Over the past 18 months, the Naval History and Heritage Command has highlighted female Navy trailblazers. We’ve shared their stories because the women are important members of the Navy family and they’ve served as valuable role models for the next generation of Navy civilians and Sailors. NHHC is committed to ensuring their stories are remembered and preserved.
Karen M. Davis is the executive director, Program Executive Office (PEO) for Aircraft Carriers. She’s responsible for the design, construction and delivery, and life-cycle support of all aircraft carriers and the integration of systems into aircraft carriers. She is also the first African American woman to serve in this position.
While growing up in South Carolina in a very close network of family and friends, Davis was mentored by her high school guidance counselor and her math teacher. Ms. Norris, her guidance counselor, was a family friend who had also taught Davis’ mother and who never let a student sleep on their potential. Ms. Edwards, the math teacher, instilled a love of math in Davis and encouraged her to go to Clemson University, the only college to which she applied. She went on to earn her engineering degree there.
After college, Davis joined the Navy team as an AEGIS weapons system engineer at the Port Hueneme Division, Naval Surface Warfare Center. She led combat-system ship-qualification trials and other at-sea test events. It was the late 1980s and women couldn’t then serve on combatant ships. However, as a naval engineer building and testing ships, Davis was able to spend significant time at sea. As part of a mobile engineering team from Port Hueneme, she transitioned to Bath, Maine, to provide engineering expertise for test and delivery of the first Arleigh Burke–class destroyer in 1991.
She became a wife and mother while earning her graduate degree and leading at-sea test events. Even during the early months of pregnancy, Davis continued to go to sea, quietly but with steely determination, demonstrating that women are valuable and qualified members of the naval engineering and technical community.
Her government career includes serving as assistant program manager for CVN-68 Class Aircraft Carrier Construction; on the staff of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition as director for Aircraft Carriers and Amphibious Assault Ships, and as Marine Corps Systems Command Program Manager for Information Systems and Infrastructure. Immediately prior to becoming the executive director at PEO Aircraft Carriers, Davis served as executive director, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Hired for the job by an Air Force three-star general, Davis was the most senior woman—civilian or military—at JSOC and the first woman and minority to serve in this position. She led resourcing, support, and business integration matters for JSOC’s assigned, attached, and augmented forces that were conducting special operations in protection of U.S. interests abroad.
Like Ms. Norris, Davis never lets a person sleep on their potential. She holds weekly mentoring calls, encouraging mentees to challenge themselves and to seek opportunities for career growth. Davis tells all of them to believe in themselves.
Her family and high school guidance counselor influenced Davis’ decision to become a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority, Inc., founded in 1908 at Howard University under the motto “By Culture and by Merit.” AKA members include Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, and Mary Winston Jackson, three noted mathematicians featured in the movie Hidden Figures.
As a working mom, Davis knows the challenges of balancing children and work. She credits her then–college age sister and her husband for providing the support she needed when she was assigned to various geographical locations that included an assignment in Hawaii very shortly after the birth of her second child. The lessons learned from this experience are shared with mentees, giving them hope and tools to help build their own successful careers.
When asked what was the coolest thing she’s done in the Navy, Davis quickly responded, “going to sea.” But then, she also reflected that the early days at sea weren’t easy. Some people still held old superstitions that women were bad luck at sea. Others assumed that women didn’t belong at sea, that it was a man’s world. Davis ignored the naysayers and did her job, enjoying the maritime environment while learning about and eventually leading integration of new ship systems—particularly the AEGIS weapons system, which continues to utilize some of the most powerful computer and radar technology operated at sea.
Karen Davis’ professional recognition includes the Joint Meritorious Civilian Service Award and the Navy Superior Civilian Service Award. These awards formally recognize Davis’ contributions to the nation’s defense. Davis’ service to her mentees is emphasized by news of their career successes and challenges, and expressions of thanks for her dedication to helping others.
Thank you, Ms. Davis, for your leadership and service to the Navy.