Can alpha males 'lean in'?

Sheryl Sandberg pushes to end military bias
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Sheryl Sandberg pushes to end military bias 05:17

Story highlights

  • Carol Costello: Half of our best and brightest are not exactly eager to serve
  • Women still face a man's world in the U.S. military, she says

Carol Costello anchors the 9 to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Can an alpha male "lean in"? Can a man who serves our country, in perhaps the most muscular of professions, accept -- without bias -- the woman fighting beside him?

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is counting on it, but after what I have witnessed, I have my doubts.
"People are the strength of our military," Carter said recently at the Pentagon. "And frankly, for the all-volunteer force to stay the strongest, for us to attract and retain the best people in the years ahead, we need to draw the top talent from the largest and most complete pool of Americans that we can. And the simple fact is that women make up half of the American population."
Carol Costello
Problem is, half of our best and brightest are not exactly eager to serve. Women make up just 15% of our military. For good reason, because it takes courage -- not just the kind displayed on the battlefield -- but the sort needed to be a pioneer in a man's world.
Yeah, I can't believe I'm writing that in 2015, either. But I saw for myself last week just how much courage it takes for women to serve when I visited the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
To its enormous credit, and because it values women, the Air Force organized the largest combined forum on gender issues in the academy's history. Almost 3,000 cadets attended -- mostly young men -- to hear the featured speaker, Facebook COO and feminist author of "Lean In" Sheryl Sandberg.
As she took the stage, the nation's finest young leaders seemed ready to "lean in."
"I'm inspired by your courage, strength and dedication," Sandberg told them. "(And I have) special admiration for the women in this audience, because you not only strengthen the Air Force by joining the Air Force, but you fight for equality with every single step you take."
May I say that was a ballsy thing to say in a sea of mostly men. Don't get me wrong, there were cheers of approval from the audience, but there was something else too -- a negative energy. And it was palpable.
"Women and minorities face barriers that white men don't face," Sandberg went on. "And the veil of silence, pretending that this doesn't exist, does not make the playing field even. For women in the military, there's a special challenge because you have to be tough enough to fit in."
By the time she got to "I have never met a man who was asked, 'Should you be working?' " some in the crowd seemed downright hostile.
It became so uncomfortable that when Sandberg left the stage, a cadet leader took her place to scold his classmates' behavior. "I'm pissed," he said sternly. "We can hold each other accountable and love one another ... and treat the people who take their time to come (here), to care about us, or we can try to get our friends to laugh at us for 10 minutes. The choice is ours. You're dismissed."
I sat down with Sandberg after the speech and asked her how it felt to be in the lion's den. "I think what happened in this audience (is that) you had some people who really believed that inequality is a problem and we need change. And then (you) had a group of people that believe the status quo is perfectly fine, and they were loudly in support of that. They don't believe there is bias against women."
Nicely said, but it had to be tough, even for the COO of one of the world's largest companies. After all, Sandberg often basks in admiration. "Look," she told me. "I could have gone to a million places where they would have loved me. But, I didn't." Later she added, "Societal change and cultural change is not always comfortable."
That is an understatement. A U.S. congressman -- and former Army Ranger -- is now questioning the ability of women who did find the courage to compete. U.S. Rep. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma, is demanding proof that three women pioneers who graduated from the elite Army Ranger School didn't get special treatment. In a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh, Russell wrote: "...The training of our combat warriors is paramount to our national defense. ... In order to ensure that the Army retains its ability to defend the nation, we must ensure that our readiness is not sacrificed."
Whatever happened to congratulations?
What's damaging about Russell's action is that it discourages young women from training for traditionally male jobs. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James is chagrined that more women don't strive to be fighter pilots. "They don't see enough role models, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," she told me.
Happily, the Department of Defense -- and the Air Force -- don't share Russell's concerns. Its mission is not only to convince women that the sky is the limit, but to open a dialogue about unconscious bias -- and give men a way to "lean in" and support their female colleagues.
That's why Sandberg is not only delivering speeches, but has partnered with the armed services to create "lean-in circles," or peer-to-peer groups, that meet regularly at places like the Air Force Academy.
Air Force Academy Cadet 1st Class Danielle Kaufman is all in. "It's not just a military problem. A lot of it is societal. We're put in these tough situations as females every day. (The circle is) a safe environment where people feel their voices are heard," she said.
But will peer-to-peer circles convince an alpha male to lean in? As Sandberg wrapped up her speech, a young female cadet asked her: "How do you stand up and counteract that ... unwillingness to open their minds?"
Sandberg didn't blink. "There's only two options: One is that men are far, far, far more talented than women and deserve 95% of the top jobs, or the second is that there's systematic bias. Those are the options. Pick one. Because those are your only two choices."
I know which I choose. Can you hear us roar, alpha males?