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Assistant Secretary reflects on Women's History Month

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Feb. 29, 2012) -- March is Women's History Month and an assistant secretary of the Army said the observance is a recognition of the value that women have had in society all along.

"There have been periods in our history where women have not been as in front of the decisions -- but behind the scenes women have had a tremendous role," said Katherine Hammack, the assistant secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment.

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"It's always interesting to me to walk into the halls of the Pentagon and see the Women's Army Corps and see the contributions that they made in previous wars. Women have made contributions all throughout history."

This year, the theme for Women's History Month is "Women's Education -- Women's Empowerment."

An engineer by trade, Hammack said early on in her career, she was one of only a few women in her profession.

"When I went through engineering school I was one of three women in the engineering department," Hammack said. "It was interesting to be a minority in that situation. But after a while, people forget whether you're a man or a woman, and you're just a fellow student getting an education."

Hammack said opportunities for women in the private sector and the Army have increased from when she started out. A woman today, she said, is limited primarily by her own aspirations.

"There are way more opportunities available to women today than there were in the past," she said. "I think if you have an education that's going to serve you well, I think women are capable of almost any role now. I think in the past -- a paradigm, it was my mother's generation, where women were nurses or teachers, if you had a job. Nowadays, a woman can be anything that she has interest in being. I don't think there are any limitations to what anyone can do."

Hammack, who said she has no background with the military prior to being appointed in her current position, said she was surprised at how women in the Army are accepted in the positions they are in, and in the leadership positions they hold.

"I think the role has changed in that now [women] are seen as just as fellow members of the Army doing our jobs," she said. "I don't think if you're a man or woman it is looked on quite as closely as it may once have been. I think that's what surprised me most about becoming part of the Army family is how many women are in the Army doing phenomenal jobs."

From Gen. Ann Dunwoody, the first female Army four-star general, all the way down to Army privates, Hammack said she is impressed with the leadership capabilities she has seen in women in the Army, and in the work women are doing.

"I've seen women at every echelon doing phenomenal jobs," she said. "In theater I rode with women in the MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle). And so women can do just about any job that's put forward to them. So I think the role of women in society and the Army has changed over the last decades."

That women and men are integrated as they are in the Army, and that leadership positions and job opportunities are open nearly equal to both genders is a benefit to the Army, Hammack said. She said that studies have shown that the "IQ of diverse teams" was better than the IQ of homogeneous teams when it came to decision making.

"When we talk about diversity, we can talk about women mixed with men, we can talk about different cultures, different experiences, different age groups," she said. "But when you have a diverse team, you are going to have a better resulting decision. I think it's very important that we all think about diversity when we're building teams and making decisions."

The formula for success is the same for women as it is for men, Hammack said: hard work and education.

"You have to work hard, you have to take on responsibility, and you have to complete tasks," she said. "I've seen those people who don't get ahead, or those people who say 'it's not my job,' or those people who aren't willing to complete a task and who get it halfway done and pass it off to someone else. So I think for anyone to get ahead and succeed, you have to be able to take on that responsibility or maybe see where there is a need and work to fill that need."

Equally, if not more important to success, Hammack said, is a life-long commitment to learning.

"I think life is a continuous learning process," she said. "When you go and get a degree, no matter what degree it is, you are learning from the teachers, from the text books, and also from the other people in the class. I think everybody owes it to themselves to get an education and continue a lifelong habit of learning."

Among the myriad obligations for both leaders and aspiring leaders come two additional challenges to which Hammack said they should endeavor: writing and volunteerism.

"I think it's a responsibility of all leaders to volunteer and to publish and communicate," Hammack said.

Younger women and men "can volunteer within your own organization, you can volunteer in your community, you can volunteer in your church," Hammack said. "When you volunteer you meet different people. You get outside your comfort zone. You get outside the roles and responsibilities you have on a daily basis. And you contribute back to community, society and other organizations."

Hammack also said that aspiring leaders should write more, and learn to be more effective writers so they may better communicate their ideas.

"Writing about what you are doing, or experiencing or what you are learning is a tool that helps you gather your thoughts and become a better writer," she said. "But it's also a means of communicating to the rest of your team or your industry or the nation."

In her position as assistant secretary, Hammack is responsible for policy and oversight of sustainability and environmental initiatives; resource management, including design, military construction, operations and maintenance; base realignment and closure; privatization of Army family housing, lodging, real estate, utilities; and the Army's installations safety and occupational health programs.

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