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From wannabe housewife to managing $822 billion military budget

Marian Smith / msnbc.com

Barbara Westgate, a senior civilian executive in the US Air Force, recalled how a general once patted her on the head and remarked on how "pretty" she was after he was told of her promotion. She now helps to manage more than $822 billion in Air Force funding.

LONDON — When Barbara Westgate joined the U.S. Air Force as a secretary in 1973, her career goal was to earn $5,000 a year.

"I thought I wanted to be a housewife," she recalled.

Today, Westgate is the civilian equivalent of a three-star general who helps to manage $822 billion (over five years*) in the Air Force's future defense program.

Westgate was among the pioneering women serving in the military, intelligence and security services from around the world who gathered in London this week to discuss their experiences in leadership positions.

She told msnbc.com how an older male general offered his congratulations when she was promoted to director of logistics for the Air Force's advanced tactical aircraft program in 1988. "Of course you got the job, Barb, you're just so pretty," he said, before patting Westgate on the head.

"He was just from that generation," said Westgate, who is now a Washington, D.C.-based officer in the senior executive service of the Air Force. "He thought he was paying me a compliment." Furious as she was, Westgate didn't take it personally.

Amid the neat uniforms, gold insignia, polished medals, ribbons and brass buttons, the stories were often similar. The Royal Norwegian Navy commander who was the world's first woman to serve on a submarine, the British Royal Navy commander who was the first female flag officer, the Swedish Air Force colonel who was the first woman to command a regiment. When the latter was asked how it felt to be a woman in command, she said, "Well, I’ve always been a woman."

There was little bitterness. Delegates were quick to point out that their militaries had only really begun to open their doors to women in the past 20 years. It will take time for women to reach senior leadership roles, they reminded each other.

U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Carol Pottenger said she started her career in 1978 on a tour in Pearl Harbor, a non-operational assignment far from any front line. It was a typical assignment for women then.

In the 1990s, the Navy began opening up ships and other divisions to women. Now 93 percent of assignments allow them – including the Navy SEALs in support capacity roles. However, that's not 100 percent. Pottenger explained the reality of what that meant for her current role as deputy chief of staff for capability and development at NATO Headquarters Supreme Allied Commander Transformation in Norfolk, Va.: "I could command 40,000 sailors, but in one of the … [divisions] I commanded, women couldn't even serve."

Marian Smith / msnbc.com

Colonel Lena Hallin, center, is a Swedish defense attache.

Speaking to a room full of nodding heads, she added: "If you're going to recruit and retain the best and the brightest, you can't afford to ignore half the population."

Pottenger commended the mentorship programs and other policies that have opened up the military to women but urged young cadets to actively put themselves forward for more leadership roles and encouraged senior officers to aggressively support the policies from the top.

'I guess the message got through'
"Don’t be silly, we didn’t mean women,” Commodore Elizabeth Steele was told when she applied for a post with Canada's navy on a U.N. mission in Cambodia in 1992. She had joined the navy in 1986, when women weren't allowed to be maritime officers because of a policy that deemed them "not qualified."

But by then sea logistics had opened up to women and Steele submitted her application for the tour. Disgruntled by the response she got, Steele shot back that they should have specified that women need not apply.

"I guess the message got through because I ended up in Cambodia," she said.

Steele, who is now the deputy chief of staff and associate deputy minister at Canada's department of defense, advocates the concept of gender intelligence – or recognizing the different strengths men and women have and using them effectively.

"We have better teams … if we have teams that are diverse," Steele added.

However, one of the most important results Steele has seen of women entering the military is the influence it has on people in countries like Afghanistan — where women are not considered equal citizens.

It is important "for a young child to see women in a combat or military role," she said. “There is a connection that a female soldier makes with a person" that is unique and powerful.

Hosted by the Royal United Services Institute, an independent think tank for defense and security, the Women in Defence and Security Leadership conference wraps up today.

*The initial post failed to indicate that the $822 billion budget was over a five-year period.