MECHANICSBURG, Pa. –
What happens when you assemble a group of military trailblazers in a conference room and pepper them with questions about everything from overcoming challenges in their respective careers to what they do in their free time? A joint military panel which honored Women’s History Month through a dynamic, interactive live panel conducted virtually Mar. 30.
In honor of Women’s History Month, Naval Supply Systems Command Weapon Systems Support (NAVSUP WSS) collaborated with the Army War College to Host “Beyond the Glass Ceiling - Women Leading in the Military.” The panel consisted of warfighters from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
This was the first joint, all female military leadership panel held virtually by NAVSUP WSS. With just over a century of combined experience, the panel members have changed what leadership looks like and paved the way for future generations.
“The panel discussion was aimed at exploring the career successes, challenges, and triumphs of four dynamic military leaders, who also happen to be women,” explained Cassandre Luberus, NAVSUP WSS Program Analyst and chair of the NAVSUP WSS Equal Employment Opportunity Activity Committee. “The panel members’ focus was to educate attendees on their many career-shaping experiences that helped them to shatter glass ceilings and secure their current leadership positions.”
The panelists consisted of Command Master Chief Petty Officer Shannon T. Howe of the U.S. Navy, Lt. Col. Aixa Dones of the U.S. Marine Corps, Lt. Col. Heather Roelker of the U.S. Army, and Lt. Col. Tanaka Dunn of the U.S. Air Force.
Having served from the 1980s to the 2020s, these leaders have four decades of military experience in the various branches and have risen through the ranks in male-dominated fields, challenging stereotypes and expectations.
The panel began with an overview of the panelists’ careers and discussions on how they are part of today’s history at the US Army War College. The US Army War College, a previously all male institution, educates and develops leaders for service at the strategic level while advancing knowledge in the global application of Landpower. The Army War College, did not have its first female graduates until 1969. Now women represent about 11 percent of the resident student body.
Command Master Chief Petty Officer Shannon Howe, who represented both the enlisted ranks and women of NAVSUP, has been forging new paths as well. In January 2020 when Howe was assigned to NAVSUP, she became the first woman to ever hold the position of Command Master Chief at NAVSUP.
The 90-minute question and answer panel discussed everything from why they joined the service, to the importance of mentorship, work/life balance and if they experienced gender bias.
Dones spoke specifically about her experience as a Marine and how when she joined in 1994 female Marines had a different physical fitness exam, now in 2021, all marines complete the same exam. During her 27-year career Dones has served everywhere from Guantanamo Bay to the Pentagon, but she expressed the hardest part was her own self-doubt.
“All a person needs is the opportunity,” said Dones. “As long as the opportunity is there, we'll rock it, you just have to have the confidence to step up to do that.”
Roelker spoke about one of the most important pieces of advice given to her early in her career.
“I was a brand new Department of the Army civilian. It was probably day one or day two of my employment there, and I went to a meeting. The typical meeting we all have been to, where you're in a big conference room, and there's the big table in the center of the room with all the seats on the side lining the room,” said Roelker. “I took one of the seats on the wall…and a gentleman, was sitting at the actual conference room table, turned to me and said, Heather, always take a seat at the table, make someone tell you, you don't belong there.” According to Roelker, this moment taught her a lot about making and taking opportunities.
Dunn echoed a similar story of when she was rising in the ranks. She began to experience doubt and a mentor told her, “You got here because of who you are and what you've done so far. So don't change that now.”
She expressed the importance of being yourself. “Be true to yourself, be who you are, as long as you're not being unethical, immoral, or breaking any laws,” said Dunn. “Don't change to fit the mold that they think you should be, be who you are, and be true to yourself and you will be successful.”
The panelist’s work/life balance discussion centered on prioritization and how an important part of leadership is teamwork. Dones summed it up best when she said, “At the end of the day … somebody else is going to take your place. Somebody else is going to pick up where you left off. Let's give them the tools they need, and your trust and it will build confidence in your team. Don't be afraid to break contact and make the family a priority every now and then, because it's necessary.”
The women also emphasized how leadership is about empowering your team to take on new things and trusting that your team will be there to get the work done. Several of the panelists also spoke about their family history, how they have family members who either served before them or encouraged them to join the military.
Roelker joined after watching her father lace up his boots for duty in the National Guard. Dunn became an officer so she could become the role model she wanted to have. Howe enlisted at the encouragement of her grandmother for the opportunities she would have. Dones explained that she did not have family in the military, but wanted a way to pay for college. However, after becoming a Marine, she fell in love with the institution and has since completed several higher-level education programs.
All of these women joined for different reasons, but all stayed for the same, to serve their country and to be a part of something greater than themselves.
In 2018, the Government Accountability Office reported that women represented 16-percent of active duty service members, compared to four-percent in 2004.
In 2004, most of the panelists were still early in their careers, but now as senior leaders, they are able to provide insight on what they think the biggest challenges for the next generation of women are and what they can do to prepare. Each of the panelists discussed how important they felt it is to support other women, both in the military and in their civilian careers. They emphasized the value of teamwork, building cohesion through communication, being present and how important the people you work with are.
Dones stressed the importance of celebrating women’s history month.
“There's a lot of women that went through a lot in order for us to just be where we are today, having the opportunities that we have,” she said. “It’s important people don't forget everything that has changed in order for us to get to where we are today.”
Howe said over her 32 years of service she is now seeing a trend in the way Sailors are supporting one another. Now more than ever, she is seeing Sailors holding each other up providing all types of support from childcare to lending a listening ear. “Women in the military are changing everything we thought we knew about military life,” she said.
Dunn expressed the importance of taking care of one another and instead of being hyper critical, finding ways to mentor each other and to develop those skills that may be lacking or preventing them from growth.
Above all else, all the panelists expressed the most important part of service, is about the person they stand shoulder to shoulder with, the person who they go to war with.
“It's about the Airman and it's about the Marines and the Sailors and the Soldiers that I've now had the privilege of serving with in the joint environment,” said Dunn. “Being able to impact their lives, being able to mentor and at this point in our careers, being able to mold and groom the leaders that are coming behind us and hopefully shape the portrait of the teacher.”
These women are all examples of patriotism and what one can do for their country. They all continue to open doors for their fellow Warfighters.
“The sky's the limit. There's nothing you can't do if you set your mind to it,” said Howe. “You know, it may take some hard work. It may take some blood, sweat and tears, but there's nothing you can't do. And when you do get there, leave it better than you found it.”
NAVSUP WSS is one of 11 commands under Commander, NAVSUP. Headquartered in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and employing a diverse, worldwide workforce of more than 22,500 military and civilian personnel, NAVSUP's mission is to provide supplies, services, and quality-of-life support to the Navy and joint warfighter. Learn more at www.navsup.navy.mil, www.facebook.com/navsupwss and https://twitter.com/navsupsyscom.