By Senior Airman Sam Salopek, 349th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
The year was 1985. The job post stated “women applicants only” and “no experience needed.” She knew this was her opportunity for change. The allure of the $3-an-hour increase to her typist wage propelled her to apply. The interviewer asked applicants to lift the tool box and correctly recognize all of its contents. Even with her petite physique, she accomplished both tasks. At the age of 22, she was hired into the Travis Air Force Base heating, ventilation and air conditioning shop.
For Michele Cardenas, the 60th Civil Engineer Squadron operations flight deputy, the chance, presented by an initiative to hire women into a tradesmen position, altered the trajectory of her life.
She recalled being asked if she knew she was not allowed to wear a dress to work.
“I think back then it wasn’t common to have a woman in the workplace,” Cardenas said. “With some people’s backgrounds, they weren’t necessarily thrilled or comfortable that I was there.”
When Cardenas graduated high school, she planned to get married and work in an administrative position.
“I don’t know that women necessarily think of themselves as craftsmen,” Cardenas said. “In my generation women grew up thinking they were going to be working in an office somewhere. Whereas men, I think, grew up more hands on.”
The perception of what women were capable of made this career field more challenging, Cardenas said.
She fought against the social stigmas of the time to earn the respect of the men in her shop.
“I don’t think that being a woman helped me to get further; it was my determination to make sure that they couldn’t say I wasn’t their equal,” Cardenas said. “It makes you work harder, when you’re the woman and there is a group of men. You feel like you always have to prove to yourself that you’re worth it.”
Her personal willpower left an impact on the leadership she has worked with throughout her career.
“She has broken through whatever glass ceilings there may be internally in civil engineer ops,” said Maj. Nicholas Van Elsacker, the 60th CES operations flight commander and Cardenas’ supervisor.
It speaks to her credit that she entered her career at Travis Air Force Base as one of the most junior ranking civilians and is now the highest ranking within her pay scale, Van Elsacker said.
Starting out as a typist for the Navy, Cardenas is now responsible for the operation, repair and maintenance of 915 facilities at Travis AFB.
“She is the most competent civilian I have ever worked with,” Van Elsacker said. “She is interchangeable with me in almost every aspect.”
Perhaps it would have been easier for Cardenas to have turned away from this opportunity, if she simply stuck to the status quo. However, changes aren’t made by people who are willingly silenced. Changes come from those who have the strength to step out from the crowd.
“Being the first person in anything, and doing anything as a woman, you have to be very brave, courageous and have a thick skin,” Cardenas said.
In any time of change there are going to be obstacles, and the women of the past overcame a lot of obstacles to make today’s world for the modern woman, Cardenas said.
She is proud of the strides society has made towards a more diverse workplace.
“I think the doors are open, more so now than ever,” Cardenas said.
Despite having professional hurdles to overcome, Cardenas credits a great deal of her success to the program that allowed her to work in the HVAC shop with little experience.
“I’m thankful for the opportunities the Air Force has given me, and I’m thankful for the people that helped me along the way,” Cardenas said.