November 11, 2020

Making Space for Women Veterans

Amidst a landscape of veterans’ services designed for men, EDC is building programs that put women at the forefront.

As an Army medic, Megan Howell’s job was to heal others. But when she returned home after a yearlong deployment to Iraq, Howell herself needed healing—and support.

Howell’s deployment had been difficult. In addition to the challenges of serving in a conflict zone, she worried daily about becoming the victim of sexual assault, as she was one of the only women on a base filled with thousands of men. When she did report being attacked, it was ignored or pushed aside by her superiors.

Howell carried that trauma with her when her service ended. It impacted her ability to form relationships and hold down a job. She eventually went looking for help, but encountered services that had been built for men, not for women.

“There was no experience on how to deal with female veterans,” Howell says. “A lot of the therapists and doctors had no idea what to do with our experience. They saw it completely separate—and they didn’t even view it as part of the combat experience.”

Women now make up 10 percent of the veteran population in the United States and are the fastest growing population in the military. They also have vastly different health needs and outcomes than male veterans.

Women veterans are twice as likely as their male peers to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rates of military sexual trauma are 10 times higher for all women who serve, whether they are active duty or veteran, than they are for men. And the rate of homelessness is rising faster for female veterans than it is for male veterans.

But when women veterans seek support, they encounter services that were designed generations ago, in a time when the fighting force was mostly male. As a result, many female veterans also feel isolated—and in search of support services that validate their experiences, understand their needs, and respect their military service.

EDC is providing women veterans with critical services and support through two initiatives: Women Vets on Point and Women Vets in STEM. In directly addressing this group’s health, social, educational, and economic needs, EDC is creating more space for women veterans in a service landscape that has historically marginalized them.

Women Vets on Point

Women Vets on Point is a collaboration between EDC and U.S.VETS that aims to connect women who have served with a variety of support services. Since 2017, the program has helped hundreds of women veterans access mental health counseling, job placement services, and safe housing in Los Angeles county.

In fact, it was Women Vets on Point that helped Howell get the mental health care that she needed. Howell found out about the program through an Instagram advertisement. At first, she didn’t believe it was for real.

“I thought it was a joke, honestly, because I’d never seen an advertisement for female vets,” Howell says. “I just thought, nobody cares about us.”

Howell reached out to the program, expecting nothing. The next day, a counselor called her.

“For the first time I could tell somebody, and they knew what experience I had about being a veteran, and a women veteran at that,” she says. “It was an incredibly powerful moment.”

EDC’s Eric Helmuth, who directs EDC’s portion of the work, says that helping women veterans access mental health care is a core priority. But the program also provides a comprehensive set of services that helps veterans overcome a number of barriers they face when re-entering civilian life, not just mental health challenges.

“If you lead with mental health, not all women veterans are ready to engage with services, and you may leave out other primary needs that they have, such as employment and finding safe housing,” Helmuth says.

In offering services that reflect the real, lived experiences of women who serve—including the realities of military sexual trauma, the difficulties of returning to the civilian workforce, and finding childcare—the program is “conquering the invisibility” that women veterans often feel.

“We want women veterans to feel seen—as soldiers, as veterans, as having served their country,” says Helmuth.

Creating a Pathway to STEM

Women Veterans in STEM is addressing another need: that of a career pathway once women veterans return to civilian life. The project seeks to build better systems to engage and train veterans for careers in science, technology, and engineering, where both veterans and women, specifically, are underrepresented.

According to EDC’s Rebecca Lewis, the principal investigator for Women Veterans in STEM, many women leave military service having learned skills and habits that predict success in STEM fields. These include soft skills such as leadership, problem-solving, and discipline, as well as more technical expertise in the fields of engineering, medicine, electronics, and computer science.

However, while many male veterans claim their service as a badge of honor when looking for employment, women veterans are less likely to do so—often because of the trauma they have suffered during their service.

“Female veterans may be leaving military service not feeling very good about their experience, and so may not be eager to jump into another male-dominated situation, which STEM fields can be,” says Lewis.

Lewis says that education, career training, and ongoing support are all needed to help more women veterans see themselves as future STEM workers.

“It’s about identifying the skills that they learned during their service, and then actively mentoring them into STEM education and employment services as they transition into civilian life,” Lewis says.

Women Veterans in STEM is trying to improve outcomes through a combination of research and policy change. The project recently released four white papers addressing issues in veterans’ health, opportunities in the STEM workforce, access to STEM Education, and transitions to the civilian workforce. And in March 2021, it will hold a major convening to discuss and improve the engagement, training, and retention of more women veterans in STEM.

In doing this work, Lewis has met some women who have successfully made the jump from the military to STEM careers. She recalls one Navy veteran who enrolled in college after her service ended, but who didn’t have a clear sense of what she wanted to study. A happenstance meeting with a fellow Navy veteran engineering professor turned her onto STEM. She ended up earning a degree in engineering herself and now works at NASA.

It’s a story that shows what is possible when veterans receive support and guidance. But it also reveals the need for more formal linkages between women veterans and STEM careers.

“She lucked out because she found this mentor,” says Lewis. “So much about what happens right now is about connections, and that’s just not a sustainable or equitable way to get more female veterans into these careers.“

Lewis hopes that her work paves the way for more women veterans to pursue STEM careers, regardless of whether they previously had any interest in the subject. She believes that skills learned in the military do translate into the STEM fields. It’s also lucrative, as women veterans in STEM earn 54% more than women veterans in non-STEM fields.

And she has a message for all women veterans who are thinking about pursuing STEM as a career.

“It’s never too late,” Lewis says.