KEYPORT, Wash. (NNS) -- Andrea Reister did not set out to make history in 1987 when she became the first female chief engineer at the Naval Undersea Warfare Engineering Station (NUWES) in Keyport.
Known today as the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division, Keyport, NUWES was already a center of undersea warfare innovation in the 1980s, having evolved from the Pacific Coast Torpedo Station founded in 1914.
“I first came to Keyport in 1980 right after I graduated from UW. I was an engineer. I had degrees in oceanography and mathematics, and I spent a lot of time working on computers,” said Reister.
Reister was brought on board NUWES by Ronald Krell. Currently the president of the Naval Undersea Museum Foundation at Keyport, Krell was the head of NUWES’ undersea technology branch from 1979 – 1986. He interviewed Reister and made the hiring decision.
“The Navy had invoked a nationwide hiring freeze, except for engineers. Even though Andrea’s degrees were in oceanography and mathematics, she had taken more than enough science and math classes to meet the standards for an engineer,” said Krell.
Although most women at NUWES worked in traditional roles at that time, Krell said there were a few female engineers at the station, but Reister was the first female engineer in his department. Krell said she was greeted with curiosity, but was not subjected to any hostility.
Indeed, Reister said that she does not remember encountering any overt hostility or sexism at that time.
“I do not recall any discrimination per se; it was more like being a unique asset that they weren't quite sure what to do with,” Reister said. “I was routinely the only woman in the room or on board the ship. I recall one instance when I was a first line supervisor. I supervised an all-male group of engineers and technicians. One day we had a vendor scheduled to visit us and give a presentation on some new equipment. He arrived in our workspace, and promptly asked me if the supervisor was there yet. I replied ‘yes,’ and said nothing more. My guys just looked at him and grinned, and he finally caught on.”
Reister said the male engineers she worked with and supervised generally supported her and had very little trouble recognizing her technical qualifications and skills. Logistics, however, did get interesting whenever she was underway aboard the station’s range craft.
Krell also said figuring out sleeping accommodations on the then male-only range craft was an issue.
“We used to take a van and lower it by crane on to the range craft’s torpedo deck, and then sleep in bunks stacked up in it,” Krell said. “Obviously, Andrea couldn’t do that. I recall we eventually found an office with a couch she could sleep on.”
Krell also said there was initial resistance to having a woman aboard the range craft at all. The issue of was finally decided by NUWES’ senior leadership. Krell said he can’t remember if his department head or the NUWES commanding officer made the call to let her get underway, but it was a decision that had to be made high in the chain of command.
Once on board the craft, Reister said there were other logistical difficulties to be overcome.
“Back then the ships were not equipped for multiple genders,” said Reister. “When I was aboard, the craftmaster would offer to let me use his head so I could have some privacy. There were many times when I was the only female aboard the ship.”
One of Reister’s early projects was the development of a flood sensor system and remote-controlled ballast control for the ex-USS Menhaden (SS 377). The ex-Menhaden was a Balao-class submarine that had been used as a Trident training target in the late 1970s and acquired by NUWES in the early 1980s. Reister designed and installed a system to detect flooding when the boat was submerged for testing in the NUWES ranges. The system also included a remote-controlled ballast system so the boat cold be submerged or surfaced from the range craft.
Krell said Reister’s work on the sensors and ballast control system was so good that she was called the “unofficial last commanding officer of the ex-Menhaden.” According to Krell, Reister was the engineer who make the breakthrough for NUWES in the emerging use of computers to read and relay sensory data to an operator at a remote location (in this case aboard the surface craft).
Reister’s technical acumen facilitated her rise through the NUWES structure until she applied for the prestigious position of Chief Engineer.
“I became Chief Engineer in 1987,” said Reister. “The title Chief Engineer refers to the lead civilian in the Technical Operations Department, or Code 80, that ran the test ranges at that time. It was a competitive process. I had to meet minimum job qualifications, prepare a one-page essay on why I was uniquely qualified, and interview with the Technical Operations Officer who headed the department.”
