How confidence, ambition and having fun propelled NGA’s Ellen McCarthy to the top

Women of Washington – February 4, 2015

“What I learned at a very early age is that people are inclined to want to help you. That’s something that I pass along to young women that I talk to today. The whole balance between competence and confidence,” said Ellen McCarthy, director of Plans and Programs at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, on this week’s Women of Washington radio show.

McCarthy said that in order to be successful and move up the career ladder, it’s important to network and make meaningful connections with coworkers — something she learned from Fran Townsend, former Homeland Security Advisor in the George W. Bush administration and McCarthy’s former colleague at the Coast Guard.

Photo Credit: Gigi Schumm

She said Townsend taught her how important it is to keep professional contacts up to date.

“You never know when you might need them,” McCarthy said. “Maintaining your network is critical.”

McCarthy discussed the challenges the government faces in recruiting women due to competition with the private sector.

“The reality is that the numbers are declining in terms of women pursuing STEM careers…and it’s something that we, senior women of the Intelligence Community, need to play a more active role in trying to turn the tide.”

She also discussed how parents could encourage their daughters to pursue STEM from an early age.

“We as parents, first and foremost, have an incredible responsibility to show our daughters, to show our sons, that this is something they can do, that half of it is competence, half of it is confidence…I would encourage my cohort here — the other moms — to really play an active role in opening your children’s eyes to these opportunities.”

Also in the interview, McCarthy gives three pieces of advice to young women graduating college.

“Have confidence…don’t just lean in, dive in.”

“Don’t be afraid to be ambitious.”

“Have fun.”

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Gigi Schumm welcomes Washington's most ambitious and influential female executives to share their secrets to success. Contact Gigi at gigischumm@gmail.com. Subscribe to Women of Washington’s audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

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