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Breaking Ice: What Happens When a Branch of the Armed Forces Opens to Women

Sandy Stosz, a self-described stubborn retired vice admiral, digests the lessons in leadership from a 40-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Sandy Stosz in uniform sitting next to a young boy on some steps talking with him.
Retired U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Sandy Stosz talks with a young boy, a small example of the empathy and emotional intelligence the men she served with once considered “weird.”
Photo: Sandy Stolz
You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays in the series using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.




Headshot of U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Sandy Stolz in uniform.
Vice Admiral Sandy Stosz (Retired) and author of Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters.
Photo: Sandy Stolz
Long before Admiral Sandy Stosz retired from the U.S. Coast Guard in 2018, she knew that she wanted to write a book on leadership. With nearly 40 years of experience to draw on, from her early days as an ensign on polar icebreakers to her final assignment as the first female to serve as deputy commandant for Mission Support, Stosz had gained a wealth of experience worth sharing. Though her career abounded in firsts for her gender — she was, for example, the first woman to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy — Stosz wanted to focus her literary lens not on the trailblazing aspects of her career, but rather on the extensive and varied leadership lessons gleaned from her experiences. The result is Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, published this month by Koehler Books. She recently spoke with Governing.com Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Beyond Firsts


I don't think it hurt that I was a novelty.
Sandy Stolz

Governing: In Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass, you resist saying, “I was the first this, or I was the first that.” Is that because, despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary, it opens the possibility that your career was based more on gender than merit?

Sandy Stosz: Exactly. Look at people for what they bring to the table regardless of their gender, sex, race. Everybody’s different. We get caught up in differences rather than the similarities that unite us and bind us together. We have to get past that. It takes time. That’s one reason I plan to do some speaking and podcasting on the book. I’m trying to create a presence while this book has currency so that I can share the leadership lessons that the Coast Guard taught me over 40 years.

Governing: Despite your resistance to stress your achievements in terms of gender, you are a trailblazer, the first woman to be superintendent of an academy. Haven’t your pathfinder achievements made it easier for others?

Sandy Stosz: As much as I always tried to be just another person, to not be singled out for my gender, I am proud and happy that I was able to achieve what I did. Would I be just as proud if I were male? Maybe. Everybody must navigate uncharted waters at some point. As for women and minorities succeeding, I don’t believe that you’ve got to see one to be one. Imagine Neil Armstrong thinking, “I’m not going to aspire to walk on the moon. No one’s ever done it before.” Go after what you want, and don’t let people tell you that you can’t do it. I start my story where I was a kid so people can see that I was a shy person for whom nobody would have predicted success. It’s a story that needs to be told to those who expect too much too soon for themselves. They quit because they’re not achieving fast enough. They start thinking the grass is greener somewhere else, rather than being patient and pushing through.

Leading by the Academy to Leading the Academy: A Career Comes Full Circle


Governing: The Coast Guard is sometimes left out of the pantheon of great academies. But it seems that it was a perfect fit for you, more open and generous than some of the others.

Sandy Stosz: Oh yes. Women were not excluded. When the National Defense Authorization Act required the Coast Guard and other services to open their academies to women in 1976, the Coast Guard said, “We’re going to accept women and put them everywhere. We’re going to admit women to the academy. We’re going to assign women to anything they want.” I’m thankful now to see the combat exclusion being lifted, but I don’t think you could have done it then. You had to take gradual steps. In my mind, the Coast Guard still leads the way. We have a culture of respect in the Coast Guard. It’s part of our core values: honor, respect, devotion to duty. That was the charge from Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton when he started the Revenue Cutter Service, the precursor of the Coast Guard.

Governing: You talk about diversity requirements in the book. Do programs like Affirmative Action give easy ammunition to those who want to dismiss your accomplishments?

