By AUDREY FISCHER
"During the last century, women got their foot in the door just a crack. "During the next century, women will kick the door open."
So said Ana Maria Salazar, deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug enforcement policy and support, who delivered the Library's Women's History Month keynote address on March 7. The theme of this year's celebration is "An Extraordinary Century for Women — Now Imagine the Future."
Acknowledging a debt to all of the women who struggled for equal rights in the past, Ms. Salazar described how she progressed in her career from Harvard Law School graduate to her current position at the Pentagon, where she oversees an annual budget of more than $1 billion to support the Defense Department's antidrug program in the United States and more than 20 other countries.
"I wanted to have an exciting career, but I didn't expect it to be this exciting," she joked. "It's actually true that when you think you're about to die, the hair on your neck does stand up," she said, recalling her job as the judicial attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, where she assisted in the prosecution of drug-trafficking kingpins.
The story of how a young Latina girl made it from Harvard to the male-dominated world of the Pentagon began with a community college guidance counselor who told her that she would never be accepted to the University of California at Berkeley.
"They don't accept people like you," recalled Ms. Salazar, who earned her B.A. degree at Berkeley in 1986. "Imagine if I had listened to her."
They also supposedly did not accept people like her at Harvard, where she earned her J.D. degree in 1989.
"Keep your eyes on the prize," said Ms. Salazar. "The whole system is set up to stop you, so my advice is to run as fast as you can before someone tells you stop." This piece of advice is just one of "Ana Maria's Rules." Another is to ask for help.
"It was an issue of pride for me," she said. "Fortunately, there were people who offered to help me, even if I didn't ask. By the time I got to Harvard, I was smarter, so I learned to ask for help."
During the past 10 years, Salazar has had a number of other insights that have contributed to her success. She's learned that kindness and politeness are not signs of weakness.
"When I first came to Washington, I acted tough," she recalled. "After several people pointed out that what I perceived as toughness was actually rudeness, I finally accepted that the problem was me." She gained this insight by watching masters of diplomacy such as former White House Chief of Staff Mack McClarty while serving at the White House as policy adviser for the President's Special Envoy for the Americas.
Ms. Salazar has also learned to have a sense of humor, which she uses as a powerful tool in dealing with stereotypes that are inevitably foisted upon her. But for Salazar, the most important aspect of a career deals with empowerment.
"You must be empowered," she observed. "My government empowers me to enforce our international drug policy. In order to negotiate with my country, they must deal with me, a woman, whether they like it or not."
Ms. Salazar learned the importance of empowerment after years of being mistaken as just the translator (a role she continued to fill by necessity in addition to higher level duties). After pointing out to Mack McClarty that she often was not given the respect appropriate to her position, he announced at a meeting that she was not only a Harvard-educated lawyer, but "the highest paid translator in the federal government."
"He could not possibly put himself in my black pumps," she said. "But once the problem was brought to his attention, he took the appropriate action to empower me. Good managers must empower their people, but sometimes you have to point out the problem."
Ms. Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.