The speakers agreed: not long ago, an event like this just wouldn’t have happened. Last week, in honor of Women’s History Month, the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association hosted its monthly luncheon with a focus on women in the workplace. And several of the panelists — an all-woman cast — remarked that they had only attended a few events of this kind.
Held at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Virginia, the luncheon focused on changing professional landscapes, and the speakers in turn gave advice to younger women in the audience, including a group of local teenagers.
Several speakers highlighted how concerns in the workplace for women had shifted in recent decades. For example, when Capt. Sandra Jamshidi, Deputy Director, Assured C2 at the U.S. Navy, was starting out, she and her female colleagues felt it was best that people not note their gender at all.
“The last thing we wanted to do was draw attention to the fact that we were women,” Jamshidi said. “We wanted to fit in. It was all about performing professionally, and we avoided things focused on women.”
Lisa Belt, Acting Director for Cyber Development at the Defense Information Systems Agency, agreed. In fact, growing up when she did has affected her understanding of contemporary concerns, she said.
“I have to confess that my closest friends have said to me, ‘Lisa, you might be a little blind to some women’s issues,'” Belt said. “And I thought, ‘That’s not possible,’ but in truth … I came from a path where I thought the important thing was that we were all here.”
These days, with women playing more prominent roles in the government and in the workforce at large, a responsibility to improve the organization has risen, said Col. Nora Marcos, FDC Division Chief, U.S. Army. Men continue to dominate many military workplaces, which makes perspectives from women that much more valuable and unique.
“I’m often the only woman at the table, so I can say a lot more than most would say,” Marcos said. “The peer mentoring is important. Mentoring up is how you square away your boss, should you have a boss that needs squaring away.”
She gave more advice for mentoring subordinates: “It’s always been easy to mentor the good ones, and often they are in our shape and likeness. But if we really want to strengthen the team, we need to look beyond the draft pick and really grow the bench. Who’s going to be the first one to come off the bench?”
Further, Marcos explained how important it was for women to identify their strengths and play to them, rather than harp on weaknesses. Zeroing in on those areas where you excel can have profoundly positive impacts on a workplace. And sometimes, it’s more worthwhile to make use of strengths than build on weaknesses. As Marcos freely admitted, she’s “not the sharpest technical tool in the shed.”
“But if you need a leader, someone who can manage resources and is the most emotionally intelligent person in a room, that’s me,” she said. “You got to know your strengths.”
That’s not to suggest you should rest on your laurels. Danielle Metz, Policy Advisor in the Executive Office of the President, explained that a desire to keep acquiring knowledge is necessary to consistent professional growth.
“Never stop learning, and never be satisfied with where you are,” Metz said. “You have to have this intellectual curiosity, you need to continue to push yourself, you need to keep challenging not only yourself but your peers. That’s the only way that you’re going to move yourself forward.”