Norfolk, Virginia - Service-members from the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and foreign militaries filled the Norfolk Ballroom at the Waterside Marriott in Norfolk during the 27th annual Sea Services Leadership Association (SSLA) Joint Women's Leadership Symposium (JWLS) June 12 and 13.
The JWLS offers opportunities for personal professional development and this year's theme "Why We Serve" focused on the issues of retention, professional growth and why women serve. The guest speakers eagerly related their years of experience, lessons and advice. Speakers included Vice Admiral Bill Moran, Chief of Naval Personnel; Vice Adm. Michelle Howard, Deputy CNO for Operations, Plans and Strategy; Rear Adm. Cari B. Thomas, commander, 14th Coast Guard District; retired Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, U.S. Coast Guard Director of Incident Management and Preparedness Policy; Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe; and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens.
The opening remarks were words of wisdom from Thomas, a 34-year veteran. "I want you to do something that you probably don't do and that's invest in yourself. We're very strict about investing in our time at work. We're good at investing time in our significant others. For those of you who are moms, you make sure to invest time with your kids. But we have a very hard time investing in ourselves so that is really my challenge to you for the next couple of days. Many of us have this gene that is the "can't say no gene" and I want you to learn how to take some time for yourself," said Thomas. "It is in our nature to be caregivers and want to help in every way. You have to find a good work-life balance. When I take off this uniform at the end of my career, I still want to be married and I still want to be a mom. I have an alarm clock on my desk set for 5:30 p.m. I have to have a really good reason to stay beyond that time."
The full day of mentorship continued with more uplifting words of empowerment from Landry,a 31-year veteran, who first applauded all the men in the room for being there. She said they needed men there to understand how to work with the women. She then related her experiences of joining the service in 1980. She did not have a forum or a group of women who had accomplished as much to turn to. She said when you're having those days where you're feeling isolated, where you're feeling as if you don't fit in, you have to get over it.
Landry ended by challenging attendees to respect each other's diversity; respect what they all bring to the forum and share it with each other and save a few women who were thinking of leaving the military. She challenged the women to not allow themselves to continue to be typecast. She told them they are women in the service, but also people in the service who have a relevant place.
Howard was the Navy keynote speaker on the first day of the conference. Isolation and how to overcome it in order to be a successful leader was the focus of her speech.
"Pioneering women [like Capt. Dorothy Stratton, organizer of the Coast Guard Women's Reserve; Maj. Megan McClung, the first female Marine Corps officer killed in Iraq in 2006; and Capt. Joy Bright Hancock, leader of the WAVES] have already figured this out," she said. "You've got to commit to the journey; you've got to travel light; you better have stamina; you better have a sense of humor; and you better stay connected."
While the name of the symposium could infer that it's meant for women only, there were a handful of male Sailors in attendance. Ens. Pete Fovargue, an officer at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Naval Facilities Engineering Command, said he attended and all men should attend to gain a better understanding of the women who work beside him each and every day.
"I think the symposium is very important because not only are women a huge contributor to the Navy, they are a force who are going to continue to grow. I aspire to be a great leader one day so getting more perspectives that hold diversity of thought is very important to achieving that," said Fovargue. "I had to get out of my comfort zone to be here, but they do it every day. So this gives me a new appreciation for how hard female Sailors work, not just for what they contribute to the Navy, but how they continue to put themselves in a situation that can sometimes be isolating every day.
"I'm not going to lie. When I first came in, it was overwhelming and I thought to myself, 'What did I get myself into?' But after being here and realizing we are all facing the same problems. And what an awesome opportunity to put myself out there to see things from the women's perspective of what it's like to be in the Navy."
One of the key topics at the symposium is a daily key topic throughout the Navy: retention. Moran took time during three breakout sessions to focus on retention of enlisted Sailors, junior officers (O2-O4) and senior officers (O5-O6) and answer questions Sailors wanted to address.
"The roles of women have expanded in the Navy," said Moran. "We don't have enough women to fill the roles, especially at the chief petty officer level. We want to bring in a lot more women, but we need to work to keep the women that we recruit."
Moran also touched on an optimized fleet readiness training plan, billet-based detailing, revamping physical readiness standards for females who have had children, providing pregnant Sailors with better career-enhancing billet opportunities, and dual-military detailing.
Moran said he continues to search for better ways to keep females in the Navy, where the retention rate for women is sometimes much lower than for men. He said that hearing firsthand the problems and some solutions from women who were facing these challenges was a huge step toward assisting him in continuing to move in the right direction.
MCPON Stevens took time to address the attendees on developing leaders after a lunch break.
"I'm not looking to fill in pot holes. I'm looking to pave the road," said Stevens. "My focus goes into developing good leaders and providing opportunities for our Sailors to become good leaders - opportunities such as leadership courses, the Senior Enlisted Academy, and CPO 365, to name a few. If we invest time, energy, training and money into building capable and competent leaders, women who have many of the same opportunities as their male counterparts, will continue their Naval service and fill in the gapped leadership roles at sea."
"We have a good senior enlisted female leadership corps, but we continue to mentor and build more female leaders every day, but just having a robust corps of good female leaders is not enough. We must have a place for them to have a positive impact in the fleet at sea," said Beldo about the 55 female command master chiefs out of 782 total CMCs. "Navy leadership recognizes that we need to be able to accommodate more senior enlisted females at sea. We are working to ensure we can safely and accurately accommodate more of them on ships. Once we get there, and we will get there, we will begin to see more and more senior enlisted females filling those positive leadership roles on the waterfront.
"You don't know what you don't know. We can all learn from each other and you're not going to find out what you don't know until you have these types of engagements."
Registrations for the symposium were coordinated through the Navy Office of Diversity and Inclusion - Office of Women's Policy.
"We chose a forum at a location like this to minimize distractions," said Beldo. "Conducting this away from work gives us the opportunity to refocus and return ready to take on any challenge."
Marine Sgt. Jennifer E. Rivera, an intelligence specialist at Fort George G. Meade, Md., said she wanted to attend the symposium to get a fresh perspective on how to help other females overcome some stereotypes that exist. She mentioned the solid female mentors shaped the kind of Marine she is today, and added that she was unsure of where she would be in her career if it were not for their strong leadership.
The seminar concluded with words of empowerment from the fifth female to serve as the command master chief of an aircraft carrier, Command Master Chief (SW/AW/IUSS) Shay Langejans, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69).
"When I think of why I serve, I think of those who trained me well. I have a sense of obligation to build a solid leader," said Langejans. "I challenge you to leave a legacy you are proud of and to be competent and take ownership of the situation. Don't let anyone lower the bar."