Six years before Anita Hill popularized the term "sexual harassment," I was trying to keep my pursuer from getting too close to me in a classroom in Naval Training Center Great Lakes, Illinois. I remember thinking, “I only wanted to learn electronics.” I had to rewire the radio cabinets in my last classroom while I was waiting to be sent to my first duty station. It was the end of my first day assisting when the instructor started bemoaning his pathetic sex life and demanding “just one kiss.” I was horrified. He stalked me around the classroom until it became a full-speed steeplechase around desks and over chairs. It was 1985; I was 19 years old, and I had just graduated from Navy electronics school.
Later, at my first duty station in Norfolk, Virginia, I complained to my supervisor about being called a “split-tail” by my all-male co-workers instead of by my name and rank. A second-class petty officer of African-American descent, my supervisor stated that, as a woman, I was the new “n-word” (he actually said the word), that it was now “my turn,” and to “suck it up.” My first six months, I was only allowed to mop, buff, and carry the second class’ tools and test equipment. At the end of my first year, I was rated "average" (3.6 out of 4.0) because I “had a mouth” but did not use it to smile enough. I was one of five women in the electronics maintenance division, and the only woman in my section of fourteen technicians.
As I advanced in the Navy, I remained a minority in my field. Still, I learned to emulate the traits of successful seniors and colleagues. I sharpened my wit to parry verbal attacks. I thickened my skin to repel most barbs and used humor as a shield, eventually learning that not all battles were worth fighting. I liken the process of advancing in the Navy to being raised by wolves: the pack was cutthroat and constantly jockeying for position, and you could not help but be shaped by them.
Emulating men, as a woman was met with harsh criticism, though. Men and women both bristled at my adoption of masculine leadership styles. Many people didn't like my pointed questions and direct eye contact, and they were offended by the fact that I expected them to meet deadlines and standards, neither of which is inherently male or female. They just had ideas about how women should act that, as a Navy Chief, I didn't think were important for getting the job done. So, while Chief Patterson, a man I worked with at the same time who had the same leadership traits as I did, was seen as confident and honest, I was seen as cocky and rude. I was seen as cold and unyielding, while he was seen as strong and sure of himself. To avoid a drawn-out comparison, where he was a "leader,” I was a “bitch.”
After I retired from the Navy in 2005, I went back to work in the engineering department as a cybersecurity consultant. On my first contract, I was sickened to find out that I was making a lot less than the men I worked with. At least in the Navy, we were all paid the same salary and allowances, and the amounts are public; not so in industry. It took me years of strategic moves to close that pay gap, but nearly two decades later, I believe many women are still lagging behind their male counterparts.
In 2013, I returned to graduate school, earning two master’s degrees in cybersecurity from two different universities in a period of five years. I had no female instruction in either graduate program. To be sure, there were female students in my classes, but no female perspectives were being presented from the podium. This isn't meant to say that my male professors weren't good teachers, but we need to hear from more women to get more new ideas and creativity. The diversity and pay gaps in STEM fields have as much to do with the lack of female representation in the boardroom as it does in the classroom. We need women's perspectives in STEM fields to provide advice, encouragement, and good examples.
All this to say that while we have made great strides in my lifetime, we still have a long way to go before people from my generation and the juniors they influenced have all retired from the workforce. In other words, I believe it will still be another generation or two before the influences of the previous generations are diminished.
My biggest challenge has always been being a woman in STEM. As a cybersecurity analyst and adjunct, I am still striving to overcome this challenge.