CRYSTAL CITY, Va. -- Forty Army female service members attended the 29th Joint Women's Leadership Symposium (JWLS), the largest women's leadership symposium, June 14 to 15, 2016. This number by itself is unassuming; however, when the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, an organization consisting of less than 10% of the Army's population accounted for greater than 25% of the Army participation, why are more female soldiers not taking advantage of tools to help the service grow?

JWLS is a leadership and professional development opportunity for active duty, reservist, guardsmen and civilians that addresses strategies for mentoring, training, leadership and growth opportunities to achieve the highest potential and work/life balance.

This is an opportunity to meet new mentors, new friends and renew a sense of purpose in your service. The symposium is put on by the Sea Leaders, a non-profit organization.

It is the largest gathering of female service members with representation from the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard. More than 70 senior officials from all branches of service came together to put on this event to include: Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James, Under Secretary of the Army and Chief Management Officer Patrick Murphy, the Deputy Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, Master Chief Leilani Cale-Jones, Marine Forces Reserve Brigadier General Helen Pratt, and 17th Fleet Master Chief for the U.S. Pacific Fleet (Navy), Fleet Master Chief Susan Whitman. The event focuses on being able to network with other females to discuss some of the challenges women face and ways they are able to become stronger leaders.

Several senior panels discussed their journeys and how they were able to be successful and get everything they want out of their life. A recurring theme was, what do you consider "having it all"? Each person has a different definition. Some want a successful career while others want to be a mom as well as having a career. Each individual has to figure out what is important to them and how to balance their personal and professional life. During one panel a motivated SGT asked the panel what they do when no one above them looks like they do.

Retired CSM Michelle Jones said it best:

"You don't like it when someone else disqualifies you for being a female, so don't do that to anyone else. Look at what you want to do, go talk to the person holding that job, and figure out what you need to do to get there. Your mentors do not have to look like you, they should be someone who has accomplished what you want to accomplish."

Retired Gen. Ann Dunwoody discussed some of the challenges she went through as the first female four-star general in the Army. In Dunwoody's address, she discussed the milestones in her career. When she first arrived to the 82nd Airborne Division, she was the first female officer and no one knew what to do with her. Eventually they gave her a job no one else wanted and she excelled at it. Her advice was whatever task you are given, give it 100%. When you excel there will be no choice but to give you the jobs more sought after.

Murphy focused on the importance of not eliminating half of the potential work force by segregating women. He brought up the fact that women have been fighting on the front lines of the wars for years. He specifically mentioned six women who enlisted as "males" in order to serve the country prior to it being considered acceptable for women to serve.

Female soldiers from other countries attended as well. Col. Hilde Solheim of the Norwegian Army, gave a presentation on the integration in Norway. There is no segregation, everyone is required to serve at least two years. The sleeping and bathing quarters are comingled. Gender is not a factor and all jobs are open to the most qualified individual.

"Having the most qualified individual do the job is more important than the extra 20 pounds of weight formerly required in a standard pack, she said.

. It is my hope that more females will search out opportunities such as this to help themselves and their services grow. The 30th Annual JWLS is in June 2017. Each unit has their own conference approval process and the unit is responsible for funding their employees' attendance. For units interested in sending their soldiers/civilians to a worthwhile symposium, go to sealeaders.org for more information.