Much Ado About Nothing

By Captain Paul Ryan, U.S. Navy

Rank/Rate Integration

My crew included women from seaman recruit to master chief and ensign to lieutenant commander. I had women working in every department on the ship, including such nontraditional ratings for women as machinist's mate and electrician's mate. This horizontal and vertical integration reflects the versatility of women in the ship; precludes division of labor and job assignment based on gender; provides role models for junior women; and includes female officers and chief petty officers in leadership positions, decision-making meetings, and other activities throughout the command. Three of my department heads were female, as well as three departmental leading chief petty officers. BuPers now requires the assignment of senior enlisted women to precede assignment of junior enlisted women, to provide junior enlisted women with role models and mentors.


During the past year, I dealt with 177 disciplinary cases (Captain's Mast). Men represented 77% of the accused; women represented 23%. Because my crew was 73% male and 27% female, these statistics show that male and female sailors are about equally likely to get into trouble (within the accuracy of this analysis). Males were significantly more likely than women to commit serious offenses, use drugs, and be alcohol rehabilitation failures.

Of the 177 cases I heard, only two dealt with sexual assault or harassment problems. With all the publicity given to male/female issues—in both military and civilian workplaces—I was pleasantly surprised at the small number of problems on my ship. When any problem was reported or suspected, we immediately sought out the facts and then took appropriate action, either through the Navy Conflict Resolution System or at Captain's Mast.

Shipboard Romances

Command control of shipboard romances is impossible, but promulgating and enforcing Navy fraternization policies—to maintain a workplace free of favoritism—is both possible and important. Ship's policy was that individuals who were developing romantic relationships within departments had to request chain-of-command permission to continue the relationships. This policy was intended to keep the chain-of-command informed of romances on the ship and ensure the Navy's fraternization policy was followed. In the case of peers, the requests were normally approved.

If a potential senior-subordinate issue was involved, even at the duty section level, there were two options: either moving one member of the couple to another duty section or department, or, because we were a submarine tender, transferring people between the repair department and ship's company (the repair department on a tender includes about 750 personnel of all rates and ratings). In one or two cases, a swap was arranged with another ship in the same port. Meanwhile, we reiterated that any public displays of affection are even more out of place on board ship than in an office environment.


Many critics of putting more women on ships base their arguments on the effects of pregnancy and the management problems associated with the unplanned losses of pregnant females. Current Navy policy prohibits pregnant women from getting under way for more than six hours and requires them to be transferred off ships before their 20th week of pregnancy. The six-hour rule "is not intended to allow pregnant women to routinely operate at sea, but to provide commanding officers flexibility during short underway periods such as changes in ship's berth, ammo/stores/training anchorages, transits to and from local shipyards," as per NavAdmin 060/94.

During the past year, my ship lost 63 female sailors to pregnancy. By comparison, during the same period we lost 71 male sailors and 30 female sailors for various other reasons including misconduct, weight control failure, alcohol rehabilitation failure, and drug abuse. The loss rates (not including pregnancy) are identical to the gender breakdown of the ship: 73% male and 27% female. Although SecNavInst 1000.10 states that pregnancy and parenthood are compatible with naval service, any unplanned loss creates more work for the remaining crew and adds to the ship's administrative burden.

One reason that pregnancy has not raised greater concern in the past is that women were preferentially assigned to support ships with larger crews. These larger crews were better able to absorb personnel gaps or losses. However, as more women go to sea on smaller ships, and as initiatives to reduce crew size (e.g., Smart Ship) come to fruition, the issue of pregnancy losses could become more urgent. Pregnancy during shipboard assignments is an administrative issue the Navy has chosen to live with, rather than try to control or legislate. However, it does create a management headache. For example, my ship's communications division was almost all female, and more than half the division was transferred in one year because of pregnancies, creating a myriad of operational and administrative issues.

Break Down Barriers

The Navy is not a series of special-interest groups, but a single team that takes ships to sea as a profession. By singling out women as needing special protection or treatment, we create barriers where none are really needed. Here are two examples of where we found that special treatment can be divisive.

Many mixed-gender ships have the position of "command female adviser" or "adviser on women's issues." On my ship, the name and title of the "command female adviser" were listed in the Plan of the Day just under the command master chief's name. When I took command, I called together my female advisory group for an introductory meeting, during which they recommended I disestablish the group. They argued for this because the ship did not have a similar male advisory group; they felt that women's problems were really no different than men's problems; and they were satisfied that the chain of command would adequately address any issues that arose. I appreciated their candor, agreed with their logic, and took their recommendation. In cases when I needed a woman's insight into a shipboard problem, I had no hesitation discussing the issue with a female officer or chief petty officer, in the same way I would solicit insight from a trusted officer or chief petty officer on an all-male ship.

On another occasion, the ship was tasked to administer a "women's health survey." I can understand the need to survey our sailors about health concerns, but I think it would send a better message about concern for all of our sailors to administer a "Navy health survey" that could include men-only and women-only sections. Anything that singles out groups of sailors for special interest or treatment needs to be carefully examined to see if it is really required.

Dignity and Respect

In my periodic welcome-aboard talks to newly arriving crew members, I tried to explain as simply as possible my views on getting along in a mixed-gender, multiethnic shipboard environment. I told my crew to treat each other with dignity and respect, the same way they would like to be treated by each other and by me—and that as long as they treated each other with dignity and respect, they would not have to worry about special rules for dealing with women or minorities. I think this approach was simple enough to understand; it went over well.

The L. Y. Spear was decommissioned in September 1996, joining many other destroyer and submarine tenders decommissioned in the last several years as part of the Navy's drawdown. These ships were the pioneers for gender integration, and tender sailors, as they report to other Navy ships and shore stations, are carrying with them the experience of successful mixed-gender crews. What once was a big deal has now become a quiet success. High standards and leaders who listen to their people help establish a command climate where each individual has equal opportunity to excel. Ideally, in the near future, the term "mixed-gender crew" will have disappeared from our lexicon—because every sailor is a sailor.

Captain Ryan , a 1973 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, commanded the attack submarine Philadelphia (SSN-690) and the submarine tender L.Y. Spear (AS-36). He currently serves on the staff of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as Deputy Director of the Navy Quadrennial Defense Review Support Office.



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