JUNE 2, 2023 – “Although I have only been to one Women’s Leadership and Education Forum event here at Camp Schwab, I can honestly say that I feel as though I have gained an abundance of support, and genuine empowerment.” said U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Marcileigh Marquez, a transmissions system operator with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division.
WLEF celebrated its 1-year anniversary on May 18, 2023, by bringing together leaders from across various commands within III Marine Expeditionary Force to discuss work-life balance on Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan.
“Each forum speaks to a different aspect of life as a service member, with the purpose of self-development and leadership best practices,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Adrienne Benton, co-director of WLEF. “Some of our female service members work in sections where they are one-of-one or one of a few. The forums provide an opportunity to have community and form friendships.”
In 2021, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division leadership noticed the Camp Schwab facilities were not meeting the basic needs of their female service members.
“It is important to help others understand what appropriate behavior looks like and how to communicate to others when they’re being mistreated.” Sgt. Shasta Spell, an aviation supply specialist with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 36
With direction from U.S. Marine Corps Col. Matthew Tracy, the 2021 4th Marine Regiment commanding officer, 1st Lt. Daisy Alvarado and 1st Lt. Cinja Webster established the first version of WLEF, the Female Leadership Professional Development Program, to create a healthy environment to hold productive discussions and identify cultural improvements, cohesion, and leadership within the unit.
As more critical gender issues were being addressed to leadership, team leaders with direct knowledge of current base-wide issues such as Benton, who also serves as the 4th Marine Regiment chaplain, joined the forum as avid supporters of the safe environment WLEF created.
“Challenges, both internal and external, such as minority stress, stereotype threat, unconscious bias, interpersonal prejudice, discrimination in social environments, and fear of failing or showing vulnerability are greatly reduced in an environment where personnel can feel included and understood by their peers and subordinates,” said Benton.
In 2022, the leadership and main contributors to FLPDP saw room for growth and rebranded the group as WLEF. Today, the forum is open to troops across various commands in Okinawa, providing opportunities for peer-to-peer collaboration and to learn from the life and career experiences of other service members.
“It is a weight off my shoulders knowing that there are [service members] taking action to address these issues,” said U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Shasta Spell, an aviation supply specialist with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 36, Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. “It’s relieving to know that I have a community out there that would support me if I ever needed it.”
As a chaplain, Benton recognizes that WLEF has fostered an environment for dialogue and esprit de corps and continues to make contributions and connections to support women with goals of becoming senior leaders. Members of WLEF are encouraged to take what they learn and experience in the forums and lead by example.
“It is important to help others understand what appropriate behavior looks like and how to communicate to others when they’re being mistreated,” said Spell. “We may not be able to change overnight but doing nothing only enables unwanted behavior.”
WLEF keynote speakers help create an inclusive environment for all genders to attend the forums and participate in discussions.
“Actively listening and actively sharing ideals and ideas on how we can grow as leaders together, males can continue to open the doors for equality and gender integration in the workplace,” said Benton. “They can shut the door on inappropriate comments and behaviors in the workplace.”
Since its establishment, the number of WLEF participants has significantly grown from eight to as many as 70, containing a healthy mixture of both female and male attendees.
“Camp Schwab has a very small female footprint. Last year, when WLEF began, there were 35 assigned to 4th Marine Regiment, currently there are 26,” said Benton. “This population is not only small on Camp Schwab but across the island. WLEF was revived to provide the minority group of women on Camp Schwab the opportunity for consistent networking, education, collaboration, community, and leadership development while improving our ability to develop our U.S. Marines and Sailors at the lowest level and ensure inclusion and the relatability for all.”
Marquez recognizes the ability the group has to influence positive change and bring awareness to U.S. Marine Corps-wide gender issues and wants to be an advocate and resource for new Marines.
“I want to help build a future where there is less ignorance on important topics that could improve the overall mental health and well-being of other female service members,” said Marquez. “I want to be someone that I wish I had when I was a [new Marine].”
WLEF has focused its meetings on a variety of themes, such as effective communication while serving in the military, work-life balance, total fitness, financial empowerment, confidence and self-development, career development, and more.
“This is something I look forward to because I see it as an opportunity to learn something or retrieve some hard-earned wisdom that could potentially help me on my career journey,” said Marquez. “My belief is that the generation in which I am a part of can learn from the women who paved the way to where we are today. Every now and then when things get difficult, mentally or physically, I think about the women in the past who would be so proud of where I stand or what I am able to do because in their day they didn’t have as many opportunities or encouragement.”
“As a female Sailor, I have personally been enriched by the messages and experiences of the Keynote speakers, meeting new individuals, and making new connections. As well as the opportunities to mentor Marines and Sailors who have attended.” said Benton.
Today, female troops work with WLEF alongside their male allies to mentor, educate and network across Camp Schwab and Okinawa. The troops dedicated to cultural awareness will continue to host events on the third Thursday of every month, targeting personal and professional development by discussing controversial topics and aiming to affect change in current programs and policies throughout the U.S. Marine Corps.
For more information on upcoming events and how you may affect cultural change, visit the Women’s Leadership and Education Forum’s Facebook page at; https://www.facebook.com/WLEF.CS/?locale=hi_IN
Cpl. Tyler Andrews
III Marine Expeditionary Force