ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Six women senior executives and two GS-15 leaders spoke to a room of 130 attendees about life lessons gained during their rise to key government positions during the Women in Defense luncheon at Beechtree catering facility in Aberdeen May 24.

Their expertise spanned the top ranks of the Army's legal community, auditing agency, human resources, and defense science and technology organizations in fields of mission command networks and systems, human research and engineering, and chemical and biological protection and policy.

The goal of the event was to bring together women for networking and mentoring, with an aim to help one another succeed, said Heather Couvillon, a founding member of the WID Mid-Atlantic Chapter and events director.

"A lot of times people don't have the confidence to say what isn't popular. It's a lot of building confidence to do different things and break out of normal areas," said Couvillon.

This idea was reiterated by several of the panel members throughout the lunch.

"You have to have confidence," said Jill H. Smith, director, Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, who started at APG as a mathematician during a time when there were no women SES's here.

"Attitude," Smith said, guided her through her career. "It's not about what you know, but how you learn," Smith shared as advice she's embraced over the years.

"Enjoy what you do . . . in every job try to do your best; the opportunities will follow," said Smith.

Intellectual curiosity and the knowledge that there was significant work going on in her field drove Laurel Allender, director, Army Research Laboratory Human Research and Engineering Directorate and former colleague of Smith's when she was at ARL.

When asked about the challenges of working in a male dominated environment, Allender shared an experience of being mistaken for a note taker when sitting in as an alternate in a high-level meeting.

"One of the men in the meeting said, 'nice of you to come out to take notes,'" she said.

"Let your role speak for you," she said after the room settled from its incredulous laughter. "The issue is not with men so much as knowing what your role is. The role you play is what ends up speaking for you."

De-conflicting roles can sometimes become complicated if you are not clear on your priorities, said Monique Ferrell, deputy auditor general, U.S. Audit Agency and military spouse to the APG commanding general. Throughout her career, Ferrell said her priority was as a mom, and even took a downgrade in her career in order to sustain a work/life balance.

"Yes, I have a career, but [being a mom] is my primary role. This is what had to work for me. Knowing what works for you and adjusting is key," said Ferrell.

Five of the six women executives, with the exception of Ferrell who is assigned to Fort Belvoir in Virginia, represent 21 per cent of APG's 24 SES leaders. APG government civilian personnel number just over 10,800, with roughly 31 per cent of employees women, according to an email from the APG Civilian Personnel Advisory Center.

Couvillon said she was impacted by the outcome of the luncheon and the examples set by all the panel members. "I see them all as role models. As I watched them, I thought to myself, 'I want her poise, I want how she conducts herself . . . it was awe-inspiring. I feel like we just shot the moon."

Couvillon wasn't alone in her appreciation, as noted by some of the men who attended.

"It was informative, hilarious, and they were very friendly," said Krishan Pariph, a chemical engineer with Nexagen Networks, who said he came to network and to introduce himself to the community.

Nearly every seat was filled and there were more questions than there was time to answer. Many of the attendees remained in the hall after the event asking questions and networking with the panelists.

"The panel was very diverse, and it was very good to get perspectives from senior leaders. They answered questions you think of as you go through your day to day duties," said Tiffany Cooper, a program analyst in CERDEC's Intelligence and Information Warfare Directorate.