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Becoming a Female Leader in Male-Dominated Industry

Two marines standing next to each other in a parking lot.

​I spent 30 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy and recently retired. It was a fantastic experience from start to finish and was a privilege to serve the nation. Over those years, I witnessed dramatic change in the Navy regarding women and our roles in leadership and operational assignments. There is no glass ceiling for women in the Navy and with the exception of Special Forces, women seamlessly serve in all roles alongside their male counterparts. Even in the Navy Seals, if a woman can do the job without the standard being lowered, we will see them serve there too someday.

Growing Up Tough

I grew up in a household with three brothers, so you learned to hold your own. There was “no crying in baseball”—someone was always getting shot it the head with a BB gun, injured on the playground or other such shenanigans. You learned fast to be ready for a battle of wits and to stand up for yourself—traits that helped tremendously when I joined the male-dominated Navy. I was also fortunate to have a great role model in my mom who never viewed anything in terms of gender or limitations due to gender. In addition to being an exceptional occupational health nurse, she was an even better mom, a 4.0 tennis player and someone who could figure anything out. She is 77 and if you need your roof fixed or PVC pipe laid in the yard, she’s your gal. She taught all of us that hard work, tenacity and ingenuity get you places in life regardless of your gender. See opportunity—not barriers—and don’t self-limit.

Fast forward 22 years and I took those lessons learned and applied them as I started my career as a naval officer, a profession where women made up less than 10% of the total force and even less in the officer corps. I received a commission as a naval officer aboard the USS CONSTITUTION in Boston Harbor and was off to my first assignment. There were barriers for women at the time. They did not have female uniforms at my NROTC unit so we were given male uniforms. I got female uniforms at my first duty station. I doubt the guys would have ever showed up in a female uniform, but the other female and I in the unit never even questioned it. I had a senior officer even ask me, is that a M-A-L-E uniform (spelling it out like it was an acronym as Navy folks love to do). Overwhelmed by all the acronyms being thrown at me and thinking that meant a certain kind of uniform I was not familiar and that I was not in proper uniform, I responded in exasperated tone, “I don’t know, sir, I am just wearing what they gave me.”

Changing with the Times

In 1989, options for women were limited to mostly support jobs (admin, protocol, intelligence, communications, etc.) and the exciting operational jobs like being a pilot, driving a combatant ship or being stationed on a submarine were off-limits due to combat exclusion laws that prohibited women from serving in combat roles. I started in the highly technical field of military communications (also very male dominated). That morphed into cyber operations in later years as technology changed. I chose that field and stuck with it because I enjoyed it and because I thought the leadership and operational assignment opportunities would be better, and they were. After combat exclusion laws began to be lifted in 1993, I immediately sought out opportunities for assignments at sea. Over the subsequent 25 years I served on many ships, did a tour on the ground in Iraq, conducted disaster relief operations in Haiti, was on a Carrier Strike Group providing close air support to ground troops in Afghanistan and conducted countless other operations. Those are the assignments I am most grateful to have had (along with Command) and I appreciated the fact that gender was never an issue in my ability to contribute. My shipmates knew and appreciated what I brought to the fight and I was grateful the support of a great team of leaders and crew.

Diffusing Harassment and Bias

One thing I was adamant about from day one in the military was that I did not want to be known as a “female officer,” I just wanted to be an officer. Through the years I never made gender an issue and if others did, I would show them it wasn’t through my actions as a leader and expert in my field. In the early years sexual harassment, both subtle and overt, was everywhere but that changed. I made a point to not tolerate it because in any leadership position “the standard you walk by is the standard you accept.” 

How you react in those situations is important. Don’t let the off-hand comment slide; it degrades the whole cohesion of the team and the high standard for excellence and respect that should exist. When someone would make a sexist remark, I would often diffuse the moment with humor while calling them out on it. Good people rarely do things intentionally to be hurtful. It is normally a result of unconscious bias built up over years, not thinking before speaking or being oblivious to how their comment could be perceived by others. I generally gave the person a one-time course-correct in a humorous way, understanding we all make mistakes and say things we regret sometimes. If they did it again, I corrected them publicly, because now you are not dealing with an innocent mistake, you have a character flaw on your hands and you cannot tolerate that toxic behavior. 

Be mindful of the difference between the innocent mistake and the character flaw. You have to know the difference and gauge your response as a leader appropriately.  Over the years I was often the only woman in the room and because I made it my goal to be very good at my job and the best leader I could possibly be, my gender became a non-issue very quickly. Transparency and ability to admit failure and being imperfect helped men working around me to understand that I had the same vulnerabilities, fears and concerns, but more importantly the same drive, ambition, desire to help others succeed and team spirit. In the military you form a bond with those in your unit, a “band of brothers and sisters” that is not replicated in other jobs. You would lay down your life for your shipmate, and they would do the same for you. 

Lift Up Other Women

As a woman in a male-dominated profession, it is important that you share your experiences with other women to help lift them up, to focus on being the best leader you can be. Help them see the more they advance, hidden biases can lead to additional scrutiny. For example, if you are a woman or minority in a position of power, being aware that everything you say or do will be under a microscope and quoted by someone or discussed after the fact. If your words or actions are misinterpreted based on hidden bias, quickly clear that up through precise communication about what and how something may have been misinterpreted and what you intended the action or message to be. Be aware and stand by what you say and do. Your vision, integrity, and actions as a leader will carry the day regardless of gender. 

Retired Rear Admiral Danelle Barrett served as Director of Current Operations at U.S. Cyber Command, Deputy Chief Information Officer and Director of Cyber Security. She is also the author of Rock the Boat: Embrace Change, Encourage Innovation, and Be a Successful Leader. 


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