Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest First Honorable Mention
In 1992, the Defense Authorization Act lifted the ban on women in combat, enabling the Navy to place women on surface ships and in combat squadrons. Yet, almost three years later, the question still remains: Has the integration been a total success? A recent article in Newsweek notes that "the services are still struggling with the implications of gender equality in uniform."1 The close attention to women and detailed scrutiny of the integration process have affected the ways female sailors are perceived, disciplined, and accepted by their male peers—often in negative ways. It also has influenced the way women perceive their own future in a changing military. Whether women belong in nontraditional, seagoing roles, however, is no longer the issue. To change the military's perceptions of women's roles and to make their presence an integral part of the Navy's effectiveness requires bold, innovative leadership at every level of command.
The military service has prided itself on providing equality for its members. Compared to women in the civilian work force, female sailors are guaranteed the same pay, leave, and promotion opportunities as their male coworkers. But in the Navy's haste to transform the fleet, it has created the impression that women are given preferential treatment and that standards are lowered to fill critical billets.
After Lieutenant Kara Hultgreen's fatal F-14 crash, many men in the Pacific fighter community argued anonymously that she had received a combat billet only under pressure from Congress to fill slots. Her mother produced her carrier-landing grades, hoping to prove that her daughter had been at least an average aviator, but the attempt was futile.2 The mere presence of the Secretary of the Navy and the Vice Chief of Naval Operations at her funeral suggested that she had not been just another aviator. By honoring the fact that Lieutenant Hultgreen had been the first female combat pilot to die, the Navy implied that she was different and therefore special.
Differences in the standards for men and for women have angered many. For some men, women—not the policymakers—are seen as the cause of the problem. Lieutenant Hultgreen's fellow pilots insisted that she had been a substandard aviator.3 However, the congressmen who allegedly pressured the Navy into placing her in a combat billet and the instructors who graded her skills through flight school were responsible for her situation.
At the Naval Aviation Schools Command, where student aviators and air crew candidates undergo a series of rigorous physical tests, the obstacle course has a six-foot wall for women and an eight-foot wall for men. This is clearly an institutionalized difference. Two years ago, when the Naval Academy changed its requirements for going over the shorter barriers from gender to height, a large number of female midshipmen did not pass. Shortly thereafter, the Academy deleted the obstacle course as a physical education requirement.
Incidents such as these further stigmatize women. For some, they continue to support the argument that women are unfit for combat. Overall, many of the measures intended to further the advancement of women in the Navy have backfired. The Navy has failed to realize that it cannot guarantee equal respect.
The opportunities for women to choose sea-going billets have expanded tremendously. In recent months, recruiters have had no difficulty convincing women to enlist, particularly in specialties that previously were closed to them. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm is not shared by all ranks. At the Naval Academy, the primary source of line officers, communities such as intelligence, cryptology, and the Civil Engineer Corps still would be far more popular among women than the newly opened surface fleet, if those communities weren't already reserved for medically disqualified midshipmen. Furthermore, the fact that more Academy women are involved in cheerleading, glee club, and the annual musical than in professional clubs such as the Yard Patrol Squadron, the aviation club, and the Surface Action Group combined demonstrates that not all Academy women perceive themselves in such nontraditional roles—or that they are not being encouraged to pursue them. The attitudes of female midshipmen do not necessarily embody the opinions of all female sailors, but the mere existence of nontraditional job opportunities does not guarantee that they will be sought.
The Tailhook scandal brought about many changes in the Navy, shaping the current sexual harassment policy and redefining the Navy's standard of ethical conduct. It is questionable, however, whether the reactions to the Navy's stance on gender-related issues have been positive.
In many circumstances, communication between men and women has been strained, whether in daily conversations, giving orders, or disciplining subordinates. A recent Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service report noted that some male commanders are hesitant to discipline female sailors, for fear of being charged with sexual harassment.4 Many conversations among men that include sexual innuendoes or jokes cease only when a woman enters the room, suggesting that some have conjured up their own interpretation of the official sexual harassment policy. In short, the overall attempt to improve gender relations in the Navy actually has halted progress in many areas.
