of thought and experience. Together, we are greater than the sum of our parts.”