The Glass 2017: Evolving The Business Woman – A Women’s Business Conference

By Susan Jacobs, vice president of human resources and administration at Newport News Shipbuilding (Remarks as prepared)

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I’m excited to be in a room full of professionals to discuss the glass ceiling theory and our approach to addressing this societal challenge at Newport News Shipbuilding.

More importantly, I’m so happy to talk to you about how important YOU are to the world of business, and I look forward to learning something new from you.

Susan Jacobs
Susan Jacobs

But first, I’d like to share a personal story. After completing my MBA at the University of Southern Mississippi, I landed a job in my home state as assistant general manager of a campground. I handled the business operations of the facility—HR, payroll, contracts—and worked for a really mean boss.  He wasn’t only mean to me. He was mean to everyone, including the owners of the company.

One day, the owners showed up at our offices unannounced and fired him. They immediately marched into my office and told me, “You’re the boss now.”

I was shocked.

My mean boss gets fired and I’m promoted—all in one day. So—I now find myself leading operations for a 110-acre playground for snowbirds, one of 60 properties our company owns across the country. 

I’m about one month into the job when one of our customers—we’ll call him Dan—appears in my office and tells me a man should be operating the campground—it’s no job for a woman. He said the company had made a terrible decision and I was going to ruin it for everyone.I sat back and listened to what he had to say. And can you believe I even THANKED him before he left?

 I saw him from time to time after that, but the conversation was never mentioned again.

It’s no job for a woman.

I wonder if anyone ever told Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson—an American theoretical physicist—that her job was not fit for a woman? Her research is responsible for the creation of caller ID and call waiting.

Or Mary Anderson, who invented the windshield wiper?

Or Stephanie Kwolek, the chemist who invented Kevlar—the lightweight fiber used in bullet-proof vests and body armor? Surely someone told Stephanie her job was “no job for a woman.”

I’m here today to tell you that there is no job that a woman—or anyone for that matter—cannot do. You can do anything you want to do. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The United States Federal Glass Ceiling Commission defines the glass ceiling this way: It is an unseen, yet unbreakable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.

I will admit to you that I’ve never thought about the glass ceiling in my 25-plus-year professional career. Maybe it’s because I had a great role model in my grandmother, Beulah Stewart. She graduated from high school, married young, and had four children. Her husband got a job in another state and left her behind, virtually deserting her. He was later killed in a car accident.

That meant she had to go to work. Back then, women didn’t really work, but she couldn’t let that get in her way—she had a family to support.

My grandmother got a job sewing pockets on pants for a company called Reliance. She was paid based on the number of pockets she sewed that passed a quality inspection. For her, that meant she worked through lunch because the more pockets she sewed, the more money she earned.

She did that job for 40 years. The constant drone of the machines caused her to lose her hearing. The constant sitting caused her knee problems that were so severe she had to have a leg amputated. It didn’t stop her. My grandmother never complained.

She was never in charge of anything—but she was in charge of herself. And she successfully raised four children…two of whom were small business owners, one who became a manager in the health care industry and another who devoted her life to raising her own children. 

I’d say my grandmother was a rip-roaring success. 

And just because I’ve never thought about the glass ceiling does not mean it hasn’t affected me—it probably has and I never recognized it.

There are plenty of stories and statistics out there that prove the glass ceiling is an unfortunate reality. According to the Center for American Progress, women today account for about 47 percent of the U.S. labor force and 49 percent of the college-educated workforce.

BUT in the overall S&P 500 labor force, only 37 percent of first or middle managers are women. Only 25 percent of executive and senior level managers are women. Only 19 percent of board of director seats are held by women, and only 4.6 percent of CEOs are women.

I would love to tell you that the company I work for – Newport News Shipbuilding – is different. But I would be lying. What I can tell you, though, is we are working hard to leverage our diversity and to utilize ALL of our talent to make ours a better company.

For those of you who don’t know much about Newport News Shipbuilding, we are the nation’s sole designer, builder and refueler of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. We are one of only two shipyards capable of designing and building nuclear-powered submarines. We also provide fleet services for naval ships. We are the largest industrial employer in Virginia, employing about 20,000 people. And one thing that I find to be very unique about our workforce is many of our employees are third- and fourth-generation shipbuilders.

We are 131 years old, and for the majority of those years, we have been a male-dominated business. But the world we live in—and work in—is changing…

Before I go any further, I brought a few of my friends with me today that I’d like to introduce.

