Naval Support Facility (NSF) Dahlgren honored celebrated National Women’s History Month on March 13 with a ceremony at the base theater featuring a panel discussion with some of Dahlgren’s own women professionals. This year’s theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math,” and six women STEM professionals from the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) spoke about their professional and personal lives.
Capt. Michael Smith, commander of NSWCDD, welcomed guests and presented the history behind Women’s History Month. “In 1980 President Carter issued the first presidential message publicly recognizing the importance of women’s history by proclaiming women’s history week,” he said. “Thirty-three years later, President Obama’s presidential proclamation declaring March as the National Women’s History Month continues to ensure that the stories, struggles and achievements of American women are recognized and celebrated in schools, workplaces and communities across the county.”
Celebrating the contributions of women STEM professionals at a place like Dahlgren, with its storied history of research, development, training and evaluation (RDT&E) for the armed forces, was especially fitting. “Thousands of American women have made and continue to make the world a better place through their work in the STEM fields,” Smith added.
The National Women’s History Project honored nine women this year for their contributions to STEM fields, among them, the Navy’s own Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, a pioneering computer programmer. “Her accomplishments earned her the affectionate name Amazing Grace and she was further honored by having a Navy warship named after her, the USS Hopper,” said Smith. “Today, the women engineers and scientists of NSWC in Dahlgren are embracing Grace Hopper’s dare and do spirit every day. Like the honorees of this year’s celebration, their imagination has led them to excel and their innovation is producing dynamic results.”
The discussion panel was a diverse slice of some of those women STEM professionals from five departments at NSWCDD, from relatively new employees, to veterans in leadership roles. They are among the nearly 59,000 thousand civilian women working for the Navy, according to Smith.
The women spoke about the decision to enter a STEM career. For Megan Hart, a mathematician for NSWCDD, the decision was based, unsurprisingly, on a love of numbers and logical thinking. A competitive spirit and a third grade teacher who brought a math game to the classroom marked the beginning of Hart’s career path. “I would go home every night and study with my mom so that I could win that game,” she said. “I didn’t care that I was doing math; I just wanted to win that game. I just liked the feeling of success and accomplishment. Unknowingly, I was associating that success with mathematics.”
Dena Kota, toxicologist for NSWCDD, was sure she wanted to be a veterinarian when she was a student. In the midst of pursuing a biology degree, she shadowed a veterinarian for what was supposed to be four weeks. “It only took about two hours in a veterinary office and the sight of a golden retriever on an operating table, which almost caused me to faint, for me to realize that I was 100 percent wrong about becoming a veterinarian,” she said.
Kota dabbled in pharmacy work before earning a pharmacology and toxicology doctorate, a path that eventually led her to Dahlgren. Kota also works as an adjunct professor of biology and participates in STEM outreach programs.
Jane Bachman, who works in the field of human systems and integration for NSWCDD, knew she had a talent for sciences as a young person, but had a difficult time choosing a specific field. Her father, who worked for a Dahlgren command, inspired her to study computer science. Taking a computer class for adult students at a local college allowed Bachman to “test drive” the field. “Sometimes in your path, you have to not only take advantage of opportunities, but you have to make opportunities,” she said.
Bachman dedicates part of her time to helping young people “test drive” STEM careers, coordinating the Virginia Demonstration Project STEM Summer Academy in Dahlgren.
For Tiffany Owens, a system safety engineer for NSWCDD, seeing construction sites around her childhood home of Buffalo, New York captivated her interest and led to even greater interest in computers. When Owens took a programming class in high school, she realized she “hated programming,” but another class on electricity and superconductors solidified her choice of career, which eventually brought her to Virginia and later Dahlgren. Throughout that journey, Owens has participated in several STEM outreach projects designed to show young people that “engineering can be fun. There’s a whole world out there available to you if you study engineering.”
Margaret Neel, a program director for NSWCDD, was inspired to enter a STEM career after a ride on the family tractor at her childhood home in Kentucky, when her mother explained the numbers on a tachometer. When Neel’s parents offered to pay for college or a wedding, Neel chose college and earned a degree in computer science. “I grew up in a very conservative farming family and I knew I wanted to do something noble,” she explained. “To me, working for the Department of Defense is the most noble thing I can do. To be able to support the people who voluntarily put their life on the line for me? There’s no greater honor than to be able to support something like that.”
Ann Swope, chief of staff of NSWCDD, found herself inspired to compete in all things by her older brothers, including backpacking. Her love of the outdoors inspired her to begin a career in environmental affairs. As a college student, Swope studied the effects of DDT on wildlife populations. “That convinced me I wanted to go into toxicology,” she said.
After she accepted a job at Dahlgren, Swope started a family and advanced through several positions at NSWCDD. “I absolutely love working for the Department of Defense,” she said.