Sandy Stosz: When I was a lieutenant commander, maybe 38 but still a mid-grade officer, the assignment officer called me and offered me an opportunity normally reserved for people much more senior. I asked how he could offer me that privilege when I wasn’t eligible. He said, “Don’t worry about eligibility. We’re going down to junior people so we can scoop women out and show that women go into these programs.” I refused it. I didn’t want to be singled out for my gender. I wanted a level playing field, not an unfair advantage. I knew if I accepted, people would be exactly right to question if women were eligible or competent. In the military, you’ve got to move up at the same pace as everyone else. You can’t skip over the requirements that white males or other people must meet. The Coast Guard had good intentions, but they didn’t understand the unintended consequences. It created a culture where people assumed that if a woman was in a job, she must have gotten there because of her gender. And they weren’t necessarily wrong about that. I didn’t want that applying to me, so I worked extra hard to make sure that I wasn’t in that category. Keep in mind that this happened in the mid-’90s. Things have evened out. There are more women in the ranks. There are more minorities. They don’t advance as fast as people wish because it takes 30 to 40 years to get from cadet to admiral. You can’t take shortcuts the way you can in the private sector.

The Ginger Rogers Type in Our Times


Governing: Do you subscribe to the Ginger Rogers trope that she did everything that Fred Astaire did, only she did it backwards and in high heels? Is that a fair read of a woman’s role in this kind of world?

Frank and Earnest cartoon is likely origins about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did - but backwards and in high heals.
This Frank and Earnest cartoon is the likely origin of the line about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did - but backwards and in high heels. The quote is often incorrectly attributed to former Texas governor Ann Richards who used it in a speech to the DNC in 1988.
Image: ReelClassics
Sandy Stosz: It’s different now. Women are doing the same things men are doing. They are leading instead of being led. They’re on the pointy end of the spear now in all the branches of the military, especially with the Coast Guard. But women still find themselves doing more of the support. That’s probably a given across America. You saw it with COVID-19. More women left the workforce during COVID than men. They had duties that they either wanted to do or had to do. But being in the support role, like Ginger Rogers, you’re still working as hard. You’re getting just as exhausted, but you don’t get the same credit as the man who’s leading the effort. Unless we move to people having children and turning them over to someone else to raise, you’re going to have parents who have to raise their kids, and that’s not always an easy equation to solve. It’s a very personal thing as to what people want to do. Some people enjoy support. My husband was an engineer, which meant supporting the operator who’s out there on the pointy end. I was one of those operators. My husband loved being in support. It’s not just a gender thing. It’s a matter of where you’d like to be.
When I used empathy and emotional intelligence 40 years ago, the men I was serving under thought it was weird.
Sandy Stolz
Governing: You talk early in the book about taking a more persuasive and empathetic approach when boarding another vessel. Was that just an insight into leadership, or is there a gender connection there?

Sandy Stosz: There’s a gender connection. Men and women sometimes possess different attributes. That’s okay. Women tend to be more collaborative. They aren’t as afraid to let their guard down. Not always, but sometimes. These are generalizations. I felt like I could be myself when boarding those boats and having conversations, rather than feeling like I had to go toe-to-toe with the people on board. I was confident in my ability to get things done by collaborating. That didn’t come from any analysis. I was just born that way. When I came into the Coast Guard 40 years ago, it was mostly men. They communicated with the head nod, the tough stance, treating everybody with distance. When women came in, they introduced a different aspect of leadership. Now men and women all want to be empathetic leaders. But when I used empathy and emotional intelligence 40 years ago, the men I was serving under thought it was weird. They didn’t know how to handle a young woman who was willing to smile and let her guard down, to be a little vulnerable. That approach worked really well boarding fishing boats out at sea, where people are kind of tense. They’re fishing, they’re busy, and now armed people are coming on board to enforce the law. My approach was, “Look, I respect that you’re out here fishing. I want to make it as easy on you as possible and still get my job done. I need to have these things done, so let’s work together. Let’s get me off the ship as fast as we can so that you can get back to fishing.”
When I came on board as senior officer with that .45 on my hip, fishermen thought it was cool.
Sandy Stolz
I don’t think it hurt that I was a novelty. In those days we wore a pretty big pistol, a .45. When I came on board as senior officer with that .45 on my hip, fishermen thought it was cool. It broke the ice a little bit to have a woman on board. I found that in situations like that, being a woman made it easier. It’s a superpower. You allow yourself to think of it that way, that my differences can be a superpower because I know what I can bring and no one else does. I can float it in there and do things that people aren’t expecting.

