By William S. FarrowApril 10, 2018
Five female panelists of different ages and backgrounds sat before an audience and spoke in depth about gender-based obstacles and the persistence required to succeed in the workforce during the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville's Equal Employment Opportunity office-sponsored Women's History Month 2018 event March 29.
The theme, "Nevertheless She Persisted," brought attention to each panelists' persistence to succeed professionally and also shed light upon how the Center has changed over the years.
In his opening statement, Boyce Ross, director of the Center's Engineering Directorate, said although women today have achieved equality and parity, he specifically noted how times have changed during his 35-year career at the Center.
"When I got here in 1983, I can't remember a woman in a senior leadership position," he said. "But now when you look at our workforce, we have women as division chiefs, and we have Gina (Elliott) filling in for the deputy commander who is deployed. We have come a long way."
Lydia Tadesse, Chair of Huntsville Center's Federal Women Program serves as the facilitator for the event posing questions to the panel to gain insight regarding the women's perspectives on the evolution of women's equality, obstacles they've faced in their careers and the importance of mentoring to ensure women continue to flourish in the workforce.
Panelist Meagan Brantley, Center Contracting, is a 2012 graduate of the University of Mobile with a bachelor's degree in accounting and a master's degree in business administration. She came into the Corps of Engineers through an Army internship program and has experienced working contracts for multiple Center programs.
Brantley said she comes from a generation that has not been restrained because of her gender. She grew up in a home where her parents had independent careers but shared household responsibilities. She and her sisters were pushed and encouraged that they could "have it all."
Brantley said she never experienced any gender inequality until she stepped into the workforce in 2012. That inequality, however, was minor.
"I've witnessed very little inequality here," Brantley said. "Just minor stuff you wouldn't think about day-to-day unless you really think 'would you ask a man that question?'"
When a new employee comes into her section, Brantley explained that she keeps her questions professional, asking only general questions pertaining to their education or work background.
"I want to get to know them to see where they could best fit in the team, and where I need to train them to get them up to speed," she said.
Yet when Brantley began working as a contract specialist at the Center, she recalled some of the questions she faced were on a more personal level, focusing on her relationship status and children.
"How is that relevant?" she asked the audience rhetorically. "I'm not really offended by it, but it was just something I noticed when I started here," Brantley said.
Panelist Kay Sommerkamp's story differed from Brantley's. Sommercamp, a lawyer working in the Center's Office of Counsel, is a retired Army colonel who was commissioned in 1985 after graduating from the University of Richmond School of Law. She recalled how different attitudes toward women were then, especially for women serving in the military.
She remembered instances in her career where decisions or comments made by male officers didn't seem appropriate or just. But often saw gender bias as a personal challenge to move forward.
"When I joined the Army I wanted to be a prosecutor and there was a position open at Grafenwoehr, a tank training base in Germany. My boss didn't want to send me because there were mostly men there. That same man at one time patted me on my head, which was kind of demeaning," she said.
Although she didn't get the position she wanted, Sommerkamp took another opportunity that moved her into a prosecutor position at U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach that provided her with a greater opportunity to grow her career.
"A lot of times when one door closes another door opens," she said.
Even as Sommerkamp moved up the ranks, she noted certain statements over the years that didn't sit right with her.
"I remember when I was waiting for the colonel promotion board results to come out, and one of the men in the Judge Advocate General force said 'of course you'll get promoted because you are a woman'; well the promotion rate for women was 50 percent and the promotion percentage for men was 50 percent. But you know, you kind of have to shrug your shoulders and say 'whatever' to some of those things."
Sommerkamp said although she's seen her share of gender bias through her career, she recognizes several ways to deal with it.
"Sometimes you may want to confront the person who offended you, and maybe, if you talk to the person, they didn't mean it the way that you thought they meant it. Maybe you can explain to the person (how the comments were offensive)," she said.
Panelists Betina Johnson, Ordnance and Explosives; Lillian Fox, Center Contracting; and Valerie Klinkenbeard, Engineering Directorate, echoed personal stories of gender challenges they have experienced in the workforce and how to best deal with certain situations.
All three women have science, technology, engineering and mathematics-based education degrees. Johnson and Klinkenbeard are engineers who began their careers in male-dominated sections. They said their careers have advanced through the power of attitude and persistence.
Johnson said working multiple jobs while attending college and having a child in her senior year could be seen as obstacles, but being positive has led her to success.
"Attitude is everything," Johnson said. "Be persistent in what you want."
Klinkenbeard said in STEM field it's always important to taking the time to learn from others as well as recognize others to move other women forward in their careers.
"Anybody can mentor anyone. If you see someone who you thinks needs help and you can help them, you can provide unsolicited mentoring. You don't have to wait for someone to ask you to help them," she said. "Mentoring is not difficult, it's just what you know with someone else."
Although Fox' career has been mostly in the contracting career field, she too believes a positive image is necessary to addresses stereotypical attitudes about women in the workplace.
"I took my challenges as learning opportunities to gain trust from leadership, be a positive influence and a role model for others to follow," she said.
Closing the event, Col. John Hurley, Huntsville Center commander, recognized the importance of gathering to celebrate Women's History Month and the contributions the Center's female workforce make to the nation.