In her talk, “Pioneering Success,” at the Andrus Center Conference on Women and Leadership today, Admiral Michelle Howard, the vice-chief of operations for the Navy and a four-star admiral, used the stories of pioneering women – from Sacagawea to Barbara Morgan and many more – to offer advice about how women who are pioneers in their field can forge success. She drew on the stories of women who joined wagon trains and traveled west, and distilled her advice to this: “Commit to the journey, travel light, develop stamina, keep a sense of humor, and stay connected to other women.”
Said Howard, “If you’re in an occupation where there’s less than 25 percent women, you’re a pioneer.” Engineering is a perfect example, she said.
Answering questions from the large audience after her talk, Howard was asked if she had a goal of becoming an admiral. “When I started at Annapolis, women weren’t even serving on ships,” she said. Yet she decided she’d like to command one – knowing it was a long-term goal. In 1999, she became the first African American woman to command a ship in the U.S. Navy.
Howard said the first person to tell her she couldn’t do something because she was a woman was her brother, when at age 12 she declared that she wanted to go to the service academy – but by law, women weren’t allowed. She consulted her mother, who said if she still wanted to go when she was older, she should apply – and if necessary, they’d sue the government. “She goes, ‘Honey, the most important thing in life is trying for what you think is right.’” And solutions could take time, she warned. “You could apply, you could sue the government and you may never get to go but you should keep going after it. … And it doesn’t matter if you never get to go, because if you’re right, the law will change and some women will get to go.”
Howard said she had to deal with “knuckleheads” from time to time in her career. She advised: “Have the courage on your own behalf that when it’s right to push back, push back.”