Governing: What is the source of your drive?

Sandy Stosz: It’s partly genetic. Both of my parents were determined. My name is German. Stosz means to push or shove. People think of stubbornness when they think of Germans. Even though I was a shy young girl, I still had the genes of a stubborn German. I didn’t like anyone telling me I couldn’t do something, even when I was too shy to push back. My drive also comes from the way I was raised. We were not given anything on a silver platter. We had to work for what we got. We had jobs, we got an allowance. We were rewarded, but it was expected that we do the job. When I went to work in the tobacco fields, the thing that struck me, aside from the sweat labor, was the piecework. You had to meet a quota, or you were fired. But if you did go over that quota, you got piecework. I thought, “Wow, you can get extra money by working extra hard.” That became a part of my value system. My core values as a kid were hard work, perseverance, humility and honesty. I got those from my parents and the expectations they set. They weren’t harsh, but they were never easy on us. It goes back to being a leader. A leader’s born or made. Some people have more natural inherent ability to be leaders. They have the genes. Others have to work a little harder at learning the skills and abilities and developing that presence.
The Coast Guard Ice Breaker on which Admiral Stolz served sailing through ice.
From the Arctic to Antartica: A Coast Guard Ice Breaker on which Admiral Stolz served
Photo: Sandy Stolz

From the Arctic to Antarctic: The World as Seen from the Bridge of a Ship


Governing: In its television ads, the Navy offers the opportunity to see the world. Did you?
Sandy Stosz: Yes, though not as much as some Coast Guard people. I recently read a book by another Coast Guard member who traveled to 47 countries. He was part of an international training team. I didn’t get that kind of travel, but I did get to the Arctic and Antarctic, and to a lot of places in between. I was on an icebreaker after I graduated, and we stopped in Papeete, Tahiti. I saw the South Pacific, some places for a few days at a time. I got to climb Machu Picchu in Lima, Peru. I went to New Zealand and Australia. It was wonderful and I learned a lot. There is so much education in travel. They can try to teach you cultural awareness at the Coast Guard Academy, but you haven’t experienced it until you’ve been to the Andes Mountains and talked with an Inca woman and found out how she lives and what her values are. You have to stand shoulder to shoulder with other people. You have to eat with them. You have to do more than travel on a tour bus where you only see your fellow travelers.

Governing: You must have had moments on deck in the Arctic or Antarctic where you had a moment to relax and think, “Oh my.”

Sandy Stosz: I did. Standing on the bridge of the ship, coasting through a quiet sea at midnight, the Milky Way so bright that the sky looked almost white. Nothing but the little sounds of the sea next to you. It’s midnight watch, so no one else is up. It’s just you and the heavens. Once I was down in Antarctica for three months, and it was daylight the whole time. Nothing but sunshine, white and blue. No sunset, just sun. In the first night of darkness after we headed back up north, I could actually feel the dark. It sounds ridiculous, but I could feel the dark enveloping me. And we saw the Southern Lights. You only hear of the Northern Lights because that’s our hemisphere, but they have them in the Southern Hemisphere too, curtains of yellow light moving across the sky. In the same way that you can feel the darkness, you get a kind of sixth sense when you see them. It’s weird, the total sensory experience of coming back into the darkness after all that light, and then seeing the Southern Lights. It’s like a major life transition. I wish I had put something like that in the book. I was torn because I didn’t want it to be a memoir. I was adamant that this was going to be a leadership book. You can learn leadership lessons from reading someone’s memoir. But I wanted my book to be a little bit more of, “Here are some formulas, some recipes. Here are some things that worked for me. These are my takeaways.”

You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, The Future In Context.

Clay’s next book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller.
Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
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