Story by Stephen Baack on 08/25/2019HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (Aug. 25, 2019) As part of the Women's Equality Day celebration at the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, Aug. 22, three women at the Senior Executive Service level talked about overcoming obstacles, following the examples strong female role models have set for them, and embracing lessons and opportunities throughout their careers.
The discussion panel consisted of Audrey Robinson, Esq., chief of counsel at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center; Dr. Juanita M. Christensen, executive director of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation and Missile Center; and Karen Pane, director of Human Resources for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Women's Equality Day is celebrated nationally Aug. 26 and commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. This year's theme is "Perseverance Never Stop Moving Forward, Even when it does Not Seem Possible."
AUDREY ROBINSON, ESQ.
"Many of the strongest people I know are the women in my life," said Robinson, who has worked at NASA for nearly 34 years. "I think of my mother, my grandmother, my aunts and many of my mentors and people I've met along my path who have been able to endure so many things that would knock a lesser person off their feet, like deaths of children and spouses, and illnesses and all of the many challenges that happen in life. They've been able to persevere, to keep going and to make the impossible possible."
Recently, Robinson attended the funeral of her aunt Louise who passed away at age 92. During the eulogy, she was reminded of a story that illustrated her aunt's strength, determination and can-do attitude.
Louise had worked as a domestic caregiver while raising nine children of her own. Despite Louise's modest paycheck, Robinson said, her aunt was determined to send all of her children to college.
"When my aunt's oldest two children got ready to attend Alabama A&M, people were saying, How are you going to do it? How are you going to pay for it?'
"My aunt just said, Well, I've got two hands. Their daddy has two hands. They've each got two hands. We're going to put these hands to work, and we're going to make the impossible happen.' And she did. All nine of her children went to Alabama A&M, graduated and are all successful," Robinson said.
"Women all over the world and in your life, I'm sure, and in my life have been making things happen and getting the impossible done," said Robinson, who started working at Marshall Space Flight Center in 1986 as a materials engineer in NASA's Professional Intern Program.
About 13 years ago, Robinson was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time she was a single mother of a 2-year-old.
"That experience taught me so much about life and about what's important and what matters," she said. "I think that is helpful in being successful and helping you make it through the journey."
DR. JUANITA M. CHRISTENSEN
"I know the basis of [Women's Equality Day] really has to do with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, but I really believe it is more," she said.
"It was, foremost, about establishing and creating the foundational framework to remove biases of gender, race, religion, social standing, et cetera," she said. "Many of us would not be where we are without those foundational underpinnings having been accomplished. As a leader who strives for fairness of opportunity, I am forever grateful to the women and supporters of the past, because it was necessary to move us forward."
In 2015, Christensen became the first female black SES at the Aviation and Missile Research,
Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal, and then in 2017 she became the first female executive director of CCDC Aviation and Missile Center.
"I don't take that lightly," Christensen said. "I know that that came about because of a lot of successes of others and having a support structure."
Christensen was born in an impoverished community in East St. Louis, Illinois, which had and still has markedly higher rates of poverty, unemployment and violent crime per capita than the national average.
"Growing up there, the expectation for me and my career was that failure was my only option," she said.
She added that's why she is grateful for the people in her life like her mother, who at age 35 went back to earn her GED.
"She stressed to me, Do not let your environment define who you are,'" said Christensen, who was the seventh of eight children in her family.
"You can look at life as a series of roadblocks, or you can look at life as a series of challenges that you can overcome," Christensen said.
It was her mother who, in 2015, held the Bible on which Christensen placed her hand to swear in as the first black female Senior Executive Service professional at the Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal.
A year later, almost to the day, her mother passed away.
"I took away from her that she encouraged me to build upon who I am and to make a difference," she said.
The importance of mentorship is a topic Christensen comes back to again and again, which is no surprise as mentorship was the focus of her doctoral dissertation. Christensen has adopted the motto of "lift as you climb."
"My measure of success is for those around me to achieve more than I ever did," she said.
"When I started my career, I never thought I would be a senior executive with the Army or the government," said Pane, who first entered the workforce as a trauma nurse and also served in the Navy Reserve Nurse Corps.
Pane recalled the popular Navy recruiting slogan, "It's not just a job, it's an adventure."
"I really took that to heart not only in the Navy, but in my civilian career, too," Pane said. "You just never know where you might go if you keep all of the doors open, because it is an adventure."
As a nurse, her first job was ensuring the immediate safety and welfare of her patients, but she said her experiences in the emergency room also give her a window into the human condition and, with it, a desire to find solutions to many of the overarching problems that brought her in contact with patients in the first place.
"I wanted to do more," she said. "I wanted to be a part of that effort finding solutions and being part of that greater good. When you're looking at your career, it's not just about you. It's about what is good for your organization and the people around you, but also what is good for all the taxpayers, and just the greater good when you look at society."
While on one of her two-week Navy Reserve annual training rotations, she was offered a civilian position as director for the Navy's Health Promotion and Disease Prevention program. Over the years, she continued embracing opportunities to make a difference by taking on leadership roles with agencies like the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Always be flexible in your career," Pane said. "Let the adventure happen.
"You don't know the direction your career's going to take you," she said. "If you're just set on one thing, that's when you have to raise your hand and take that chance. Some of the directions I went I didn't think I was going to go."
Pane, having first become an SES with the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2006, took a chance by returning to DHHS because she wanted to make the move from policy and planning to operations.
"I actually took a downgrade," she said. "I went from an SES to a GS-15 so I could get experience. I couldn't find another SES position in operations because they wouldn't take me because I had been in policy and planning for so many years."
While at DHHS, she worked at the National Institutes of Health and then the Office of Regulatory Affairs with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. From there she went on to work at the Department of Homeland Security and now with Army Human Resources as a senior executive.
Although Pane's career has gone through plenty of changes, what she considers most important about civil service has stayed consistent.
"People are what it's all about," Pane said. "It's not about you; it's about your organization and it's about your people."