By Latease Lashley
Arlene has never been afraid of an opportunity.
She earned her Naval Flight Officer wings of gold just after a policy restricting women from serving in combat roles was lifted and became the first woman assigned to naval squadron VAQ-138 on Whidbey Island, Washington.
At age 24, this wasn’t the first time she was the first female in a group. In high school, Arlene was the first and only girl to opt out of home economics. Instead she chose shop class, where she excelled in carpentry and metal working. Her dad taught her the value of independence and that she could do anything she wanted to do at an early age.
Her desire to blaze her own trail led to a career at Northrop Grumman where she has worked for nearly 19 years. Arlene is the vice president of operations for Maritime/Land Systems and Sensors in Baltimore where she leads a team of more than 1,100 employees. In a brief Q&A, Arlene shared more about her historic career.
How did you become a naval aviator?
When I was in college, I joined the ROTC program. After receiving my commission, my first assignment was as an Intelligence Officer in Iceland for a year and a half. I wasn’t physically qualified to be a pilot and I had missed a letter on the eye chart of the physical exam. I asked some other officers stationed with me about what it was like to be a Naval Flight Officer. I decided to apply to the program and was chosen to go to flight school for my next assignment. The timing worked out perfectly. Literally, a month before I got my wings in June 1993, the combat exclusion policy was lifted, allowing women to serve in more roles in the military.
Did you feel empowered by putting on the same uniform as the men in the squadron?
The flight suit was actually very comfortable. It’s like wearing your pajamas to work! But I’ve always been comfortable doing things outside of the norm. When I joined the Navy, I knew that I was a definite minority, but it didn’t bother me. My friends and classmates were going through the same training I was, and we worked alongside each other and relied on each other to make it through. That created a bond that has lasted a lifetime.
I remember when I was assigned to the VAQ-138 Yellowjackets after my training was complete — all of the guys looked at me with the proverbial question mark over their head. Like, “how are we going to act around her? Is she going to mess up what we have?” So I did what I had always done – put my head down, jump right in and work hard to learn my job. For example, I would offer to fly the night schedule that others didn’t want to do, and I tried to earn my qualifications as quickly as possible. In a squadron you have to build credibility and prove that you are trustworthy because you depend on each other and lives are at stake. My goal was to earn the respect and trust of my squadron mates as soon as I could.
How did your dad help inspire your career choice?
I learned about service from my dad. He enlisted in the Navy during World War II, and when he got out, he went to college on the GI Bill. He was also a private pilot, and I got to fly with him and my mother and sister when growing up. I also learned about electronic warfare from him, because of what he did later as an engineer. My dad worked for a subcontractor to Grumman on Long Island where I grew up. I’m really proud — and think it’s pretty cool — that my dad was one of the original designers of the weapon system on the EA-6B, the plane that I flew in the Navy.
What lessons have you learned in the Navy that have helped you build a successful career?
One lesson I learned was how to compartmentalize. It’s a skill that’s taught to aviators to help focus on the task at hand with the intent of increasing performance and safety. It means to leave the distractions that may cloud your thinking outside the cockpit (or workplace). Turn your mind from thoughts of anything other than the job at hand, and pick them up again when the job is done. Other ways to think about it is being “laser focused” or “fully present” in the moment. Like anything else, it takes practice.
What advice would you give to women looking to climb the corporate ladder?
Get out of your comfort zone and do something a little bit different. When I interviewed for my first vice president position, I didn’t get it. The feedback I received was that I didn’t have enough diversity of experience, which shocked me because I had all different types of programs, different customers, and different technology areas across two campuses. When I look back, my resume had lots of program management experience, but that was just scratching the surface of what is possible here at Northrop Grumman. It didn’t represent the breadth of the company, and there was so much more I could learn and benefit from if I did something different. My advice would be to realize the value of stepping outside your comfort zone — and then do it.