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To integrate women successfully, the Navy should take all comers, regardless of gender, and place them wherever their talents, desires, and the needs of the Navy dictate. But this also means that everyone must play the same game—without fast-tracks, quotas, or specially established pink billets.
One of the most important and newsworthy issues facing today’s Navy is how best to incorporate women into our traditionally all-male community. Few subjects have caused the Navy more criticism, embarrassment, and personnel upheaval. Navy people on all sides of this issue want nothing more than to move past the adverse publicity and get on with the solution.
The Navy has a lot of intelligent, reasonable people trying hard to deal with this issue and write smart policy. As with most political and social issues, however, incorporating women into the operational Navy has been rendered needlessly complex by zealots at both ends of the social spectrum.
At one extreme are the old salts who think women just don’t belong in the military. They believe there’s a natural order that holds men to be the hunters and providers and women to be the child-bearers and homemakers. Put women into a man’s enclave and you get distraction, raging hormones, and pink paint on the bulkheads.
At the other extreme are some feminists, usually with no firsthand military experience, who view the Navy as a branch of industry or government like any other: a sexist bastion to be stormed and reformed. For these extremists, mission considerations are secondary to the paramount goal of making the military mirror their image of America. Their orthodoxy holds women to be essentially identical to men in all respects other than their reproductive systems. Any observed differences in performance between men and women therefore must be a result of cultural limits imposed over the generations or irrelevant standards the services have put in place to exclude otherwise-qualified women.
The problem with each of these camps is that they command a disproportionate percentage of the public debate. In fact, most Navy people have moderate views that can easily be accommodated in a commonsense policy on women in the Navy that is written and administered from within our own service.
Despite an often simplistic media portrayal, our Navy is overwhelmingly composed of well-intentioned people who want to see us address this issue with facts and then proceed based on what helps us treat our people right and accomplish our mission. Let’s decide where women belong based on their actual abilities, and not on the images painted by extremists.
Because of a comprehensive training effort and a constant barrage of publicity, Navy people clearly are receiving the message on sexual harassment. According to recent surveys, cases of sexual harassment in the Navy have declined markedly since 1991, but many Navy commands still are way behind the power curve. Many women who have built successful Navy careers have had to overcome some form of sexual harassment—usually from a male supervisor or coworker. In addition, retribution against whistle-blowers still occurs. It is hard to expect sustained superior performance from women who are preyed on by some of the men who are supposed to be their leaders and shipmates.
Nevertheless, the efforts to eradicate this problem have created the perception of a pendulum swing that unjustly empowers undeserving or unscrupulous women. Many Navy men believe the burden of proof in sexual harassment cases now rests with the male defendant, and that some women exploit this phenomenon by threatening their male supervisors with harassment complaints to avoid documentation of substandard performance. Many aviators believe women flight students receive many more opportunities to overcome difficulties in flight training than their male counterparts. These perceptions are poisonous in a meritocracy such as the Navy, and they fuel the fear that some unqualified or less-qualified women will abuse special considerations at the expense of qualified men and women.
The only way to combat this is for Navy leaders to earn the trust of the seawall officers and sailors by fostering a climate of fairness and professionalism among all their commands. They must have the courage to stand by their decisions when they are operationally and administratively correct, whether or not they are politically tenable.
At the worker-bee level, we must evaluate each woman’s ability to do the job based on personal observation, rather than joining the debate with opinions based entirely on sea stories and other third-person perceptions. Working alongside women at sea will disabuse most men of any myths and other conventional wisdom. The key is to understand that there are strong and weak performers in both sexes, and we as Navy leaders need to focus on performance rather than gender in deciding how to man our ships and write our watch bills.
The integration of women is a complex political and social issue; but because it will have long-term effects on our readiness as an operational Navy, we cannot view it solely from a political or social perspective. It is an operational issue, and, as such, it is considerably simpler.
Our society already has rogered up to the concept of women in combat. All we as a Navy have to decide is how best to include the other half of the population in our available talent pool. Here’s the solution: Take all comers, regardless of gender, and place them wherever their talents and desires and the needs of the Navy dictate—if they are truly willing to help the Navy accomplish its mission. Put another way, we remove all reference to gender in the various instructions for accession into our communities, and we recruit people based on their ability to meet all the other criteria.
