Gender Integration: What's Next?

By Gunner’s Mate First Class Terry L. Buckman, U.S. Navy

At present, the Navy has the most integrated basic training program of all the services. Male and female trainees sleep in separate dorms, but all training is integrated, including physical training. The principal objective of basic training is to instill good discipline by producing "self-confident, physically fit, and technically competent graduates who are trained in the skills of teamwork necessary for the success of the unit's mission," according to a recent Department of Defense report. With this purpose in mind, there are two primary concerns with gender-integrated boot camp that may make achieving the principal objective impossible. First, physical training in a gender-integrated environment is perceived by some as less challenging and fails to produce self-confidence, high morale, and teamwork. Second, instilling discipline in a gender-integrated environment is seen as less effective and more difficult than in a gender-segregated environment. I do not believe that these perceptions are valid. There is, however, a fundamental underlying problem in gender-integrated training that the Navy, as well as the other services, must solve before it becomes completely successful. The services must assign more good leaders to gender-integrated training.

Concerns about the quality of gender-integrated physical training are well summarized in a statement by Marine Corps Captain Gibson Armstrong: "Minimizing physical training and making it coed are recipes for disaster. Nothing builds morale and camaraderie better than tough physical training. Non-challenging, integrated training will challenge most men only to the level of women" (see Proceedings , December 1997, p. 87). This viewpoint is based upon the belief that the inherent physical differences between men and women somehow make rigorous coed physical training impossible. Naval leaders have determined these differences to be negligible, or women would not be permitted to serve on combatants. Interestingly, several Defense Department studies have found that new recruits, male and female, are ready to see physical training standards raised. There is a "widespread belief among both males and females that the physical requirements for females are too low, feeding the notion that women are not capable of performing to standard[s]," noted the report of the Federal Advisory Committee on Gender-Integrated Training. Similarly, the report of the 1997 Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services found that, "Women widely perceived that they could have improved their physical training performance more than they had if more . . . physical training were available." This study mirrored the Federal Advisory Committee report in calling for tougher standards for both sexes.

If these reports based on inputs from trainees are any indication, minimizing physical training has fostered the negative results and attitudes forecast by Captain Armstrong. The minimization, however, has nothing to do with gender integration, but simply with low standards for all trainees—men and women alike. Before we reach the conclusion that women cannot meet standards high enough to challenge men, we should challenge both. In doing this, we give everyone the opportunity to benefit from building morale, camaraderie, and experience with the men and women they will be working with during their time in the service. Even if this is successful, however, will it matter if physical standards are raised for recruits if they cannot be taught discipline because of the sexual-related distractions of gender-integrated boot camp?

Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper states very clearly the second concern of gender-integrated basic training: "In gender-segregated recruit training, the strong positive role of the drill instructor provides impressionable young men and women appropriate role models without the distracting undercurrent of sexual attraction. In short, gender-segregated training provides an environment free from latent or overt sexual pressures" (see Proceedings , January 1998, p. 74). The foundation of this perspective is the belief that it is human nature for members of the opposite sex to be attracted to one another and that there are enough distractions at recruit training without these additional natural ones. This argument is valid, to a point. Yes, human nature is such that men and women will be sexually attracted to one another. Responding to this, however, Captain Rosemary Mariner—the first woman to command a Naval aviation squadron—says that "as human beings we control our behavior and make choices," a view which is echoed by retired Rear Admiral Frank Gallo (See Proceedings , July 1998, p. 45). In a press conference last year Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay Johnson commented that there are gender integrated units "throughout the world [and] we train and deploy in the same manner in which we are expected to fight."

So where are we? The nation has decided that many of our men and women are going to fight together; they should train together as well. Inquiry has shown that neither the perceived physical nor disciplinary problems that apparently impede the success of gender-integrated training are valid. The common thread that weaves its way through not only the arguments for gender-integrated basic training, but through the arguments against it as well, is leadership.

Nancy Kassebaum Baker, the chair of the Federal Advisory Committee report that concluded basic training in the Army, Navy, and Air Force should be less integrated (although not segregated), stated that "leadership is at the crux of training" and that without strong leadership, nothing will work. Her report concluded that, "By far the most important factors affecting the success of initial entry training are the quality and integrity of the leadership." At a Pentagon press conference early last year former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, observed that, "What you have here (Aberdeen, etc.) is a wrongdoing of a number of individuals. The system is working well. It's the people who have failed." Major Andrea Hollen, the first female graduate of West Point, in an interview with PBS in 1997 stated that she believes "very strongly that leadership can make a difference. It hinges on leadership." The Defense Advisory Committee report found that attitudes and behaviors toward women were directly attributable to the tone and leadership example set by their trainers. They also discovered that in training units where there were no gender discriminatory behaviors, the environment could be attributed to the trainers' "clear intolerance of prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviors."

What, then, is the next step for gender-integrated recruit training? The U.S. Navy can use many of the recommendations from both of the Defense Department reports: improve training cadre screening, better train our trainers and increase their number, and make training duty tours more appealing, rewarding, and career enhancing. Aberdeen was not a problem caused by gender integration, but a failure of leadership and the process which allowed inferior personnel to lead the most valuable asset in the military—the new recruit. We must ensure that only the best personnel train our recruits, because innovative leadership can devise ways to physically challenge both men and women in an integrated environment. Dynamic leadership can provide a positive role model over and above the distractions of a gender-integrated military. In doing so, let us use those leaders in basic training who will help our valuable Navy recruits make the next step . . . forward!

Petty Officer Buckman is currently assigned to the Naval Station San Diego Security Department, and has served on the Harry W. Hill (DD-986). He has been selected for the Enlisted Commissioning Program.


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