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News | March 13, 2017

Women's History Month Spotlight: DLA Energy's Female Leaders Share Their Paths to Success

By Irene Smith, DLA Energy Public Affairs

Women have made considerable progress in the federal government since 1992 when the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board presented its  study, A Question of Equity: Women and the Glass Ceiling in the Federal Government.

At the time the report was written, few women occupied supervisory and executive positions in government. Today, more than half the workforce at Defense Logistics Agency Energy are women according to statistics provided by DLA Energy’s Equal Employment Opportunity & Diversity office.

At DLA Energy headquarters staff offices, 10 of 24 director positions are held by female employees. Many of these senior female directors began their career at DLA in the early 1980s when there were few women in senior management positions.

“In terms of the legal profession overall, great strides have been made over the years,” said DLA Energy Chief Counsel Kathleen Murphy. “Women now make up more than 50 percent of the incoming classes in many law schools. Throughout my career, I worked with senior leaders in the DLA legal community and in DLA Energy who gave employees opportunities to grow and excel. Now that I am part of the hiring process for DLA’s Office of General Counsel, I am interested in ensuring that the opportunities continue.”

The federal government already has a higher proportion of women senior leaders than the private sector. Women now hold approximately 44 percent of all positions in both professional and administrative occupations that provide the path to high-level positions, including the Senior Executive Service, according to a report published by the United States Office of Personnel Management in 2014.

In the federal workforce, 34 percent of all SES positions are occupied by women. Within DLA, there are six female SES representing 24 percent of the SES population.

The increased representation of women in supervisory and high-graded positions shows continued movement toward equality for women, both in the positions they hold and in the pay they receive.

“I started my career in 1987 at the Defense Fuel Supply Center Office of Counsel,” Murphy said. “I didn’t plan on staying at DLA, but the career opportunities and professional experiences kept me here.”

The agency’s opportunities for advancement and internal hiring helped women progress to senior levels of responsibility. One of the most senior woman at DLA Energy began her federal service in September 1980 as a part-time DLA employee.

DLA Energy Customer Operations Deputy Director Linda Barnett is responsible for supporting the Department of Defense and federal agency customers who generated roughly 100 million barrels in sales of bulk petroleum products valued at $14 billion in fiscal year 2015. As the civilian deputy, she supports the directorate’s director, an Air Force colonel, by supplying contracting expertise and experience and long-term continuity to the division which employs more than 100 civilian and military personnel.

“I began at DLA Headquarters as a GS 3-4 in the 300 series in the Programs and Analysis office pulling data and later moved over to DLA Energy to a programs office that handled transactions in the Defense Finance Accounting Management System,” Barnett said.

Barnett later went on to positions of increased responsibility within facilities, contracting, international agreements and as the chief for the Ocean Tanker branch. 

“I moved from the Ocean Tanker branch to the Inventory and Distribution division – where I got to be more involved in transportation and larger distribution efforts,” Barnett said.  “I tend to not really think about being in a male-dominated environment – unless it is in a humorous way. However, I have often noticed that I would be the only female in a meeting or on a trip engaging with mostly military or civilian [fuel distribution system operators, quality assurance personnel, logisticians and engineers].” 

DLA Energy Strategic Policy & Programs Director Regina Gray also got her start in the federal government in the early 1980s.

“I am originally from Houston, where I graduated with a chemical engineering/chemistry degree,” Gray said. “My original plans were to work for an oil company or engineering firm that supported the oil industry, but due to layoffs and the advice of my mother, I moved to Washington D.C., started as a GS-9 chemist and worked my way up the corporate ladder at DLA Energy.”

As SPPD co-director, Gray supervises 42 employees responsible for all of DLA Energy’s policy/procedures, management oversight of business processes [process health] and long-range and strategic initiatives that affect DLA Energy’s mission. Her directorate manages and oversees the department’s entire bulk petroleum supply chain in DLA’s role as Executive Agent. Additional duties include audit sustainment management oversight; support and analysis of all DLA Energy governance activities, including strategic planning and organization performance metrics/management; and studies, projects and business case analyses that have DLA Energy-wide mission implications. 

Despite challenges working in non-traditional career fields, DLA Energy senior female leaders did not let the absence of role models dissuade them.

