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Feature Story:

Honoring State's Women

By Donna Miles

In recognition of Women's History Month, two senior managers reflect on the evolving role of women in the Department.

Mary Ryan remembers sitting in her sixth-floor office when Secretary Madeleine Albright called to tell her that she had been nominated to become a career ambassador.

It was a significant moment for the Department--the first female Secretary of State notifying the second woman ever to rise to the highest rank in the Foreign Service.

Ms. Ryan, assistant secretary for Consular Affairs, was speechless. "I was thunderstruck, absolutely astounded," she said. "There was a long pause, and when I was finally able to get out the words to say that I couldn't speak, Secretary Albright laughed and said, 'Yes, I noticed that.'"

Women at State have come a long way, baby.

International diplomacy long stood as a male bastion. For decades, women served at only the lowest levels within the Department, hand-copying letters and official documents before the days of typewriters and washing windows and rest room towels.

As the story goes, when a particular woman was recommended for a job in the Bureau of Rolls and Library in 1884, the Department's chief clerk scrawled on the recommendation letter he forwarded to the bureau chief, "Is this your chick?" Even then, bureau chief Timothy Dwight bristled at the question, replying that the candidate "would scorn to be called anybody's chick."

The term, which practically disappeared from the vernacular during the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, has reemerged in some circles at State, but in a different context. Kathleen Charles, deputy assistant secretary for Budget and Planning and one of the Department's highest-level Civil Service employees, said she's heard several male colleagues refer to the "chicks in charge."

Ms. Charles, who's served in the Senior Executive Service at State for 10 years, takes no offense and believes none is intended. "I know it's used tongue in cheek," she said. "But I honestly feel it's being said with a recognition that, yes, the State Department does have women in some very high-level positions--Secretary Albright, [Chief of Staff] Elaine Shocas, [Department Counselor] Wendy Sherman and [Undersecretary for Management] Bonnie Cohen among them.

"And I believe it's said with a healthy respect that they're dynamic, bright, hard-working, inspirational people doing some pretty great things."

While women served in various capacities at State from its earliest days, it wasn't until 1922 that Lucille Atcherson became the first woman in the Foreign Service. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Ruth Bryan Owen chief of mission in Denmark. President Harry Truman appointed Eugenie Anderson U.S. Ambassador to Denmark in 1949. Four years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named State's first woman career Foreign Service officer, Frances Willis, as U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland. Ms. Willis later became the Department's first woman career ambassador.

Today, women make up almost 30 percent of the Foreign Service and almost two-thirds of State's Civil Service workforce. At the senior levels, they comprise 19 percent of Foreign Service generalists, 4 percent of Foreign Service specialists and 23 percent of the Civil Service. In addition, 34 women are chiefs of mission around the world.

Assistant Secretary Ryan has watched the role of women at State continue to change since she entered the Foreign Service in 1966. Those were the days, she recalled, when the Foreign Service was both demanding and protective of its women employees. It required them, for example, to resign if they married--even if they married another Foreign Service member. As one of seven women in her 41-member Foreign Service orientation class, Ms. Ryan remembers that her male colleagues treated her almost like a sister. "We were friends," she said. "I don't remember getting the sense that anyone felt threatened by us."

Ms. Ryan remembers back to her first posting, in Naples, when a male inspector told her there was no reason she couldn't "go right to the top." And that's exactly what she did.

She served in personnel and consular assignments in Honduras, Mexico, Cote d'Ivoire and Sudan, as well as Washington, D.C. She was a Foreign Service inspector, the executive director in the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs and the executive assistant to the undersecretary for Management. She was named U.S. Ambassador to Swaziland in 1988, then principal deputy assistant secretary for Consular Affairs, and directed the Kuwait task force after the 1990 Iraqi invasion. She returned to the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs as deputy assistant secretary for North Europe, then was named to her current position in 1993.

She's built her career on a philosophy the assistant secretary said applies to everyone, male or female: "If you work hard and are good at what you do, you'll be successful." That doesn't mean she hasn't sat in a meeting, offered a suggestion and had it ignored, only to watch a man say the same thing and have everyone agree with him. But those experiences, she said, have been few and far between.

Ms. Ryan said she never experienced "the glass ceiling" that some women say separates them from the most coveted jobs and assignments. "The Foreign Service has been good to me," she said. "I always got good jobs and always got recognition and promotions. I always felt that what people considered to be important was how I worked and what I accomplished."

Deputy Assistant Secretary Charles, too, said she's never felt that being a woman has stood in the way of opportunities offered to her in the federal government, including at State. She was a rising star at NASA, going from a GS-7 management intern to a Senior Executive Service manager in just nine years. She does, however, remember one day at NASA in the early 1970s when a supervisor asked her to answer the office telephones while the secretary went to lunch. "Sure," the young intern responded enthusiastically. "Do we all take turns?"

Ms. Charles said the statement established a standard she's maintained throughout her career--a willingness to pitch in and do whatever it takes to get the job done, but not to be singled out for the less-desirable tasks because she's a woman. "My philosophy has always been that if there's nothing in your inbox, you should go see who needs help," she said. "You'll make a contribution to the office and maybe learn something at the same time."

The lessons Ms. Charles learned at NASA prepared her for a stint as deputy comptroller at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Later she joined State as the assistant inspector general for policy, planning and resource management, then was named deputy assistant secretary for resources in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. She has served as deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Financial Management and Policy for the past four years. There, she is responsible for formulating and executing a $2.5 billion budget that, thanks to an emergency security supplemental, grew by another $1.4 billion this year .

Not bad, she acknowledges with a smile, for someone with a bachelor's and master's degree in education who never took a business or accounting course. "I've been very lucky," she said.

But Ms. Charles is a firm believer that "luck is the intersection of opportunity and preparedness." Her formula for success--one she's followed throughout her career--is four-fold: Always keep your eye on the next job. Do your very best in the job you have. Don't be afraid to take on extra responsibilities. And be willing to adopt new technology and new ways of getting the job done.

"Bright people who seek opportunities and work hard can succeed at State and anywhere else," she said. "It doesn't matter anymore whether you're male or female. It's what you're willing to contribute."

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