Women don’t yet have the highest representation in leadership roles in the Federal government – especially in the senior executive ranks – and several women leaders in government offered advice for women looking to advance in the Federal government, encouraging them to create their own opportunities and pay it forward to others.

During ACT-IAC’s Women in Leadership Forum on July 14, Federal women leaders stressed that having diversity in the workplace lends to a “diversity of thought” and builds an inclusive work culture.

Soldenise Sejour, CIO at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Intelligence and Analysis, previously served as CISO for her component. Sejour said the one thing she is most proud of during her career is being able to serve as the first woman CISO at her component, as well as the first woman CIO.

She emphasized that “the percentages aren’t where they should be” for women in STEM or leadership roles, but she believes “we’re getting there.” Yet, once women reach a senior leadership position, Sejour encouraged women to not stop there, and to “pay it forward” to others.

“The journeys that we all have as women in technology and women in industry is, yes, we’re getting here, and we’ve got here, and we did the dang thing, but we also need to turn back and pay it forward,” Sejour said. “So, I think that shadowing is needed, it’s necessary, and it’s a great tool. And don’t wait for people to offer it to you… go for it, go get it, create that opportunity and just ask.”

Along the lines of shadowing, Sejour also emphasized the importance of having a diverse group of mentors in the workplace, saying, “the more diversity you have in your toolkit of mentors and coaches, the better.”

Sejour said she herself relies “on a diverse set of folks” to help her when she is “feeling weak,” but emphasized that “you get your confidence from understanding and owning your insecurities and facing them head-on, creating a network for yourself.”

“Know the strength of your voice and use it,” she stressed. “Don’t forget, you have a voice, so use it – in a professional and tactful way of course.”

During a separate panel, Andrea Brandon, deputy assistant secretary for budget, finance, grants, and acquisition at the Department of Interior, advised women looking to advance in the Federal government to “say yes” to opportunities or projects thrown their way.

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“Say yes, don’t limit yourself,” Brandon advised. “Don’t think ‘I don’t have the qualifications for that.’ Say yes to the project, and move forward in that.”

The other piece of advice Brandon offered was “don’t take it personally” if male counterparts don’t always listen to what you have to say.

“One of the things that’s happened as being a female leader in Federal government is there are times you’re in forums where it’s mostly men, and they actually don’t want to hear anything from a female,” she said. “I would say don’t take that personally, I know it’s hard, but you really have to train yourself and you have to look for someone you can pass the ball to.”

Brandon advised women in government whose ideas are not being heard to “pass the ball” to a male colleague in that situation who can also try to bring up the same message.

“Get the message heard, because in the end, we’re public servants, and we’re about the mission, and it’s not really necessarily about you, about me, it’s about getting the mission accomplished, moving forward for the vision of whatever that is. And definitely when you find yourself as a woman in that circumstance… really look to someone you can pass the ball to in order to continue to get the mission done. Don’t take it personally and I think that those two key things for me, have helped me with my success.”

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.