“I learned very quickly that I had to prove myself to my male peers,” Gray said. “This included going on temporary duty to Mexico for 21 days to load crude oil tankers in support of the Department of Energy’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve efforts, serving as a member of the U.S. delegation for the NATO Fuels & Lubricants Working Group and serving as an active member and subcommittee officer for the American Society for Testing and Materials for many years [DoD uses most of ASTM’s specifications and standards to support Warfighter fuels requirements].     

Gray attributes much of her success, starting as a GS-9 chemist and advancing to a GS-14 technical division chief, to her former boss who served as a mentor during her formative career development years. 

“This time period allowed me to grow by learning the trials and tribulation associated with working in an organization that relies a lot on building relationships with peers both inside and outside of DLA Energy to get things done,” Gray explained.  “When my mentor retired, I had to reassess how I could move to the next level. I then took on highly visible projects that gave me more exposure at the Office of the Secretary of Defense level and at [the Office of Management & Budget, Department of Energy]. I also volunteered to represent DLA Energy on the headquarters diversity team where I interacted with DLA senior executive service leadership. I also took advantage of all career development opportunities such as the Office of the Secretary of Defense Leadership and Management Program and the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy. This ultimately led to me being promoted to a GS-15 senior leadership position in 2003.”      

The barriers for lateral movement and career growth for employees in lower-paying or non-mission critical occupations did not stop Murphy, Gray or Barnett from succeeding in their respective career fields.

“I remember an interview many years ago for a position in a very male-dominant area at the time – where I was asked if I had children or how would I deal with traveling and going to facilities where there are predominantly men working in an operational/field environment,” Barnett said.  “I took the question in stride, answered honestly and tried to make sure they understood how I would perform my duties. I was selected and then was very conscious of the question as I moved forward in terms of how I behaved, dressed, and ensured it was known that I was technically capable and knowledgeable.  I had to do what was necessary to remove what might be seen as a barrier to successfully getting the job done.

“You have to prove yourself as competent, reliable and capable,” Barnett said. “You cannot expect a different set of rules. I was very sensitive to the fact. If I had a job that required a lot of travel, then that is what I had to do if I was going to take the job. There were some [people] I had worked with who took the job then [added the caveat of] “I would rather not travel or do portions that [are] difficult when raising a family.” You need your family’s support to be successful. I think that is the case for anyone, regardless of gender.”

For both men and women, commitment to career advancement requires accomplishment and dedication.

As the highest-ranking woman of color within DLA Energy, Gray refuses to see obstacles and challenges in her job.

“I am truly confident in what I bring to this organization ... corporate knowledge, experience and excellent leadership and communications skills,” Gray said. “I used to worry about what others thought about me. Today, I speak openly and with confidence. I guess this is because I truly understand what my strengths and weaknesses are. Also, I am not afraid to ask questions if I don’t understand. Lastly, I believe in treating everyone with dignity and respect, no matter what level they are in the organization.”   

Barnett shares a similar view.   

“There is the impression someone has when they first meet you or engage in conversation. I recall when I was young and we met with some of the suppliers from the Southwest Asia areas – I came into the room representing the logistics/distribution team. I was young and not a male so I got the impression they expected little ... however, once we began to discuss the issues that changed. I recall one of the individuals saying “You really know about this.” I laughed and said something like, ‘That is why they pay me.’ It changed our future rapport working together, but had I been offended or taken the remark to heart, the relationship and my ability to work with them would have been impacted. I purposefully did not let the comments or actions of others bother me or dissuade me from doing the job I was being paid to do.”

Today’s high-performing, diverse workforce at DLA Energy reflects the considerable advances women have made in leadership positions since 1992 and changes in the composition of the workforce.

According to OPM, women entering the workforce now are more likely to be on a management track than they were a decade ago. Within the federal workforce, differences between women and men in experience and education have diminished. Women are more likely to hold a four-year degree and the trend of women who have both extensive work experience and degrees will continue to rise.

With the considerable progress that has been made, is there still room for improvement?

For Gray, there are still challenges ahead.

“Looking back at my career over the past 33 years, I find it quite shocking that I am the ‘only’ GS-15 African-American female in the history of DLA Energy to serve in senior leadership positions,” said Gray. “This was a goal I set for myself early on in my career. Was it easy?  No, but I continued to prepare myself for the next level. Ultimately, my past experiences have made me a much better leader.  Also, in order to open doors for other African-American women to achieve this goal, we need to look beyond skin color when hiring the best candidate for the job.”