Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine H. Fox shared insights today into the upbringing that helped lead her to the Pentagon's No. 2 post and said she's using that same drive and determination to help the Defense Department tackle pressing issues ranging from sexual assault to fiscal challenges.
Fox, who become the highest-ranking female official in DOD history Dec. 5, never saw her gender as a barrier, she told National Public Radio Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin.
The only child of a nuclear engineer father, Fox said he encouraged her not to shy away from traditionally male pursuits -- such as majoring in mathematics at George Mason University in Virginia --- simply because she was a woman.
"'You're good at it, so you should,'" Fox said her father told her. "'If you can do math, you can do anything.'"
"When I was starting out [in my career], I actually had that attitude," Fox said. "I still have that attitude."
Not everyone saw things the same way, especially early in her career. "Things were said and done ... that would not be acceptable today," she acknowledged. "But what I found is that if I was capable and I could make a contribution and I approached it as, 'I want to help solve a problem and help you be better,' very quickly, in my experience, the gender stuff just fell away."
Fox went on to amass three decades of experience as an analyst and research manager focusing on defense issues, with a special emphasis on operations.
While serving at the Center for Naval Analyses in the mid-1980s, Fox gained a bit of unexpected notoriety when she served as the inspiration for Kelly McGillis' character in the blockbuster "Top Gun" movie.
"The truth is, I had no choice in it, and I wasn't thrilled. That was the truth," Fox said of the movie's portrayal of her as a sexy Top Gun pilot instructor and love interest to "Maverick," a student played by Tom Cruise.
"The producers were looking for some way to cast a female role that both Kelly McGillis would accept and the admiral I worked for ... would accept," Fox explained. The producer threw out the idea of an aerobics instructor. Fox's commander wouldn't allow that character to be a naval officer. He recommended what he called "the perfect solution" for the female role, a civilian contractor serving as a Top Gun pilot instructor modeled after the tall, blonde and highly respected Fox.
Fox said she was able to provide some input into the character, spending a day with McGillis to explain her work and how she operated. Hollywood "really sensationalized the position," she said, particularly the part about Cruise's romance with McGillis -- "which was different, obviously, than what I was doing there."
McGillis recognized how different the character she was playing was from the real Fox.
"I remember being called over to the set," Fox said. "She stomped up to me and stuck her leg out, and she was wearing black seamed stockings for the initial scene," when the "Charlie" character dramatically walks into a room full of Top Gun student pilots.
"I'll bet you would never wear these to work here," McGillis said, according to Fox.
Fox said she looked at McGillis and said, "You know what? Seamed stockings are not part of my daily attire. You are right."
Fox said McGillis looked at the crew on the set and said, "See, I told you." And the crew, Fox said, all said, "Too bad."
In her far-more serious role today as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's deputy defense secretary, Fox has the real-life responsibility of advancing, among other issues, Hagel's crackdown on sexual assault in the military.
The recently passed 2014 Defense Authorization Act includes provisions that require DOD to strengthen protections for victims of sexual assault, and President Barack Obama recently announced a year-long review of the progress made to eliminate sexual assault in the military.
"Sexual assault is obviously an egregious and complex problem," Fox said, but emphasized DOD's commitment to confronting it.
"I learned when I was first in the Pentagon working for Secretary [Robert M.] Gates that if you really want to tackle very, very tough things in this behemoth organization, it takes the secretary to take it on personally," she said. "Secretary Hagel has done that with sexual assault. He owns this problem. He has required all kind of things of the force.
"The service chiefs are doing the same thing," Fox continued. "They see it. They are concerned about it and they are owning the problem."
The challenge for the service leadership, she said, is figuring out how to solve it within their services.
Fox said she regrets that she can't simply rattle off a list of the top three things they should be doing but aren't.
"I wish I could, because if I could, they would do them," she said. "But I am confident that we are going to keep tackling it until we find those things and we do them."
Budget reductions represent another big challenge Fox is focusing on in her new post. The reductions impact "all aspects of defense," she said, and require every service branch to come up with the best way to maintain their readiness posture.
Fox used the analogy of a parent whose teenage son plans to set out for a long drive in the middle of the winter. After making sure the teenager knows how to drive, the next step in preparation is to tune up the car so it wouldn't break down along the way.
"It is the same thing for flying planes or operating ships," Fox said. "So ultimately, all the services need to find a level where they can keep that balance. And that is what we are trying to figure out right now."