Women’s History Month panel shows how varied career perspectives can get you where you want to be

Written by Lisa Novak

The panel discussion for Women’s History Month took place March 18 at Coast Guard Headquarters and featured a diverse group of women supporting the theme that “women of character, courage and commitment” can be found in the military, as government civilians and as private sector employees.

Ashley Lewis, head of contracting activity at Coast Guard Headquarters, led the event. Lewis introduced the speakers and let each panelist talk about her career path, which covered almost every possible on-the-job experience.

Carol DiBattiste, currently executive vice president and chief legal, privacy, security and administrative officer of Education Management opened the discussion with her experiences from when she served as the principal deputy general counsel for the Navy and had to handle the Tailhook scandal in 1991. She and the rest of her legal team also had to go to the secretary of defense and recommend that the chief naval officer, while not directly involved, should resign.

“We had to discipline 17 admirals for their participation in Tailhook,” said DiBattiste. “My team of three prepared to resign if our recommendation was not accepted, but the secretary agreed,” she said. “Sometimes you have to make tough decisions in your mind, heart and soul. I have a line in my heart that I won’t cross. Have integrity and never compromise on your ethics.”

Julie Myers Wood, another panelist, made the point that as you go through your career, “you’re going to make mistakes. If you make a mistake, own up to it. The real problem, so to speak, is the cover-up, not the crime,” she said. Wood is president of Compliance, Federal Practice and Software Solutions for Guidepost Solutions, LLC, and stressed reaching beyond the comfort zone for success.

“I was in Japan – which has the best sushi – and never tried it. Then, when I was in New York, I tried it, and I loved it. Your career is the same thing. Know what your strengths are and play to them,” she said.

“How did I spend more than 20 years at NASA as an engineer and then go into a people field?” asked Sharon Wong, deputy director for coordination and policy in the Office of Personnel Management. “In college, calculus was my favorite subject and here, I’m dealing with people. It is still challenging,” Wong said with a laugh.

Changing careers can be tough, but Wong advised that people have to be assertive and speak up to make what you want happen.

“I kept missing out on an opportunity at work because I just kept waiting for my name to be called,” she said. “When I asked the program leader why my name wasn’t being called, she said ‘I didn’t know you were interested.’ I got it after I spoke up.”

Wong advised taking collateral assignments if they are in the field where a person wants to go and volunteering time for things in that area. Her final point: What you know keeps you in your job, but how you use it is what gets you ahead.

Wanda Killingsworth, another panelist, said she was ready for a career change two years after going to the Internal Revenue Service right out of school.

“I was tired of answering the phone and being cursed out by the public,” she said, with the crowd responding with a laugh. “I eventually got an undergraduate degree in IT, then a master’s degree in computer science, then another master’s degree in project management when I began working in risk management.”

Killingsworth is a senior program analyst at the Treasury Department but also is executive vice-president of Federally Employed Women, a non-profit group with more than 4,000 members. Killingsworth said her mother’s active presence in their community for more than 30 years, in addition to her full-time job, was inspiring.

“Women can be the strength or the failure of our nation,” she said. “I saw her testify before Congress, how she took lenders to task so people could keep their homes.”

Killingsworth also advocated making sure people allocate time for themselves to deal with the constant pressures and challenges of work. “My phone rings all hours of the day and week, but on Sundays, I’m not available,” she said.

As a West Point graduate and colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, Ellen Haring knows something about the military. She also is a senior fellow with Women in International Security, where she directs the Combat Integration Initiative project. Haring became a plaintiff in a 2012 lawsuit challenging the military’s combat exclusion policy that doesn’t permit women to hold combat positions.

“In the army, about six percent of the general officers are female, because the generals tend to be pulled out of the combat specialties,” said Haring. She was impressed with the team of three female associate attorneys who worked on her case, pro bono, calling her at all hours. “They must have been working 80 hours a week on it,” she said, but other calls also came. “I’ve never been in the public eye, on TV before…and I got a number of some really threatening phone calls,” she said.

Haring said that conviction, fear and risk would be her topics today, because you have to take chances and work to overcome fear and take risks. “It was worth it; you have to challenge serious things that don’t look good from your perspective,” she said.

After the panel spoke, the floor was opened to the audience for a question and answer segment, in which a number of active duty and civilians participated. Students from Ballou Senior High School in Washington, D.C., attended the event and one asked the panel for advice to future generations of leaders. Panel participants agreed on one major aspect: take risks.

“Take risks and work hard,” said DeBattiste. “You’re going to stand out in the world because those things will move you up.”

Wong echoed that statement and added “You heard from us that there are so many choices and it’s easy to stay in the comfort zone. It’s putting yourself out there that allows you to grow.”

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