DISA’s own trailblazer speaks to workforce

Defense Information Systems Agency Vice Director Air Force Maj Gen Sarah E. Zabel shares her story as a woman in both the information technology field and in the military during the agency’s Women's History Month observance March 21. (Photo by Kevin Headtke/DISA Visual Information)

Air Force Maj. Gen. Sarah E. Zabel, vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, is a trailblazer in every sense of the word.

As second-in-command in this joint command, Zabel was the featured speaker for the Women’s History Month observance on March 21. The event was hosted by Sannadean C. Sims, DISA’s Resource Management Center director and comptroller, at the agency’s Fort Meade headquarters.

The size of the crowd made for a standing-room-only event.

DISA has nearly 6,000 civilian employees; more than 1,500 active-duty military personnel from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps; and approximately 7,500 defense contractors.

“I’m sure each one of us can identify a woman in our lives who we admire very much,” Sims said. “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.”

Sims said 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 — Major General Sarah E. Zabel, who has had 18 assignments over 29 years of service,” Sims said.

Sims then shared some background of DISA’s second-in-command.

Zabel, a native of Devine, Texas, is the second person from her town to graduate from the Air Force Academy. She considered majoring in history, but found she enjoyed science more and pursued a computer science and biology degree.

Today, Zabel 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,” Zabel said. “Why so few? Why not more?”

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

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

“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 environment can have a profound effect on a young person.

In her presentation, Zabel highlighted additional female trailblazers. They include Williamina Fleming, who started as a housekeeper at the Harvard College Observatory in 1880 and became an astronomer who discovered 10 novae, 52 nebulae and 310 variable stars.

Retired Navy Rear Adm. Grace Hopper is 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,’ ” Zabel said. “She tried to enlist in the Navy, but she couldn’t because she was too old. She was also too skinny — 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,” Zabel said.

“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 ended her speech with a message to the workforce.

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

Editort’s note: For more information about the Defense Information Systems Agency, go to the DISA website.

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