Questions and Answers
The panelists answered several questions from the audience about what it is like to be a woman STEM professional serving the Navy. The first involved the drop-off in interest in STEM subjects among girls as they enter high school and what can be done about it.
The panelists emphasized the importance of educating students that math, for instance, is much more than sitting behind a desk and crunching numbers. Neel thought it might only be a feigned lack of interest in STEM subjects motivated by peer pressure and interest in boys. “[At that age] they’re trying to figure out what they can do to make them look different from one of the guys,” she said.
Having inspirational parental figures was a common factor among the panelists that helped overcome some of the social norms that weigh on many young women. “I think [female students] need encouragement from adults-parents, grandparents and people who can help them make the connection between learning and a STEM career,” said Bachman.
Bachman, Kota and Hart all spoke about how those traditional social pressures have evolved to the point where STEM careers and women are not so unusual anymore. Differences in the ways young boys and girls are expected to behave persist, however. “When I worked as a teacher, I noticed the boys liking math more,” said Hart. “I think there was a completion aspect to it: [boys] weren’t afraid to be loud and jump up and answer a question. The girls were shy: they didn’t want to be wrong and didn’t want to embarrass themselves.”
Another audience member asked the panelists about some of the non-STEM role models in their lives. The common answer was parental figures-mothers, fathers, grandparents-but several of the panelists also mentioned school counselors and the examples of other professional women.
A new employee asked the panel about some of the challenges they’ve faced in what is still a male-dominated career field. Swope replied that she did not encounter many problems in her career resulting from sexism. “I’m one of those people who tries to find the good in other people, if there’s good to be found,” she said. “I think it’s a lack of education or ignorance and you try to educate but people say things because they don’t know.”
Neel recounted difficulties in the early part of her career, but noted improvement. “I could tell you stories from the beginning of my career that would probably curl your hair,” she said, “but I have to say that since I’ve worked at NSWC, I’ve not seen any discrimination.”
Owens cited her own professional development as a “growth process” that helped her realize she needed to speak her mind more often. “I’ve learned put yourself out there and share what you know and don’t be afraid to [speak up].”
Bachman said she never really experienced any discrimination, but advocated STEM outreach and mentorship as a way to overcome gender bias that still exists in some workplaces.
Kota cited the challenge of raising a family and performing at a demanding job, no small task. Nevertheless, Kota said that she has felt support in Dahlgren as she balances those responsibilities.
Hart said she has not experienced any challenges based in sexism while working in Dahlgren, but said that making the connection between her mathematics degree and a career was a struggle. So, too, was explaining her calling to other women who think staying in the home and taking care of a family is the highest calling of women. “Convincing those people that you can balance your life and be successful is challenging,” she said.
The issue led into the final question put to the panel: what advice could the mothers on the panel offer young women who wanted to have a STEM career and start a family?
“Finding the right place, the right job environment, is critical,” said Kota. “We’re fortunate to have a very supportive structure here at Dahlgren.”
Bachman pursued her advanced degree at a time when her daughter was old enough to have some independence, but recognized the challenges of being a mom and a STEM professional. “I think women persevere,” she said. “They recognize the challenge and go forward.”
Bachman’s career is now in a less time-consuming place and she said she is looking forward to spending some quality time with her daughter, now in high school. Despite the challenges, juggling all of life’s tasks is itself a lesson to children, she said. “There are some things you do have to drop. You can’t do it all.”
Owens, too, described the balancing act that occurs in her professional and family life. The attention required by job and family is in a constant state of flux, she said. “I appreciate the flexibility of Dahlgren and the schedule here. It really helps our whole family.”
Neel’s advice centered on professional women knowing and respecting their own limits. For her, a self-described A-type personality, balancing work with children and other activities took a toll. “I could either shower or eat,” she said, rousing a laugh from the audience.
When life’s stress caused Neel to reach an astonishingly low, unhealthy weight, the balancing act ceased to be a laughing matter. “Something had to give,” she said, who shortly thereafter moved temporarily to a part-time schedule.
Still, advocates of women staying home instead of working affected Neel until she realized that different mothers have different goals. “A good mother is a happy mother,” she said. “You have to make some decisions and the hardest one is deciding where your breaking point is.”
Swope’s career was well-established when she started her family. After the birth of her first child, Swope took 12 weeks of maternal leave. Some mothers find they do not want to continue their career during maternal leave; for Swope, it was quite the opposite. “Being home for 12 weeks, I knew wanted a full-time career,” she said. “I was a much better parent when I came home to my children, rather than being with them all day.”
Swope said she was blessed to have healthy children; if that were not the case, she acknowledged that life could have been considerably more challenging. She urged all employees raising children with special circumstances to bring their concerns to the command’s attention. “People with children that have illnesses, sickness or disabilities, come see us because we want to work with you and help you out.”