Ladies—please stand up when I call your names:

  • Deidra Bethea—Deidra is a designer in our Submarine Engineering Program.
  • Marcia Stewart-Downing—Marcia is a senior training developer in our Training Services Division.
  • Heather Rugnetta—Heather is a nuclear engineer in our Nuclear Propulsion Division.
  • Tonia Smith – Tonia is a production planner and scheduler.
  • Britta Brown-Zambrana—Britta is a quality manager in our Audit and Assessment division.
  • Amarita Strange—Amarita is an HR business partner in our Employee Relations office.
  • Deborah Rogers—Deborah is a computer software validation analyst in our Cybersecurity Department
  • And Janet Jones, a 16-year veteran shipbuilder who works as a test electrician at Newport News Shipbuilding.

These ladies are some of the shipyard’s shining stars. They represent a cross-section of the jobs in the shipyard and they have proven themselves to be leaders in their respective areas of expertise.

Janet was recently featured in a video our communications division—led by a woman—put together for our inclusion and diversity campaign, which I will talk about in greater detail in a few minutes.

Janet has graciously agreed to let me share her video with you.

So let’s roll the video now…

Janet—thank you for being the strong woman you are, and for reminding others that your gender does not define your amazing abilities as a shipbuilder.

Of our 20,000 employees at Newport News Shipbuilding, women comprise only about 17 percent of our workforce. If you dig into our statistics a little deeper, only about 9 percent are women of color. About 11 percent of our management positions are held by women. And only about 4 percent of women of color hold management positions.

I’m proud to say that one of those women in a leadership position—in the very TOP leadership position—is our company president, Jennifer Boykin. Jennifer was elected to serve as our president in May and officially started her new role on July 1. She is our 20th president and the first woman ever to serve in that role in our 131-year history.

Here’s a great story Jennifer shared with me:  She’s made it a habit to always leave herself room to learn something new every day, every week. By that I mean, she gives herself permission to not have to know everything. At the end of each week, she thinks “I need to spend more time learning about this, and I can spend less time on that.”  Then she says that she happily tells herself, “Jennifer, you are gonna be so smart in 10 years!” 

Jennifer’s appointment has opened so many women’s eyes to the opportunities that exist in the shipyard. And while Jennifer’s rise through the shipyard ranks and her appointment to president are encouraging, we recognize that we have a lot of work to do.

Jennifer Boykin and the women you see here at our table today represent a much larger group of talented women who make important contributions toward building the greatest warships the world has ever known.

Building ships is an important job—and one that is fit for a woman.

At Newport News Shipbuilding, we are committed to creating a culture that is open-minded, accepting and embraces our differences. We have launched a number of initiatives and programs to underscore that commitment and communicate the value to our workforce.

The video we just watched is part of an inclusion and diversity campaign I mentioned earlier. The campaign is called “About Face,” and it has included a series of posters and videos like the one you just watched. It challenges our workforce to rethink their preconceived notions. To question stereotypes. To ask uncomfortable questions. And to remind shipbuilders that every person matters and everyone’s opinion counts.

These posters and videos have not always been well received. But that’s okay. Change is never easy. We have to become more comfortable being uncomfortable.

We also have Employee Resource Groups—or ERGs—that are formed around common communities of interest in support of our company’s business objectives. These are wonderful groups that facilitate networking, professional and personal development, recruiting and community outreach. Most importantly, they strengthen employee relationships and support leadership and professional development.

We have an ERG for African American shipbuilders, Hispanic shipbuilders, veterans and a group for the LGBT community. We have an ERG that represents our Asian workforce and women in shipbuilding. In fact, many of the women leaders I just introduced to you represent those various groups. What’s even greater is that the members don’t necessarily have to identify with the ERG they join. It’s an opportunity to learn more about other ethnicities and influences, and all are welcome.

Newport News Shipbuilding is also committed to education, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. Although just as many girls as boys are completing high-school, and more women graduate from college than men, women are still underrepresented in STEM fields.

In the United States, women earn only about 35 percent of the undergraduate degrees in STEM--a number that has remained stagnant for the past decade—even though women account for nearly 60 percent of college graduates. Of the STEM degrees, women earn about 40 percent of the degrees in math, but only 18 percent of those in computer sciences or engineering.

To help address this issue in our community, Newport News Shipbuilding has a program we call GEMS. The acronym stands for “Girls with Engineering Minds in Shipbuilding.” It won’t surprise you to learn that GEMS is the brain-child of Jennifer Boykin. 

It is an after-school program geared toward middle-school-aged girls who are interested in pursuing engineering and other STEM careers. Female engineering mentors from the shipyard are partnered with the students to encourage college and career pathways and to help motivate the girls to excel in STEM-related classes. The girls also participate in hands-on STEM activities that promote learning different engineering principles such as structural, mechanical and electrical engineering.

