"I can do anything I want to do," young Suzy Weil, Corps of Engineers Memphis District counsel and senior legal officer said.
“Now, looking back, I never questioned that I could grow up one day and do whatever I wanted to do," she said. "I can remember one of my father's law partners and best friend and his wife who was an attorney … and I can remember this woman who would come to my house. I would call her aunt Sherry. I just never thought it was something I could never do — becoming a lawyer."
This is just one of many responses heard during the virtual meeting the Memphis District held in celebration of Women's History Month in March. The meeting featured seven of the Mississippi Valley Division's most exceptional women working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
During the meeting, with a theme aptly titled "Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to be Silenced!", Weil acted as both moderator and participant in a captivating 90-minute question and answer session.
Participants included St. Paul District Equal Employment Opportunity Office Chief Courtney Emmerich, Chief Rock Island District Outreach and Customer Relations Specialist Angie Freyermuth, Memphis District Mechanical Engineer Erica Thomas, Memphis District Readiness and Contingency Operations Chief Kandi Waller, Memphis District Procurement Analyst TiJuana "TJ" Harris, and Memphis District Government Purchase Card Program Coordinator Carla Wells.
"To commemorate this month, we have asked a number of our outstanding professionals to participate in this roundtable discussion," Memphis District Commander Col. Zachary Miller said. "During the discussion, we will go behind Corps doors and have real conversations about celebrating women's contributions throughout history and their role in helping to solve the nation's toughest challenges."
And behind Corps doors, they went. Questions ranged from asking about who the women's role models were and what they wanted to be when they grew up to whether they had encountered offhanded comments related to gender bias in the workplace.
One of the first questions asked how they came to work for the Corps. Many said they gradually became employed with the Corps through their interests, working with people, and having a love for helping others.
"I wanted to be a physical therapist from the time I was in middle school all the way up to my junior year of college," Harris said. "I was a biology major; I love biology. I was gung-ho. There was no question about what I wanted to be until I realized, wait a minute — I don't want to be a doctor. I'm really not interested in being a nurse… wake up! What do you want to do with life?"
Harris said she immediately changed her major to business. She went on to work for several different corporations after she graduated but still didn't find her true passion until she found a military government job.
"This was far more fulfilling than any other job I had ever had," she said. "When I was overseas in Okinawa, I was introduced to contracting. There I became a contracting specialist. Most people think, ewwww, boring, redundant. But I was just the opposite — all day, every day. Once I started work as a contract specialist, I had to reroute. I got my master's. Everything about it was moving me towards who I was supposed to be."
She said she found this job by mistake, but it wasn't really a mistake; it was her destiny.
Harris' answer was like most of the women in the group (not all). Most didn't plan on working for the Corps when they were younger, but once they started, it was just what they were looking for. So, what about the negative comments? Weil asked the hard question. Had anyone encountered offhanded comments related to gender bias in the workplace? If so, what should they do?
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Chief Courtney Emmerich, if anyone is receiving discrimination based on gender or sexual harassment, they should report it. She recommends, if comfortable, to confront and address the person engaging in the harassment.
"Let them know you don't appreciate it and that it's offensive," Emmerich continued. "Put that person on notice that you're not okay with the way that you're being treated. If you don't feel comfortable, know that you can go to your EEO office if it's sexual harassment. If it's sexual assault, you can go to your SARC (Sexual Assault Response Coordinator) office for assistance, and you can always go to your supervisor."
Outside of harassment and what some call the "textbook answer," Thomas had a different perspective to offer up.
"So, I agree with what's been said so far, but I have to think about what's been said about my coming in to work at the Ensley Engineer Yard and the Metal Shop," Thomas started. "The funny thing is, the reaction I've gotten from the guys is really like, okay, well let's see. It's pretty much like that with anyone that comes to work at the metal shop, though; I think that's with anyone new. My sisters, on the other hand, can't understand why in the world I would want to be in a dirty job."
Thomas said that when she thinks about gender bias, to a certain extent, it is what we (as women) have been introduced to.
"It comes from all sides," she continued. "It's an opportunity when a woman is in a non-traditional position — or a position traditionally held by men — it's a learning experience not only for women who are there, but it's also a learning experience for the men. It gives us an opportunity to see not just what we can do as females, but it gives us an opportunity to see other females doing it. It's a job that can be done, that needs to be done, and one that you might now consider."
She concluded by saying that in terms of the conversation, she and others should think about how they can take this back to the number of women working under bad conditions or, even worse, not working at all. How can we take this experience we are living and show other women that it is possible to perform these jobs and earn a substantial living?
This type of bias is what she is trying to overcome to benefit the larger female community. Thomas ultimately challenged the Corps to work on recruiting more women into the predominately male populated career fields.
To finish the conversation up, Weil asked the two engineers and former prison guard about how they reached their level of success, as their fields are typically under-represented by women.
"I grew up in the engineering and construction division," Waller started. "I have actually been in several flood fights since 2008 to where I was able to gain enough knowledge to the point where I was asking for more areas and also to the point where I was filling in for other people."
Waller admits that she is not "the sharpest tool in the shed" but that she is persistent. That is how she got through college and how she eventually learned everything she knows about emergency operations.
"I was finally given the opportunity to go down and do a 120-day detail in emergency operations," Waller continued. "In that time, I was able to learn under the Emergency Manager Steve Barry, who had this wealth of knowledge that he kept trying to pass on to me. And some of it is sticking! I am thankful for that opportunity he allowed me to have. Maybe it was persistence or the fact that I kept saying, I got this, I got this, I can do this. I showed I could do it, and I continue to do it now."
Anyone listening to this panel of women could see they are empowered. But when asked if they would have done anything differently, a few had something extra to add. Weil, a former military officer, was quite clear on the advice she had to offer young women listening to the discussion.
"I think, for me, I would tell younger women that you have to make sure not to lose focus of what's important, and that's your family," Weil said. "Make sure you find the right work/life balance. Work is important, and to some, it does shape us, and we have an identity in it, but we also have an identity in our families, and we need to make sure we don't lose that."
While these women probably could have continued the discussion for another hour or two, all good things must come to an end. And with that, the commander thanked these incredible women for their participation, as well as everything they do for this country on a daily basis.
"I'm incredibly proud to be your commander and to serve alongside you in the division if you're not from this district," Col. Miller said in closing. "The strength of the nation, the strength of the Department of Defense, the Army, the Corps of Engineers, in fact, comes from bringing together so many people from diverse backgrounds. You all are an inspiration to other women out there, and to the men out there because everyone fights their own fight, and everyone has to go through different things in their lives. And I think it's very important for us to remember that everybody had a different journey to get to where they are now. Thanks again for everything that you do for the district, for the region, and for the nation."