As women continue to be assimilated into more units and commands, it has become more apparent that personal relationships and fraternization have a negative effect upon individual commands. According to Navy Times, officials claim that fraternization is not a gender issue—that a friendship can develop between two men or two women as easily as it can between a woman and a man.5 What many fail to realize, however, is that fraternization between men and women is not only more easily noticed but also stands a greater chance of being charged as a UCMJ offense.
Physical attraction is a natural occurrence. Whether at a shore command or at sea on a six-month deployment, attractions between male and female sailors are inevitable, and the effects are noticeable. In the past year, three such incidents have kept the Navy in the headlines. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy John Hagan believes it is the toughest challenge in integrating women into the fleet.6
Keys to Success
The solution to the integration process lies in the leadership of the Navy—at all levels. Those in a position to affect policy should realize the impact of their decisions and recognize whether a decision benefits women, both men and women, or no one at all. The development of mutual respect and unit cohesion are extremely important for a command to function at its best, and they easily can be affected by the impression—valid or not—of preferential treatment or a double standard. True equality begins with the promotion of equal opportunity for both genders, not at the expense of one.
Leaders who are not in a position to influence policy can make changes at their own levels. Whether a commanding officer, a division officer, or a platoon commander, a leader can influence the troops' views of women and their roles, maintain the highest working and ethical standards, and enforce a professional working environment. In many cases, leaders may need to change their own attitudes and perceptions before influencing others, by keeping in mind and enforcing the following:
Realize that changes in the Navy are ongoing. Many efforts to integrate women may appear to create a double standard, but much is being done to correct this. Women now compete on an equal basis with men in what is being called gender-neutral billeting.7 Physical standards at the Naval Aviation Schools Command are being evaluated to come up with a better obstacle course, regardless of gender. Change may be slow, but it is occurring with the best interests of all personnel in mind.
- Get rid of gender bias. Leaders' perceptions can easily influence those of their subordinates. For example, it is not uncommon to see a male lieutenant and a male chief in close conversation over lunch at the Consolidated Club. Replay the scenario with a female chief and the situation is different. Even if the lunch was a means for the lieutenant to show his appreciation for her hard work on the Combined Federal Campaign, the fact that the chief is a woman can cause an observer to assume that more than a business relationship exists.
Generalizations with regard to gender may occur in the daily working environment. A division officer may assign women to administrative tasks and men to haul heavy equipment during an inventory. It is time to put such gender differences aside. Treating people without reference to gender does not come easily or naturally, but a conscious effort to do so must be made to ensure true equality and a better working environment.
- Trust those you lead. The Navy will never be perfect, but it is time to set a tone of trust, instead of suspicion. Not all statements by men are sexual harassment. Not all women want to be judged, selected, or evaluated under a separate standard. Even when separate standards exist, most women will give their maximum effort, rather than falling back on their gender to obtain a billet, to pass a test, or to meet a qualification.
- Expect the best from your personnel. Regardless of gender, your personnel will perform to the level you expect from them. Expecting the best from your female sailors as well as your male sailors may change many perceptions of their abilities and capabilities. In the words of one Coast Guard lieutenant, "Set the standards as high as possible—women will meet them."8 A female first-class petty officer assigned to the ship's fire team may not be able to lug a P250 bilge pump up four decks with a partner on the first attempt, but that is neither an excuse to reassign her nor a reason to let her continue to perform in a substandard way. Her abilities reflect not only upon her but also on the unit's effectiveness.
A leader in today's Navy needs to challenge subordinates to conquer mental limitations, as well. These often are more important and more difficult. Expect those you lead to overcome common perceptions of gender roles and to set a tone of mutual respect and professionalism in the workplace.
- Listen to what your troops say. Casual talk in the wardroom or ready room often can give a good indication of how your men and women feel about each other's abilities. Their comments may set unofficial standards that are almost impossible to achieve. For example, a female aviator may be remembered for a poor carrier landing, but an above-average landing may be considered luck. Only a record of perfect landings may qualify her as an acceptable pilot. It is a leader's responsibility to end negative talk. Indirect references to performance may not be considered harassment in the strictest sense, but they can be equally as detrimental.
