Women in government still face obstacles

NASA CIO Linda Cureton recently met with a group of schoolchildren, and a little girl asked Cureton if she had ever been in outer space, and whether she wanted to travel there.

Cureton quickly answered no. She thought she was too old and not physically fit enough.

“But you said you can be anything you want!” the girl loudly protested.

Recalling the conversation at a Bisnow Top Women in Business and Government forum on June 10, Cureton said she then realized she had a bad habit of squelching some of her own dreams, including her own childhood wish of being an astronaut. Now she says she definitely would travel in space if the opportunity arose..

“You have to still that inner voice that tells you that you cannot do it,” Cureton said.

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Cureton spoke on a panel with Bev Godwin, director of the Center for New Media and Citizen Engagement at the General Services Administration and Lydia Thomas, former CEO of Noblis, along with several other senior executive women leaders in government and technology. They shared some candid recollections and opinions about key decisions they made in their careers and the obstacles and hardships they overcame.

Cureton, who majored in math at Howard University, said a counselor pushed her to take at least two computer classes to fulfill graduation requirements. “It felt like punishment,” she said.

Most other computer classes were full, but there was lots of room in a class on IBM Assembler, so she took that, followed by a class on Fortran.

She got hired by NASA at a job fair shortly after graduation, accepting a post that seemed tailor made for her: the position required a math background, IBM Assembler and Fortran. “It was easy because there were not a lot of us with that background,” Cureton said.

But she was not to remain at NASA long in that position because she soon quit to follow her husband to Seattle. She returned and became CIO years later after several other federal positions. She was honored as a Federal 100 awardee in March.

Godwin spoke about the difficulties of raising two young children on her own, as a widow, while holding down a full-time position at the Health and Human Services Department. When the opportunity came for a temporary detail to the White House to assist Vice President Al Gore on new media program, she had to think it over carefully.

“I thought to myself, I can do anything for six or seven months, but it ended up lasting for eight years,” Godwin recalled. Fortunately, juggling the demands of home and work as a single parent become simpler over time, she said.

“Every job was easy compared to the job I had at home,” said Godwin. “I believe I am a stronger employee for it.”

Even so, there were awkward moments, such as the time when she was asked to help the team host a White House Halloween Party on a week night. She brought her children, only to find they were the only youngsters in attendance.

“My coworkers asked me, ‘how did you get permission to do that?' " Godwin said. In fact, “I did not ask,” she said.

Even so, the children were warmly welcomed at the Halloween party and, with encouragement from some other coworkers, the office subsequently became more child-friendly, she added. She later returned to GSA and was honored as a Federal 100 awardee in 2009.

Thomas, president and CEO of the Noblis science and technology organization from 1996 to 2007, said the financial demands of raising two children on her own were a factor in her decision to join Mitre Corp. while in graduate school,  after majoring in biology. She was won over partly by the relatively high salary when compared with research salaries, and also by being taken to lunch at a nice restaurant, she said.

While on the job, surrounded by male engineers, Thomas said she felt like “the odd person out” as one of very few women and as a non-engineer. She realized she needed to build her own team and base of operations. Since her skill was biology, she developed a practice in environmental health science. Many of her team members were women who brought specialized expertise to the company.

However, that success brought with it some trying moments with male coworkers.

“They would call us ‘Lydia and her All-Girl Band,' ” Thomas recalled. “They thought that was cute. No one thought it was odd except for me.”

Other panelists who spoke at the event included Jill Bruning, COO at NJVC LLC federal contracting firm; Vicki Hadfield, senior vice president of global public policy for the TechAmerica trade association; Caren Merrick, co-founder of webMethods software company; and Gigi Schumm, vice president and general manager of Symantec’s public sector organization.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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