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DHA encourages women leaders through Federal Women’s Program

Navy Rear Adm. Mary Riggs greets Army Maj. Angela Hinkson Navy Rear Adm. Mary Riggs, deputy assistant director of Research and Development and chief nurse officer at the Defense Health Agency. Pictured, Riggs greets Army Maj. Angela Hinkson, a reservist with the 301st Field Hospital, St. Petersburg, Florida, during distinguished visitor's day at Innovative Readiness Training Appalachian Care in 2019 at Wise County Fairgrounds in Wise, Virginia. (Photo by 1st Lt. Andrew Layton.)

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The Defense Health Agency recognizes that diversity is essential to a fulfilled workforce. In 2017, DHA established special emphasis programs to promote diversity, including the 2-year appointment of a Federal Women’s Program coordinator for the agency. Since its beginnings, the FWP has worked to provide opportunities for female representation at the supervisory level. The program recently took those opportunities one step further by hosting their first Women’s Leadership Symposium at DHA headquarters Aug. 21. Based on feedback from headquarters staff at this event, the organizers plan to survey and analyze female representation across the DHA.

“It inspires me so much, thinking about the women here at DHA and what we do,” Navy Rear Adm. Mary Riggs, deputy assistant director of Research and Development and chief nurse officer at DHA, said during opening remarks for the symposium. “We show up every day dedicated to the mission of serving our military and beneficiaries. I stand in admiration of each and every one of you.”

The FWP has multiple goals to help civilian and military women pursue leadership positions. Barbara Eilenfield, who served as the first special emphasis program coordinator for FWP, hopes to use the program to create a forum for issue discussion, educate women on action-based solutions to issues, and create a network of female allies. The program uses a mix of speaker engagements and discussions of case studies to paint a full picture of female leadership and turn that picture into actions.

The official FWP was not the first time that women at DHA gathered to enhance their leadership skills. Eilenfield shared at the symposium how she and a small group of women began meeting regularly as early as 2013 to set goals for what they wanted to accomplish at the agency.

“In the early days, groups of us met to talk about these issues over lunch,” Eilenfield said. “We had brown bag lunches, we talked about competitive programs, and we talked about career paths…not just working on the periphery of the Military Health System, but working in the business of the business.”

Eilenfield dug in by building what would be the foundation of DHA’s Federal Women’s Program. Eilenfield’s small lunch group soon expanded, motivated by Sheryl Sandberg’s self-help book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” After the Department of Defense hosted Sandberg to speak at the Pentagon in 2015, Eilenfield was inspired to launch a speaker series of her own. DHA has since hosted speakers like former acting assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Karen Guice, Director of DoD Policy for Special Emphasis Programs Charmane Johnson, and even the former director of DHA, Navy Vice Adm. Raquel Bono.

The Women’s Leadership Symposium continues this tradition, hosting women leaders from across the DoD to share their own wisdom and paths to success. Sharifah Williams, chief of the Workforce Development Branch, shared a few of these paths to success through DHA’s Workforce Development Program. The program offers career development, competitive educational programs, and mentoring programs to arm employees with the tools they need to lead.

Symposium panelist Naomi Escoffery is a testament to the benefits of the Workforce Development Program. Before her time as the business operations chief for the assistant director for Healthcare Administration, she was told multiple times that she would not reach the leadership goals she desired. Instead of giving up, she sought out mentors and career opportunities through the program to improve her skill set and broaden her way of thinking. Now, as a leader, Escoffery hopes to be a mentor and role model for other young women and minorities.

“There are a lot of young girls that look like us, and someone may have told them ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’” Escoffery said. “And because I know what it feels like for someone to tell me I’m not going to make it, I don’t ever want another young lady to have someone tell them that they can’t do something and then they don’t do it. I want to be an advocate and make sure that young girls have someone to ask questions and be inspired by.”

Eilenfield shares these beliefs, hoping to nurture more women leaders and mentors through FWP. The efforts have been working, as DHA has seen an increase in female representation at higher pay bands since last examining the data in 2016. Eilenfield hopes to see more women represented at the supervisory level and in functional areas like information technology and education at DHA.

“The numbers for female representation are going in the right direction,” Eilenfield said. “As we look to the future across the DHA, we must account for the fact that people come from different backgrounds and experiences. It’s important for supervisors to provide exposure and support to ensure women have opportunities to lead.”

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