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Women’s History Month: DISA’s own trailblazer speaks to workforce

A Women’s History Month observance event, hosted by the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Resource Management Center director and comptroller, Sannadean C. Sims, was held at the agency’s Fort George G. Meade headquarters March 21.

DISA Vice Director Air Force Maj Gen Sarah E. Zabel was the featured speaker and the size of the crowd made for a standing-room-only event.

“I’m sure each one of us can identify a woman in our lives who we admire very much,” said Sims. “From our mothers, to our teachers, to our doctors — some of these women may have helped shape our lives or the lives of many others, such as those women who serve on the Supreme Court.”

This year’s Women’s History Month theme honors trailblazing women who have paved the way for future generations.

“DISA is highlighting a trailblazer of its own — Maj Gen Sarah E. Zabel, who has had 18 assignments over 29 years of service,” said Sims. She then shared some little-known facts about the agency’s vice director.

Zabel is from Devine, Texas, and is the second person from her town to graduate from the Air Force Academy. While at the academy, Zabel considered majoring in history but found she enjoyed science more. She pursued a computer science and biology degree. Today, she is recognized as a leading figure in federal information technology and was recognized as one of FedScoop’s Top 50 Women in Tech for 2016 and again in 2017.

“Only 6.7 percent of women graduate with STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] degrees,” said Zabel. “Why so few? Why not more?”

Looking back at her own journey, Zabel reflected on how fortunate she was because barriers were taken away when she was choosing her majors. The field was welcoming and inviting and she was able to pursue her true interests because the teaching staff really pulled her in, she said.

“[If you watch] TV and see computer scientists, they don’t look like anybody you want to associate with,” she said.

“What do we show people when they are thinking about a degree or a major? Should we show them people who are like you and are enjoying their field?” she asked the audience.

“My squadron was sponsored by the computer science department, so they had us in their house and showed us they were normal people,” said Zabel, who emphasized that a welcoming and inviting environment can have a profound effect on a young person.

In her presentation, Zabel highlighted additional female trailblazers to include Williamina Fleming — who started as a housekeeper at the Harvard College Observatory in 1880 and then became an astronomer that discovered 10 novae, 52 nebulae, and 310 variable stars — and retired Navy RADM Grace Hopper — known as the mother of computing because she helped develop a compiler that was a precursor to the widely used COBOL language.

“It’s just amazing as you look through [Hopper’s] career, how many people were always standing by to tell her ‘no,’” said Zabel. “She tried to enlist in the Navy, but she couldn’t because she was too old. She was also too skinny [at] 15 pounds underweight, so they wouldn’t let her enlist.”

Hopper did manage to get in the Navy Reserve with a waiver, and eventually retired — after two call backs —at the age of 80; she was the oldest active duty commissioned officer.

“Barriers start out as smart ideas and good rules of thumb, but then they become sort of permanent. After a while maybe it just doesn’t make sense,” said Zabel. “When we look back at history, we look back at people who accomplished incredible things — women, men — and when you think about what did it take to get them in a position where they can do that? Who opened the door? Who invited them in? Who broke the barriers, so they could serve to their fullest potential?”

Zabel concluded with an inspiring message to the workforce.

“Think about what sort of person you want to be. Do you want to be the person to set barriers or be the person who breaks them down?”

Click here for a copy of the presidential proclamation for Women's History Month.

Visit the DOD Women’s History Month website for more information.  

Posted March 23, 2017