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Leading Women Marines
By Captain Caroline Simkins-Mullins, U.S. Marine Corps
The principles of good leadership are not gender specific. Knowing your Marines—male or female—to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses is the key to mission accomplishment.
Leading women Marines—is it a unique form of leadership or just another application? As a woman Marine,
I have found that it can be a novel and uncertain experience. After some reflection, however, I usually find that I have given the matter too much attention, just as many of my male counterparts have. Leading women Marines does not require a unique approach or a college degree in female behavior.
An initial observation, that may come as a surprise to some, is that women are not necessarily experts in dealing with other women. I am often singled out by commanding officers to be the duty expert in dealing with female Marines and their “unique” problems. Although I appreciate their confidence in my abilities, I do not like being put in this position for two reasons. First,
I don’t believe I should be injected into a Marine’s chain of command simply because I am a woman. This could present an uncomfortable situation both for me and the immediate supervisor who normally handles the particular needs of his Marines.
Second, I probably have had less experience dealing with women than many men. Having grown up with only brothers and having joined the military when I was 17,1 am actually more accustomed to dealing and working with men.
But regardless of who is more accustomed to dealing with women, all immediate supervisors must be directly involved with the concerns of their female Marines, to fully integrate them into the unit. This does not mean leaders should not seek advice from other leaders if they are uncertain about the way to handle a particular problem.
The overriding consideration when dealing with subordinates is the same for men and women. Leaders must know their Marines. Leaders must learn each Marine’s strengths and weaknesses, with as little regard to gender as possible. Although women may have special considerations that differ from their male counterparts (e.g., pregnancy and physical capability), these should not be given undue attention. A woman Marine’s health and physical limitations should be treated the same as those of a male Marine. Some men probably are surprised to find out that some women are quite capable of handling their particular needs without ever bringing it to anyone’s attention. Pregnancy considerations are dictated by a physician and may cause extra planning and an inconvenience; but any other special or undue consideration may only further isolate women and degrade unit teamwork. If a woman Marine demands overwhelming attention, she—like her male counterpart—should be dealt with appropriately. If she cannot conform to Marine standards, she should be administratively discharged.
Many leaders overcompensate when praising or reprimanding women. I often have noticed that women are overly praised and infrequently reprimanded or provided positive criticism, while, for some of their male peers who have performed similarly, just the opposite is true. Although everyone would like to receive only praise, we all— male or female—occasionally warrant constructive criticism or even a reprimand, to correct deficiencies and become more valuable members of the unit. Many leaders probably are afraid of being accused of sexual discrimination if they reprimand a woman. We need to stop walking on eggshells when dealing with women. If we continue to treat women like fragile china, they will respond in kind, creating further segregation and inefficiency.
Another similar observation I have made is that leaders have a hard time categorizing women Marines as anything other than outstanding or unsatisfactory. It is unlikely that all women fall into one of these two categories. There are average female Marines just as there are average male Marines. Leaders need to evaluate their female subordinates realistically and should not feel obligated to exaggerate a woman’s performance in order to promote or discourage women’s presence in the Marine Corps.
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Another issue of concern to women Marines is the undue attention drawn to women when the issue of profanity or pornography arises. Pornography, profanity, and distasteful jokes have been increasingly discouraged in the work environment. This is often attributed to the fact that women are present. Although I do not disagree with this policy, I think the reason for it should be because it is unprofessional, not because women are present. 1 would rather not be singled out—even by a chivalrous “Pardon my French”—when it comes to this issue. By enforcing a policy that dictates appropriate professional conduct for everyone, rather than a special concern for women, leaders can promote a more harmonious and professional unit.
Another issue that often spotlights women is billeting during field exercises. I have been denied the opportunity to train with my unit because adequate female billeting was not available. I offered on one occasion to bring two shelter halves to accommodate myself. I have since found workable ways to billet women without causing undue trouble. If there is not sufficient tentage for separate women’s billeting, an area can be partitioned off within a male tent that will allow for some privacy. I have seen a few raised eyebrows in response to this idea—by both men and women— but the bottom line is that, with some imagination, women can be included and billeted, often without much trouble. Leaders who do not make the effort to include their female subordinates either do not really want women to be included or are overwhelmed by the notional impropriety of billeting women with men without sufficient privacy. Most women realize they gave up the comforts of home when they joined the Marine Corps and will improvise if they know it means they will be more fully integrated into the team.
There is really no unique approach or leadership style necessary to deal with women Marines. All Marines, from their first day on, are trained in the principles of good leadership. These principles are not gender specific. Although women may require some unique considerations, their leaders need only apply the age-old tenets of leadership: know your Marines in order to maximize their strengths and minimize (or correct) their weaknesses. This is the path to mission accomplishment.
Captain Simkins-Mullins, an air defense control officer and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, currently is a student at Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity at Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton.