NORFOLK, Va. — The nation’s largest gathering of women in the military is focusing its weekend symposium on tacking the challenges women leaders face.

The Sea Service Leadership Association that sponsors the Joint Women’s Leadership Symposium said more than 800 people from every branch of the military are attending the two-day event that started Thursday at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Norfolk.

This is the symposium’s 27th year, and it addresses topics relevant to women in the military today, including career planning, mentorship and leadership development. Other topics include exploring challenges faced by servicewomen, including gender policies, personal well-being and sexual assault prevention.

“The most important thing that we’re hopeful that we can give people is the courage to either speak up, or to intervene on behalf of somebody else who doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Cari Thomas, chairwoman of the association’s board. “It took me about 10 years of wearing this uniform before I found the ability to speak up and tell somebody to knock something off that I was offended by.”

Thomas noted that when she attended her first symposium in the 1990s, there were only about 50 women in attendance. The large growth in attendance shows that the military appreciates the importance of networking, she said.

“As women it’s how we connect with one another, and it’s been very, very important for us,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a new problem. It’s only a new problem for you. We want people to have now a broader network of people that they can contact if they have a problem. I want people to invest in themselves. I think women have a very hard time in taking the time to invest in themselves, so it’s important to reinforce that.”

On Friday, women in each military branch will discuss topics specific to them. Senior military leaders will also be on hand, such as Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Bill Moran.

Moran intends to explore retention in the Navy to figure out how better ways to keep the Navy’s best and brightest in the service, where the retention rate for women is sometimes 50 percent lower than for men.

In a keynote address Thursday, Navy Vice Adm. Michelle Howard, deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy, touted the Navy’s program to allow sailors to take a year off. She noted that while that could be done for family reasons such as giving birth to a child, she also said a Navy SEAL has taken time off to go to Harvard and spend time with his family.

Howard told attendees that women leaders are a lot like isolated Western pioneers and that they could learn lessons from them, such as the importance of having a support network.

“Pioneering women have already figured this out,” she said. “You’ve got to commit to the journey, you’ve got to travel light, you better have stamina, you better have a sense of humor and you better stay connected.”

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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