Reister said that she experienced some challenges after she became Chief Engineer.
“I felt like the people I worked with as engineers and technicians, their reaction was curiosity instead of hostility,” Reister said. “As I got higher in the pecking order as Chief Engineer, and was at the executive level, that’s when I could feel some sense of people being threatened by me. Here we are in these executive meetings and it was clear this was a place where women could be successful, and I think that was a little more threatening to people.”
Most of the time, however, Reister said her colleagues remained open to her contributions. In the event that she was disrespected, she found creative ways to stake her claim when she had the floor.
“There was one instance I remember where one of my jobs as Chief Engineer was to present our budget for the year,” said Reister. “The captain and the technical director of the station were there, and all these big department heads were there. I was making my presentation and a number of these executives were not paying attention, they were just chatting, so I stopped talking. When they realized it was quiet, they stopped talking, and then I kept going.”
In spite of the limited opposition she experienced, Reister said her time as Chief Engineer was rewarding for more reasons than merely the satisfaction of holding a prestigious technical position. She said her time as Chief Engineer was critical to her growth as a leader.
“I’m trained as an engineer, and now I’m dealing with budget and people issues. I think that was a real important development of myself as a leader and supervisor to be able to do that,” Reister said. “We had to make decisions about keeping operations going, and personnel issues, and lot of real-time items that I think were important in the growth of the department and the growth of the station.”
Reister eventually left NUWES and headed across the country to become part of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) program office for the MK 50 Advanced Lightweight Torpedo in Washington, D.C.
Krell said Reister’s time at Keyport was one of rapid growth, both for her and for the station in its recognition of women’s capabilities.
“She willingly accepted new challenges and excelled at them, often breaking existing stereotypes in the process,” said Krell. “Keyport can be proud of the opportunities it made available to her and she can be very proud of her accomplishments here. She was one of the best hiring decisions I ever made.”
Reister enjoyed her time working for the Navy, but also had other career goals she wanted to achieve. To that end, she began attending law school at night, finally becoming a patent attorney.
“I left the Navy in 1991, and have been working in law firms ever since. I graduated from law school in 1993, and eventually became a partner at Covington & Burling LLP. Covington was a terrific place for me to spend my legal career,” said Reister. Her time at Covington even gave her to opportunity to practice law with future United States Attorney General Eric Holder.
Reister credits her professional and personal success to her own willingness to work hard and not surrender to obstacles, and to the fellowship and confidence of her coworkers, such as Ronald Krell. Krell even helped Reister find a path into the Naval Reserve as a commissioned officer.
“It was only much later when I looked back and reflected about all the things that I did that it was very much a trailblazing kind of thing, but at the time it was really just that I wanted to do the job,” said Reister. “I’m proud I was able to get through there and hopefully be a good example for others to really own who they are and do their best every day.”
The work of Andrea Reister, and those like her who braved professional and social barriers, helped pave the way for NAVSEA’s Campaign Plan 2.0, a strategic vision that drives NAVSEA and its subordinate commands, such as the modern-day NUWC Division, Keyport.
Campaign Plan 2.0 defines one pillar of success as “empowering and equipping talented people.” This ensures NAVSEA and its subordinate organizations create a truly inclusive environment in which anyone who is qualified can have a path to success, thereby giving NAVSEA the best chance to find creative ideas to overcome the challenges faced by the Navy. NAVSEA launched its Inclusion and Engagement Council in 2018 to advance the goal of recruiting talented people and ensuring its team has the best chance for success.
Reister eventually came out and began practicing law as an openly gay woman in a field dominated by men. She did not ever quite forget that she was different from the men in the rooms she walked into, but she was determined be as successful practicing law as she was when working as an engineer.
“I think one of the best ways to be confident and overcome that barrier is to be an expert in what you like to do,” Reister said. “When you walk into the room, if you are an expert and have confidence in that, that’s going to overcome obstacles others try to put in your way. That expertise, that knowledge, that ability to do what you do will come out.”
For more news from Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division, Keyport, visit www.navy.mil/local/nuwcd/.