A Selfless Glass Breaking Pioneering Professional by Senior Lieutenant Desiree Corneille
“I always felt an obligation to maintain a level of professionalism and standard of conduct that would lend to the reassurance that recruiting females into the RBDF was a prudent and timely one. I believed that I would have led by good example and I have been a good follower.” – Gaye Major-Bykowski, Lieutenant Commander (Retired), RBDF
Breaking glass ceilings. She and the 15 women of Woman Entry One were aware of the unrelenting responsibility their enlistment would entail from the onset. They submitted to the rigorous evaluation imposed by the competent authorities, which would determine whether women had any business seeking employment in the military of the small, newly independent Caribbean nation.
It was no secret that the decision to allow subsequent enlistment of women into the Force would be based on the level of service these pioneering women would initially impart. Could members of the more genteel sex survive life and find career fulfillment in a male dominated environment? Today’s celebrated pioneer answers this question.
Being one of the first female Officers to undergo professional Naval Officer Training at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Gaye Major met each of the challenges she faced with excellent work ethics, a confident yet graceful tenacity and a staunch commitment to allow her innate adventurous spirit to thrive.
A Long Island woman of lean, but certainly not frail stature, thanks to her favourite meal of Peas soup n’ dumplings, she recalls that her purpose was ignited when she first saw the clarion call for females to apply to join the Defence Force. She knew instantly she wanted to serve. She wanted to enhance her leadership skills. She needed to play a significant role in the creation of a reckonable agency. And as such, the 22 year old Bethune-Cookman College Graduate enlisted in the Force on Monday 28th October, 1985. Incidentally, just a month prior to our interview, she visited the College she attended so many moons ago to pay homage.
She smiled as she recounted, “My family was surprised that I had even considered taking this path as I had studied Business and Accounts and was pursuing a career in banking. But they were supportive as always, and wished me the best.”
Nothing standing in her way, she enlisted, bonded with members of Cabin 5, where she was assigned and credits the intensity of the initial training and Instructors like Ralph Mckinney for pushing her beyond her comfort zone, an ordeal which would bode well for her during her tenure as she proved her worth, and expended efforts in earning her keep.
She was, very soon afterwards, selected to undergo training to become an Officer (Manager), along with now Commander Cheryl Bethel, who is currently the most Force’s most senior female. Maj, (pronounced Maige) as she was affectionately called, served selflessly in Headquarters under both the Accounts and Personnel Department, in Supply and also served as Commanding Officer Administration or COACH for a stint.
She references her time as the Personnel Officer quite fondly. She surmises that it was primarily because of the satisfaction she gained from helping others realize their dreams, worth and potential. She relished spearheading thinktank-like operations within the strategic sphere of the organization and took the opportunity to initiate improvements to HR processes and to implement Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for several critical areas.
She remains grateful that successive Commanders Defence Force were confident in her ability and military competence to achieve a number of firsts that started to disintegrate gender barriers. She shares, “Some of these firsts for me included, leading the first female Independence Day Tattoo female Platoon; being the first Defence Force Officer to head Accounts, becoming the very first female Head of Department (Supply), earning the honour to be the first Defence Force female to attend Naval Staff College as well as the second overall female to attend the College and the selection as the first female to command a Commander Defence Force (CDF) Divisions.”
A consummate professional who remained cognizant of her initial goal of helping to forge a worthwhile force, she recounts, “Wherever I served, I endeavored to implement changes that were aimed at improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the area and the work of those serving there.”
There is much to glean from her words which wax with wisdom. Gaye Major explained how she was able to survive a full 25 years before her retirement in 2010, and then return in 2012 upon request to serve a further three years. She rested her sword down and handed in her service issued items for what she knew would be her last time in 2015. She remembered, “Once I determined I would be a RBDF Officer, practically everything that I did evolved around this commitment. I believe that this focus enabled me to avoid becoming discouraged when faced with challenges, adversity and disappointments within the service and in my personal life.”
Many persons, the younger version of the author included, have assumed that this uncomplaining, positive and approachable individual could not have had many job-related trials. It is now understood implicitly that the pedestal many females and males alike placed her upon was both an inspiration and a burden. Of course, nowadays, the thought of any one person being held to question for the actions of all members in any grouping they belong to is a blatant contradiction to diversity. But back then, the retired Lieutenant Commander explained, things were very different.
“The growth of self-discipline and the practice of putting the needs of the organization and others before my own has been indelibly engrained in my value system. It is who I have become,” she shared. “Serving was not always easy,” she continued, “But ‘ease’ has never been what service is about.” An active participant in the RBDF Annual Triathlon and Bench Press Competitions, she knows what it takes to endure and overcome loss.
A testament to her spirit of gratitude is demonstrated as she states, “My tenure here has forced me to endure the pains of growth and maturation, for which I am grateful.” She has qualified for and received the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal for 18 years of service and has qualified additionally for the parallel Medal for 25 years of long service.
Gaye Major-Bykowski currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and is a Pre-Covid gym rat, who loves hiking, travelling and crafting. She has been excelling with her skills in millinery since her retirement, creating the loveliest of hats every Zion Baptist and Protestant woman loves.
She credits the confidence and experience she had with the seagoing force for her decision to pursue her current career as a Flight Attendant. She is excited by the possibilities the 180 degree change has been revealing.
She was not shy to offer advice to current and future Officers, Warrant Officers and Marines, Reservists and Rangers. She cautions, “Watch out for each other, celebrate your victories and don’t let your failures destroy you.”
She continued, “Be a problem solver and not a part of the problem or the problem itself.” “Finally,” she says, “Respectfully offer well thought out and researched ideas or solutions to problems or challenges that you identify so we can continue to witness this 40 year old Force grow by leaps and bounds.”
In closing, she acknowledges that she carries a soft spot for females in the organization and admits that she has helped to at least crack the ceiling for gender roles in the Force. “There are others amongst you now,” she asserts matter-of-factly, “who will shatter it to say the very least. I’ll be watching and cheering them on as long as I am able.”
Indeed, when she joined, the female count numbered 15. Today the strength of females in the organization has grown steadily, occupying just under 20% of the entire Force. To date, there have been 24 more intakes of females, with another group slated to Pass Out within a month. She views that as a success that women can indeed thrive within a male dominated environment.
She should be credited with helping to prove to the ‘Powers That Be’ that women belong where their heart’s purpose is perched; whether it be on the high seas, or in the well fields or in her home’s warm kitchen. She knows that women have made and can continue to make an indelible impact to the forward and upward mobility of the Force. She advocates that there be adequate representation of females in every sphere of the Force and that policies are intentionally put in place to ensure the dignity of women is guarded and that females can be protected, empowered and uplifted in an age-old field that was designed for men to thrive.
A God-fearing Lady, Lieutenant Commander (Retired) Gaye Major-Bykowski insisted that I convey to the entire body of RBDF Officers, Marines, Veterans, Rangers and Reserves the following words: May God bless you all as you continue to support your leaders while serving The Royal Bahamas Defence Force, and The Commonwealth of the Bahamas.
And to her we return the well wishes. We assert a heartfelt Thank you for providing strong shoulders for so many people and sections to stand upon. We are grateful for you and indebted to you for a service that has been marked with grace, gratitude and good, clean service.