FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (March 22, 2012) -- When Col. Alicia Smith was in high school, she accepted the fact that because she wanted to get good grades and become a scientist, she wouldn't have many dates.

"I said, 'Well, I'll wait until college and I'll find a man who can be strong enough to deal with that,'" she said. "And I did, and he's been a wonderful husband for 24 years."

Smith, an Army officer for 23 years and the first female nuclear operations and counter-proliferation officer, is now on the faculty at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. Smith spoke at the Women's History Month luncheon hosted by Combined Arms Center-Leader Development and Education March 16 at the Frontier Conference Center.

Smith has a bachelor's in zoology and pre-veterinary medicine from North Carolina State University, a master's of science in biology from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and a master's in national resource strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

Smith said that as a woman serving in the military in recent years, she's been insulated from some of the gender gaps that exist in the civilian world.

"My paycheck is the same as (a male service member's) paycheck and has been throughout my career," she said. "I've had mentors from the time I was a lieutenant -- my captain mentored me, my XO, my company commander, and so on all the way through my career. Industry has not had that."

Smith said that she also had to thank many of her female mentors, some of whom did suffer from gender stereotyping during integration of women into the regular Army. One of her battalion commanders who began service in the Women's Army Corps told her as a woman in the military, it was difficult to have a family.

"She accepted that she would not have a husband or children because she wanted to devote herself to the United States Army," Smith said. "And she did."

Today, women like Smith are more accepted as military leaders who are also wives and mothers. Smith and her husband have four children.

However, Smith said the country still has gaps to fill where acceptance of women is concerned. During her first summer training at ICAF, the nearly 100-member faculty was going through its constructive criticism from students to determine what were valid concerns.

"In the midst of that discussion, a retired Navy captain stood up and said, 'Gentlemen, you get criticized for not moving around the room enough and I get criticized for my shoes,' and that shocked me," Smith said of the fellow female colleague.

She said that although nearly 60 percent of the college graduates in the nation are women, only 20 percent of the college students obtaining degrees in science, technology, engineering and math are women. Only 14 percent of the Fortune 500 companies are led by women, Smith said, and only 14 percent of women are in the military.

Smith said in the future, embracing women as equals should be done in a manner that is not divisive. She viewed the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s as such because it taught women that they could achieve success without men, and that traditional roles of being a wife and mother were negative things.

"So rather than showing men were partners, they created divisiveness and women's groups -- professional women's groups -- were looked at as a threat," Smith said.

Citing women like Margaret Corbin, a woman who fought alongside men in the American Revolutionary War, and her own family members who began education programs for women in Appalachia, Smith said men and women can be equal partners in the future United States.

"America drew to itself a very special kind of woman," she said. "Women who were willing to endure grueling conditions to get here, and once they got here, to work side-by-side building, growing, raising children, working hard as partners with their men."