In honor of the many contributions women have made in the history of our service, leaders of today’s Coast Guard are gathering to celebrate Women’s History Month. From boat stations to aircraft hangars, servicemembers are recognizing barrier-breaking women who have made our nation great.
This year’s national theme is Women inspiring innovation through imagination: Celebrating women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This theme focuses on generations of women who, throughout history, have used their intelligence, imagination and tenacity to make extraordinary contributions to the STEM fields.
At a Women’s History Month event in Chesapeake, Va., female panelists reflected on major milestones and their careers in the STEM fields specifically.
In speaking about women in combat and in submarines, Capt. Brenda K. Kerr, Coast Guard office of logistics policy chief, noted, “I would encourage any female or male to pursue challenging opportunities, however, I expect the standards for acceptance to be the same. If the standards are not equal for women and men, the victory of being accepted into the program is hollow.”
As a senior officer in a Coast Guard headquarters directorate, Kerr helps oversee logistics policy and information technology systems for the Coast Guard and is the program manager for logistics at the local sector.
“All these jobs are extremely challenging both physically and mentally so anyone applying should fully understand what they are getting themselves into,” she added. “I wouldn’t want anyone to say I got something just because I was woman. I want them to say I got it because I deserved it based on my skills and accomplishments. I think any man would want the same thing said about them and the positions they filled in their career.”
Capt. Mariapaz U. Smith, senior dental officer at Base Elizabeth City, remembered how her father supported her interests in science, biology and math. Smith grew up in Mexico, where the “macho” culture is strongly entrenched, but that didn’t deter her from pursuing a career in the sciences. Instead she embraced the fact that she was one of the few women who was interested in science, biology, math and chemistry.
“My father was a very important figure in my successful career. He would spend hours teaching me arithmetic and mathematics when I was in elementary school,” recalled Smith. “He would also motivate and advise me to be dignified in life, in other words, to be prepared to work and be financially independent. I am very happy that my father guided me into science.”
Today, Smith holds a license by the State of Virginia for “Missions of Mercy” directed specifically to the care of children of unemployed families. Her humanitarian pursuits include serving with the Indian Health Clinic on the Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and medical missions in Peru. Throughout her career Smith sought every opportunity to ease suffering and promote understanding, both on the job and on her own time and dime.
Overcoming stereotypes, social constructs or challenges isn’t easy for women or for anyone who is a minority in any given situation. The panelists agreed that competence, skill and emotional intelligence contribute to a better playing field in their careers and helps increase understanding of their ability as women to perform capably and confidently in their chosen fields.
“The best advice that I can give is to make sure that you are knowledgeable, confident and relevant in your field, said Ensign Misti D.Tokarsky, Automated Identification System project manager at Sector Hampton Roads. “People will respect you if they see that you know what you are talking about!”
“I have never felt out of place because I made sure I was a good civil engineer first, being a woman should have nothing to do with how people accept me in my profession,” said Kerr. “I always strive to ensure people look at me as a solid civil engineer with the accomplishments to back it up, not as female civil engineer. I am aware however of how the junior female civil engineers perceive me and I want to be a role model to them not only as successful civil engineers but as an admired senior officer.”
Women have served with great honor and valor in defense of our nation for decades and today, women continue to make history in the U.S. Coast Guard. Kerr, Smith and Tokarsky represent the current generation of women who have used their intelligence and tenacity to make extraordinary contributions to the STEM fields and to the service.
Communications Master Station Atlantic Area commanding officer Capt. Frank E. Pedras with the Women’s History Month panel. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer Sarah B. Foster.