- Set the example. Officers—particularly female officers—must convince women and men that the chance to serve in the seagoing fleet is truly an exciting opportunity. At the Naval Academy, and at other accession programs such as ROTC and Officer's Candidate School, an aggressive effort must be made to attract women to careers in the combat fleets. Women may be enthusiastic about filling nontraditional billets in the enlisted ranks, but they will not have a true impact fleet-wide if there are no women officers to lead them.
- Develop your communication skills. The ability to communicate well with the troops is a valuable asset for any leader. Everyday conversation and speech can betray your own biases or opinions. According to linguist Deborah Tannen, "the vast majority of our decisions about how to speak are automatic. Most women or men learn to speak in particular ways because those ways are associated with their own gender. Others may be getting very different impressions of our own abilities and intentions than we think."9 A leader in today's Navy needs not only the ability to communicate on a gender-neutral basis but also the ability to discipline in a manner that leaves no room for interpretation.
- Enforce rules governing fraternization and personal relationships. There is no easy solution to the problem of fraternization. On board the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), regulations stated that if a relationship developed, one member would be transferred, but this would be too costly to implement fleetwide.10 Sailors now attend a series of lectures on fraternization before deployment, but one lecture before a long deployment may not be enough. One surface warfare officer recommended making an example of the first fraternization case in a command by severely punishing both members involved. Unfortunately, by the time one fraternization case is discovered, many more may exist. In addition, fraternization is not strictly a seagoing issue; it must be addressed to the same degree at shore commands.
Overall, the Navy needs to transition corrective measures into preventive measures. Human nature may not be stopped, but it can be controlled. Drunk-driving videos, safety stand-downs, and even the simple slogan "Don't Drink and Drive" have contributed to the changing attitude toward alcohol. The detrimental effects of fraternization on a unit must be addressed in the same manner and on a more frequent basis.
The Better Officer
When a fellow officer shared his reasons why women don't belong in combat, he asked me whether I would rather serve with a man or a woman, if given the choice. I told him that I would rather serve with the one who was the better naval officer. It is often difficult to not make gender an issue and to view sailors impartially, but leaders must ensure that all personnel in their commands are treated equally, without regard to race, religion, or sex.
The task of smoothly and successfully bringing men and women together in a combat force is far from finished. It is neither an exclusively male nor an exclusively female problem. It is a Navy challenge, and one that all leaders need to resolve before dealing with the more important issues of military readiness and mission accomplishment. A military force with an internal conflict will not win wars; one in which its troops operate as a team will. A strong effort to meet this challenge must be made to ensure that the Navy remains a vital force into the next century.
1 Tom Morganthau, Carroll Bogert, John Barry, and Gregory Vistica, "The Military Fights the Gender Wars," Newsweek, 14 November 1994, P. 35.
2 "Hultgreen Was Ranked With the Best," Navy Times, 5 December 1994, P.8.
3 "Hultgreen Was Ranked With the Best," p. 8.
4 Neff Hudson, "Bringing Women a Long Way, and Staying There," Navy Times, 5 December 1994, p. 27.
5 Patrick Pexton and John Burlage, "Sex and Your Shipmate," Navy Times, 16 January 1995, p. 12.
6 Pexton and Burlage, "Sex and Your Shipmate, p. 13.
7 John Burlage, "She's In the Navy Now," Navy Times, 9 January 1995, p. 4.
8 Lt. (j.g.) Maureen P. March, USCG, Comment and Discussion item in response to "Just Say No!" U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1992, p. 23.
9 Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., Talking From Nine to Five (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1994), pp. 15, 308.
10 Pexton and Burlage, "Sex and Your Shipmate," p. 12.
Lieutenant Dunne, a 1992 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is in advanced helicopter training al HT-8, NAS Whiting Field and expected to receive her wings in June 1995. She was the second honorable mention winner in the 1994 Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest.