On June 1 I was present to witness the historic installation of the first woman to serve as commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, and who is also the first woman to serve as chief of any of the U.S. armed forces. President Biden presided over the ceremony during which Admiral Linda Fagan relieved Admiral Karl Schultz as commandant. It was a fitting way to celebrate the culmination of nearly 50 years of accomplishments by women officers, starting with the first Officer Candidate School graduates in 1973, who paved the way for those women behind them.
Leading the Way
The president was effusive in his support of the U.S. Coast Guard for modeling the way in advancing women, and of Admiral Fagan for her accomplishments as a trailblazer. He proclaimed that now, “Young men and women who want to serve will see what a service chief looks like.”
I thought about those words, and agree with them. It’s great to see women breaking barriers. But people who are determined to achieve their goals and objectives shouldn’t limit themselves based on the demographics of others in the role or position they’d like to obtain. That’s self-defeating. If women in my generation had held back until they saw another woman above them, they would never have taken that next step toward command.
A Helping Hand
As a member of the third class of women to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1978, I became one of the very first women line officers in the U.S. Coast Guard. I chose the surface afloat career track and spent 12 years serving at sea as a cutterman. When I looked up, I saw nothing but men above me. Most of those men wanted me to succeed and advance in my career. Many of them extended their hand to help me reach the next level.
It never occurred to me that I needed to see another woman above me to succeed. I learned from experience in my younger years that success came to those who prepared, practiced, and performed to the best of their ability. I sought people who could mentor me, not caring what they looked like. As I became more senior, I tried to pay it forward by mentoring junior people, both women and men. I wish I’d spent more time on that, and it’s one thing I’d try to do better if I could rewind the clock.
Perceptions and Misperceptions
From the start, the Coast Guard offered women the same opportunities to command as men, and people in the Service slowly got used to seeing women in command roles. I found it was harder, however, for the outside world to grasp the concept of women at the helm of a ship. Back in 1990, at age 30, I became the first woman to command a military vessel on the Great Lakes. As captain of the icebreaker Katmai Bay, I discovered that the public wasn’t quite ready for women in military leadership positions, and certainly didn’t know what to make of a woman ship captain.
My new position attracted much media interest. Everywhere the ship stopped on patrol, I was interviewed by the local media. It amused me to read the articles by reporters whose primary observation always seemed to be that “she doesn’t look like a ship captain.” There were articles that described me as looking like a librarian, or a schoolteacher. There was even a reporter who declared that “she looks angelic.” When I was asked to appear on the television show To Tell the Truth, none of the judges voted for me between the two imposters as “the real Sandra Stosz” because I didn’t fit their image of a ship captain.
What does a ship captain look like? What does a service chief look like? I always tried to escape being the first, and just wanted to be seen as another Coast Guard member, not a woman Coast Guard member. But I did see it as my duty to show people another image of what a ship captain could look like. Yes, it was crucial to have women role models attain those positions of leadership over the past 50 years. Young people do need to look up and see someone like them in positions they aspire to attain. But my message is that no one should limit himself or herself by the perceptions of others or of society.
Leaders of character value people for what they know and what they can contribute; they don’t judge people by what they look like, or label people based on perceptions. And, leaders of character foster workplace climates that encourage women, and men, to visualize themselves and each other in positions of responsibility that may have been historically dominated by one gender.
Look in the mirror. What does a ship driver, a mechanic, a boat coxswain, a gunner’s mate, or a law enforcement team member look like to you? As a supervisor, do you encourage capable women to pursue these career fields? As a subordinate, do you visualize yourself in a non-traditional role that interests you even if there aren’t many people who look like you in that role? It’s the responsibility of both the organization and the individual to defeat misperceptions and show what a leader looks like.
Please join me again in two weeks for more on Leading with Character.
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