Retired Rear Admiral Evelyn Fields, a pioneering naval commander in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that she had to adapt her leadership style as a woman leading crews made up almost exclusively of men. Back when she got her start at NOAA in 1972, she told Accuweather in a recent podcast marking Black History Month, the organization wasn’t even officially hiring women to serve as officers.
“I think the biggest challenge for me was just being female in an all-male world,” said Fields, reflecting on how close her hire fell to peak of the civil rights movement. “When you think about the science side of things, most of the scientists were all male. Especially in the government. And so it was one of those things [that] when you’re going to meetings … or the job you were assigned … about 98 percent of the time, I was going to meetings with all guys. And their brains don’t necessarily wrap around an issue quite the same way a female’s brain does.”
Many of these men, she noted, were older and part of the so-called “greatest generation” that grew up during the Great Depression and went on to fight in WWII. Expecting them to change their dated notions of women and leadership, she said, was a losing battle. So she adapted herself as a leader instead.
“At the time, I thought going in as a female and trying to wield the same authority in the same way that my male counterparts were doing wasn’t going to work with this whole new idea to have women on a ship and a woman telling you what to do,” she admitted. “You’re dealing with guys who were ready to retire and their whole mindset was just totally different because of the timeframe in which they had worked in, and which they were used to dealing with. You don’t just change … how they react to you overnight.”
Despite the obstacles against her, Fields went on to a sterling career that saw her achieve a number of historical firsts as she worked on — and led — a number of hydrographic survey ships. She became the first woman and African-American to command a uniformed services vessel on extended assignment when she took charge of the research vessel McArthur in 1989. In 1999, she became the first African-American woman to be named director of the NOAA Corps and the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. The promotion gave her the rank of rear admiral — another first for African-American women — and awarded her responsibility of NOAA’s full fleet of research ships, aircraft, and more than 1,100 employees.
Fields says she doesn’t miss “the times when you’ve got everything going awry at the same time,” like traversing 20-foot waves in bad weather, when “the best you can do is just hang on.”
“It can put your heart up in your mouth a couple of times,” she says.
Her reminiscences about vast sunsets and sunrises, and starry night skies far from any light pollution, suggest the risks were not without their consolations.