2nd Lt. Alexandra Gardner’s decision to join the U.S. Air Force stemmed from her father’s service in the Marine Corps as a Force Reconnaissance sniper and the lifeguard job she held in high school.

“I told him I wanted to do something in the military where I could make an impact on the men like him who were on the ground,” said Gardner, a recent graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. “In conjunction with this, I was a beach lifeguard for a few years in high school. I remember going on rescues and knowing that people would have potentially and probably drowned had I not been there.”

These factors helped Gardner, who is currently awaiting pilot training, realize that she wanted to continue doing work where she could see the difference she was making every day.

However, Gardner said that the underrepresentation of women in the Air Force makes it challenging to encourage diversity of thought and fuels the stereotype that the military is “a man’s world.”

“Every role that a man can do is open to females, including special warfare and combat roles, as long as the female can meet the male standard for these intense jobs,” Gardner said. “The professional and personal growth is limitless but dependent on one’s attitude both in and out of the military.”

Gardner added that speaking to young women about her experiences with and the benefits of military life is invaluable.

Gardner recently visited Munster High School in Munster, Ind., to head a leadership session facilitated by Ohio-based marketing firm DistrictWON. The teamwork-focused program engages students in a new way and allows the Air Force to break through barriers and talk with students about their leadership potential within the military and what it could offer beyond graduation.

“I believe that having partnerships with high schools will show youth that there is no ideal military woman,” she said. “Women in the military are not defined by the military, we are all unique and possess valuable traits that are vital to the armed forces.”

Mike Schultz, athletic director for Munster High School, said Gardner helped break down some of the misconceptions of military service.

“Our student-athletes were nervous at first,” Schultz said. “They really opened up and started asking some great questions that allowed our presenters to tell some great stories and talk about their experiences. A lot of questions were geared towards the day to day of their lives in military service or about being a student at the Air Force Academy.”

Gardner met with roughly 50 female student-athletes from the school’s swimming and diving, track and field, cross country, cheer, dance, softball, volleyball, soccer, wrestling, basketball, tennis, and golf teams.

Schultz added that the messaging Gardner laid out for the students, such as “the grass is greener where you water it” and “even slow progress is still progress,” correlated with the school’s mantra of “getting 1 percent better every day, being a leader, and trusting the process.”

“It is important that our female student-athletes learn about the amazing opportunities that are out there for them,” he said. “Maybe military service is not for them, but it is important to hear about the possibilities in the STEM field for them.”

According to the 2022 Demographics Profile of the Military Community released by the U.S. Department of Defense, the number of service members in all military branches dropped by 2.7 percent over the previous year. However, the percentage of women increased, with those actively serving in the military rising to 17.5 percent from 17.3 percent the year prior and those in the selected reserve rising from 21.4 percent to 21.6 percent over the same period. Since 2005, the percentage of active-duty military women has increased 2.9 percent while the women in the selected reserve has risen by 4.4 percent.

“Integration and diversity result in innovative ways of thought, from challenging conventional thinking to improving unit, group, and wing structure, to mission planning and execution,” Gardner said. “Furthermore, it shows that multiple cultures can unite and work together to achieve a common goal despite having differing belief systems. Lastly, integration and diversity make the individual feel safer to express their opinions which I believe leads to a more efficient Air Force.”