WASHINGTON — Military women are making gains, but they are still fighting for equal access, panelists said Monday at the Sea Service Leadership Associations’ joint women’s leadership symposium.

Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, recalled an afternoon in 1993 when all the senior women in the Pentagon met for a lunch — and filled one table. Now, she said, a similar gathering would “overflow the executive dining room.”

“There has been some progress,” she said, “and it’s real, but it’s not enough.”

The conference itself could be considered signs of that progress. About 1,700 women in uniform filled the ballroom at Gaylord National Resort Hotel and Convention Center across the Potomac River in Maryland for what Flournoy said she believes is the largest single gathering of military women in the world.

“Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” blared from the speakers as the women filed in for the opening panel discussion. A lactation room was available on-site. The award for lifetime achievement was a jeweled brooch instead of a standard-issue military plaque. But there were other, more serious signs the conference was woman-focused.

During a panel discussion, a female Coast Guardsman asked about how the United States balances the desire to promote women’s rights in developing countries with the struggles America still faces. She noted that she could count on one hand the number of female admirals in the Coast Guard, but needed more than her fingers and toes to count the number of servicemembers she knew who have been sexually assaulted, harassed or discriminated against because of their gender.

Rob Berschinski, director for security and human rights policy on the Nation Security Council staff, said the United States must lead by example. He said the Obama administration is working to put policies in place that will curb sexual assault and harassment in the military, but acknowledged there is still a long way to go.

Keynote speaker Vice Adm. William Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, mentioned the discussion happening now about women in combat roles, but he didn’t weigh in, instead steering his message toward recruiting and retaining more women.

“We are a significantly better Navy than when I joined, and it’s the direct result of the leadership and talent pool women bring to our Navy,” he said. “So what is the right percentage? My answer to that is pretty simple: as many as we can get and retain. And that is a lot more than the number we have today.”

Rear Adm. Janice Hamby, chairwoman of the Sea Service Leadership Association board, said the conference brings military women together to show them the opportunities that are available.

A few years ago, she said, a young woman approached her and said she’d never seen a female flag officer. After attending the conference, she realized it might be possible to become one.

More than 50 female flag officers are attending this year’s conference.

Padma Bandopadhyay, a retired Indian air marshal who was the first female air marshal in the world, told the women about her experiences blazing a trail in the Indian military.

She said women must work three times harder than men to prove themselves, but they first need the opportunity.

Vice Adm. Carol Pottenger agreed.

Pottenger was the first female admiral to command a strike group and now serves as deputy chief of staff for capability development at NATO Headquarters Supreme Allied Commander Transformation in Norfolk, Va. When people speak of equal opportunity, she said, the focus should be on the word “opportunity.” Women don’t want anyone to change standards, they simply want a chance to compete, Pottenger said.

Flournoy said she is happy to see the “wave of exceptionally talented women” coming behind her. But she reminded the women that they must always work hard.

“Don’t be the token woman,” she said. “Be the exceptional person.”

Bandopadhyay also urged the women to stay true to themselves.

“Don’t try to be a man,” she said. “Be a woman, and be the best you can.”

hladj@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @jhlad

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