AUSTIN, Texas (March 30, 2021) – Since 1981, Congress has called for presidential proclamations to honor the significant achievements of women in American history during the month of March. Initially, a weeklong celebration, it became Women’s History Month in 1987.
“Today, women have reached heights their mothers and granddaughters might have only imagined,” said Gen. John M. Murray, U.S. Army Futures Command’s commanding general. “They conquer the sky as astronauts and pilots, and expand our economy as entrepreneurs and business leaders, serve our country at the highest level of government, and comprise 18 percent of our Total Force.”
To help pay tribute to past leaders and to learn from ordinary women doing extraordinary things today, AFC hosted a virtual panel discussion, “Female Trailblazers & our Future.” Those who participated are women who continue to rise toward the top of their fields.
The virtual panel included: Christy Abizaid, vice president of supply chain assurance for Dell Technologies and the Austin leader for the Department of Defense’s technology scouting effort through the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental; Stacey Dixon, Ph.D., deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; Lt. Col. Lisa Jaster, commander of the U.S. Army Reserve 980th Engineer Battalion; and Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, an Army aviator and the commanding general of U.S. Army North.
The cross-organizational conversation was moderated by Jamila Howard, an Army intelligence officer, and a branch chief with the Defense Intelligence Agency. The group discussed a wide range of topics.
The discussion kicked off with an exchange about women working in national security-related fields.
“I joined at a time when there were a lot of women in leadership positions,” Dixon said of her experience joining the intelligence community. “There was never a time when I didn’t see that women could…have a seat at the table and really be able to contribute to the intelligence mission.”
One of the challenges Dixon said she had to overcome was a misperception about her demeanor, that perhaps she was too nice.
“People sort of misunderstand that just because you’re nice does not mean that you’re not effective,” said Dixon, who also serves as a presidentially-nominated member of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Board of Visitors. “I think it’s a strength, frankly, to be able to get it done while not burning bridges, figuring out very collaborative solutions.”
Abizaid spoke of a different experience working in foreign policy and national security. She spoke of working with male supervisors for more than a decade, and how she navigated years of government service, including time at the White House and Pentagon.
“I had sponsorship in the early part of my career that, I felt, looked past my gender,” said Abizaid. “That’s not to say that I never had interesting run ins with male colleagues, with female colleagues.”
Abizaid said leaders are responsible for effective talent management.
“The role that leaders have to play is to find talent and make sure they nurture that talent and give them the opportunity to excel,” Abizaid said. “What I found was that I had a lot of very strong leaders that recognized where I could be successful and found ways to drop me into opportunities where I could prove that.”
A common experience expressed is how women are not always confident with seeking greater opportunities.
“If someone that you trust recommends that you throw your hat into the ring for a position or an opportunity, do it,” said Richardson said, who has been nominated by President Joe Biden to become commanding general of the U.S. Southern Command.
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she will be promoted to the rank of general, rising from three to four stars, and will become the first female geographical combatant commander in the history of the U.S. Department of Defense.
“You have to know yourself and know whether it aligns with your goals and your morals, and everything else, but if it is a position that it’s just that you don’t think you’re ready yet and someone else does and can articulate why you’re ready, go ahead and put your name in,” Richardson said. “I have had people in my career who have helped encourage me to apply for jobs before I thought I was ready to apply for them. But they, as well as the hiring panel all thought I was ready.”
Abizaid also discussed seeing women she leads look past opportunities due to thinking they not are qualified, a trait she said she does not usually see in male colleagues.
“I think that women, in particular, have this tendency to kind of burrow into a [subject matter expert] comfort zone, they only do what they’re really expert in,” Abizaid said. “Leadership does not mean you have to have expertise; it means you have to be a leader.”
“I think women just need to recognize that there’s a broader set of opportunities available to them and that they should go for it,” Abizaid said.
It is not only about ambition but seeking talent and opportunity for others.
“Humility is great, but don’t think you have to be perfect for the role,” Richardson said. “But also encourage others.”
A challenge the panelists discussed was the perception of gender factors in front-line management.
“I would walk on sites and be referred to as maybe an intern or people thought I was an observer,” said Jaster, a Reservist who has served in leadership roles within the energy sector. “Part of that is, being a female, you bring your femininity with you, you do your hair and make-up—I’m 43, but my 43-year-old male peers have naturally gray hair and don’t cover-up their wrinkles with a little bit of blush and foundation, so, we traditionally look a little younger.”
She also spoke of a female supervisor who was prepared to make an assignment based on the misunderstanding that Jaster was unable to travel due to child-care challenges compared to those of a male colleague.
“Even those presumptions and assumptions were completely in the negative, were inversed of actually what was required,” Jaster said, who is also a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and one of three females who graduated from the first integrated U.S. Army Ranger School course.
The panel touched on the role of combating real or perceived microaggressions in the workplace.
“It continues to amaze me that there are individuals in many workforces that do not understand what is appropriate discussion and interaction with their colleagues and what is not, whether female or not female,” Dixon said. “It really is everyone’s role to hold everyone accountable.”
Sometimes it requires taking time for difficult conversations. Jaster also came to this conclusion following service alongside her husband, a fellow reserve officer, during the response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
“We were on day six, in waist-deep water,” Jaster said. “Somebody rolled up, who was in a position of power, and told my husband to watch out for something. We had literally been in the water for six days. This person was rolling up with no experience, and my husband looked over at me and said, ‘Did that dude just mansplain me?’ He was shocked and deeply, deeply offended, and it was a great segue into a conversation.”
Jaster said the lesson has carried over to her civilian and military roles.
“It made me realize that I needed to create a space to have the same conversation that my husband and I had that day in waist-deep water with the people I work with in regard to these off comments that can be considered extremely rude and condescending,” Jaster said.
She created forums, non-typical safe places with her teams to take time for critical conversations to develop understanding.
“Sometimes, we need to create an environment where we can be completely open, so that in times when we can’t have those discussions, we can’t let the emotions get involved, we just need to get work done, those questions have already been asked,” Jaster said.
The panel also discussed how the technology field has become a leveler for professional women.
“At the end of the day, do you have the right answer, are you able to deliver the capability, is the most important thing,” Dixon said. “Being able to be very collaborative, while also being very capable, and knowing your stuff, so that in any opportunity you get, you are able to do that elevator pitch, explain what you’re trying to do and win over others who may be looking for a good solution who may not expect it to be coming with the packaging you come with.”
Those who are entering technology fields are benefiting from a time when personal initiative and global democratization are creating new opportunities.
“I’m really optimistic about where we are, in terms of the footing that technological revolution will give to people of all talents, all stripes,” Abizaid said. “I think the only thing that stands in the way is your own initiative. It’s a really inspiring thing to see, the innovation that’s coming from all different parts of the world, and all coming together, to really tackle some of the hardest problems we have.”
All of those on the panel have achieved personal and professional success and encouraged those who follow to continue to encourage and help those coming up through the ranks.
“This idea of not just mentoring people, but also sponsoring people and finding value in all people of various backgrounds and understanding, your team is better the more diverse it is.”
“I think it’s everybody’s job to look for talent in their female population, in their diverse population, in their male population, and find ways to celebrate and challenge that talent, especially early on in their career,” Abizaid said. “I benefited from that.”
Jaster also spoke of being competitive, but not being afraid to reach out a hand to help others.
“Life is not a zero-sum game,” said Jaster. “For me to win, you don’t have to lose. We can actually both win together. A lot of times, if we win together, we win more, because not only do we get the success, but we get the happiness as elevate our peers.”
“Raise your friends and family and peers with you,” Jaster said.