It’s so very important to encourage our children’s interests at an early age. GEMS is just one example of the many programs we have to motivate our future workforce. While GEMS, and Career Pathways, another one of our community-outreach programs that mentors students, take shipbuilders into the classroom, we also offer behind-the-scenes opportunities for area teachers, principals and guidance counselors inside the shipyard gates. 

Next month, the theme of our annual Manufacturing Day event will be “Celebrating Diversity in Manufacturing: Getting the Girls Involved.” We have invited 25 middle and high school principals, administrators, and teachers from across Hampton Roads to participate. The event will include a windshield tour of the shipyard, hands-on demonstrations of our various trades, and a look at some of the newer technology we are implementing in the yard such as augmented reality, modeling and simulation and the use of tablets in ship construction.

We are examining our hiring process and how we can better diversify our workforce and level the playing field for all of our shipbuilders—whether they are men or women, black or Hispanic, young or more seasoned. During our hiring process for senior leaders, we require that a diverse slate of candidates be given the chance to interview. For candidates who are not selected, a developmental plan is put in place to help the candidate become more competitive the next time around.

Because I work in the human resources field, I’m often asked for career advice. And while I have followed much of my own advice, I have not followed all of it. My experience has shown me I should have.

First and foremost, tell your children—and especially your daughters—that they can do anything they want to do. Raise them to believe there are no boundaries in the way of pursuing their dreams.

Get an MBA. It’s a game-changer. It will give you the skills, confidence and credentials that put you on an entirely different career track.

Learn to negotiate your salary. Research shows that only 7 percent of women who hold an MBA ask for more money during salary negotiations, while 57 percent of men do. And guess what? Men’s starting salaries were 7.6 percent higher.

Get to know yourself. Insight and self-actualization are essential to finding the right career opportunities. Find the job that will fulfill you and make you happy. That’s the career that will make you want to work harder and continuously improve.

Another important piece of career advice I would offer is establishing mentors. To improve ourselves and be the best we can be, we must learn to ask for and accept honest feedback. Seek input from people you respect, and ask for their guidance and advice.

Now, there’s also an opinion out there that women cannot be successful mothers and also hold a successful career. How many of you in this room manage to hold down a full-time job, pack lunches, help with homework and do all of the other things that moms do?

Exactly. But there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Hire a housekeeper. Or a nanny. Or a professional shopper to run your errands for you from time to time. It can save your sanity and allow you more time—when you’re not working—to spend time with your family.

You work hard and you deserve it.

When it comes to opportunities for advancement, don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder. This is your career—not a high school dance. Research shows that women wait for recognition instead of proactively seeking credit for their achievements, unlike our male counterparts, who are quite comfortable discussing their accomplishments.

This next piece of advice may surprise you—but when it comes to your career, don’t try to plan ahead too much. Successful executives will tell you time and time again that the best career opportunities were the ones that they would have never predicted. Be open-minded and flexible and resist trying to map out your life years in advance.

Finally, develop your own personal leadership philosophy. Deciding what you want to be known for and what you stand for is critical to your long-term success.

So—remember Dan, the campground customer who told me that running a campground was no job for a woman?

Well, he was right.

Less than one year later, I no longer ran one campground. I was promoted to regional manager and I ran 5 campgrounds and was responsible for 3 states. About 18 months after that promotion, I was promoted again to divisional manager and I ran 15 of the company’s 60 resorts and covered 8 states in the southeast US.

If you heard nothing else today, I hope you heard this: Glass ceilings are meant to be broken. Don’t let them be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t let others tell you that you can’t do something—that you’re not the right person for the job. Work hard like Janet Jones. Be the best you can be—like my grandmother, Beulah.

You can do anything you want to do—and then some.

Thank you for your time today.

Contact information

Christie Miller
Manager of Media Relations
Newport News Shipbuilding Communications
(757) 380-3581

About Huntington Ingalls

Huntington Ingalls Industries is America’s largest military shipbuilding company and a provider of professional services to partners in government and industry. For more than a century, HII’s Newport News and Ingalls shipbuilding divisions in Virginia and Mississippi have built more ships in more ship classes than any other U.S. naval shipbuilder. HII’s Technical Solutions division provides a wide range of professional services through its Fleet Support, Integrated Missions Solutions, Nuclear & Environmental, and Oil & Gas groups. Headquartered in Newport News, Virginia, HII employs nearly 37,000 people operating both domestically and internationally. For more information, visit:

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