Dr. Aziza Jefferson, Dr. Valerie Nelson, and Dr. Philicity Williams in front of NSA’s Fort Meade Headquarters (Photo: NSA)
By National Security Agency/Central Security Service
Numerous studies have documented roadblocks to success for women working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) – from fewer promotions and leadership appointments to lower salaries.
Minority women in those fields often face additional challenges, researchers have noted.
At the National Security Agency, workforce diversity matters. It is essential to the continued development of innovations that keep us ahead of adversaries. Our stellar women in STEM areas are often front and center – not in the Hollywood sense, but behind the scenes to help defend the nation. Many of them also know first-hand what it’s like to experience negativity based on gender and race and how to overcome it.
Read more about what three of NSA’s stars – who’ve earned doctorates in mathematics or computer science – have to say about their paths to success, and why they consider NSA the ideal place for them to shine.
Dr. Aziza Jefferson
What made you choose NSA and why have you stayed?
I first applied for NSA’s Summer Program for Operations Research Technology (SPORT) internship. The summer internship advertised interesting work. Once in the internship I decided to return full time because I found that I could truly help other people by solving interesting problems. I am not only able to use my mathematical skills, but engage my interests in other fields as well.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a black woman in your field?
I have encountered challenges in achieving peer acceptance. There have been multiple encounters when my achievements were questioned. Although I have experienced adversity, my mother provided a strong support system for me and her encouragement has helped me overcome many obstacles.
Dr. Valerie Nelson
How did you become interested in your field?
I have always loved to learn and be a problem solver so, naturally, I was interested in a range of career fields. When it came down to deciding a college major, I could not make up my mind! I knew I wanted to teach, but I did not want to go solely into education. My father always told us that mathematics was at the root of everything, just after knowing how to read, so I chose math, which grants me the option of working in any field that I choose.
What is your greatest achievement at NSA, thus far?
This is a difficult question for me. I have experienced many technical accomplishments and numerous examples where I affected significant impact on our mission, but what is most important to me is the welfare of people. People deserve to be safe, comfortable and granted the opportunity to be successful and productive. I recently received the Director’s Excellence in Leadership Award, and that was a key moment for me, primarily because it was a peer-nominated award but selected by our leadership. This award was proof that my efforts truly improve people’s lives and effectively make things happen. My other awards and successes do not compare to that fact alone.
Dr. Philicity Williams
Have you experienced adversity being a minority in your field? If so, how did you overcome it?
I have experienced adversity being one of the only or very few females and often the only person of color in various settings with other technical peers. Being the only one can cause feelings of isolation and cause some self-doubt in my technical abilities. I’ve overcome it by including other women and people of color whenever possible – mentoring and championing diversity, and not allowing the feelings of doubt or fear to stop me from trying.
What advice do you have for the younger generation of women interested in STEM fields?
Stick with it. Don’t be afraid to be the only girl or to try something new. Also, check with your local universities to see what type of programs are offered during the summer to grow and enhance your skills in a variety of STEM disciplines until you find the one you vibe with most.