It is a simple solution, and a lot of what it entails already is being done. That doesn’t mean it is going to be easy to implement in its entirety. There are some conditions to this open-the-floodgates policy that flout entrenched interests among both men and women. Overcoming these interests for the good of the Navy is where traditional leadership comes into play. Those conditions include:
► Everybody plays the same game. No fast-tracks, no quotas, no set-asides, no sweetheart deals, no pink billets on the Blue Angels, no special guidance on selection-board precepts, no ends-justify-the-means gender-mandering within communities—and no going back on this program if the percentage of women in the Navy or in key communities temporarily gets smaller. The gender-equity issue is not about percentages or total numbers of women; it is
as much about equality of expectations as equality of opportunity. If we learn that most women don’t want to go to sea, at least we will be left with the women who are actual contributors to the operational Navy and richly deserving of their role-model status. That eventually will create the pipeline for the most-qualified women—and men—to join us in the coming years.
Above all, we must avoid creating the impression that women are being allowed to “hit from the red tees” to make up for past inequities. That strategy breeds a self-fulfilling prophecy of lower performance for women and condescension and resentment among men.
^ Break the female hold on the 1700 community. For years, the general unrestricted line community (now the fleet support community) filled fleet support billets in such activities as military entrance and processing stations, recruiting commands, and personnel support detachments around the world. The community is 85% female, and so it provides a lot of bodies that make Navy integration numbers look better to uninformed observers. The existence (until recently) of a line community not built around a warfare area and not accustomed to getting under way does a disservice to the important goal of incorporating women into operational billets.
Moving the fleet support function to the restricted line was the right move; having a parallel command track in which (mostly women) officers wear the uniform and draw the pay with deploying is a recipe for creating a second- class citizenry. The 1700 community should draw heavily from the large talent pool of competitive male officers who are being denied operational department head opportunities during Navy downsizing. For junior 1700 female officers, the Navy’s emphasis now needs to be on creating transition opportunities for those who wanted operational careers but were steered into the 1100 community by service-selection quotas or recruiters who didn’t know any better. Our priority should be on redesignating Women who want the challenge and reward of being true naval—i.e., seagoing—officers.
^ No special “get well” programs for sea-duty pregnancies. Pregnancy is, for deployment manning purposes, a medically disqualifying condition. Every Navy member who becomes medically unable to perform duties under Way—for whatever reason—puts a burden on his or her unit and shipmates. Not only does the rest of the ship or squadron have to pick up that person’s watchstanding requirements and collateral duties, but whatever operational training that person received during workups is unavail- uble in his or her relief—a relief whose life will be severely disrupted by short-fused orders to a deploying unit, ^omen who become pregnant while on sea duty and cannot deploy should face the same career consequences as uten who break a leg through misfortune, poor judgment, or willful negligence: consequences that arise from temporary additional duty periods and “not observed” fitness reports and evaluations while the rest of the competitive category receives competitive underway reports.
Although the Navy has not tracked shipboard pregnancy rates routinely, statistics indicate that only about 8% or 9% of women on ships require relief for pregnancy annually. Some ships do a lot better than others on this issue. Command influence and strong leadership—beginning with an energized sponsor/check-in program and appropriate training—make a big difference. As with so many problems, this one can be handled at the deckplate level by smart, committed leadership.
The problem with a policy that prohibits sea-duty pregnancies is that it is nearly impossible to prove a pregnancy is intentional, and the Navy does not want to be seen as promoting abortion as an alternative to prevention and responsibility. In addition, many people feel it is unreasonable to force women to forgo childbearing or even to defer pregnancy until after their sea tours are over. As a military organization, however, we must not allow our policies to be driven by the sensibilities of a civilian mind-set. We demand our officers and sailors submit to many things most civilians would not stand for: from grooming standards and urinalyses to six-month family separations and getting shot at in wartime.
Ultimately, a Navy career is about individual responsibility and accountability—and contribution to a team. Every woman who receives orders to a deploying unit must understand that failure to deploy with the ship or squadron not only harms her own unit, but also plays directly into the hands of a sexist minority looking for reasons to exclude women. Women who are committed to a Navy career have no problem with this reality. Women who are committed to being their children’s primary caregivers are a great benefit to our society—they just can’t do that and deploy.
► Stringent enforcement of Navy fraternization policy. Ships and squadrons with strong, effective leadership don’t let unduly familiar relationships between seniors and juniors interfere with discipline within the command. Some people say that when men and women are together in close quarters for extended deployments, some of them will find a way to have sex with one another. That may be true, but this phenomenon responds to leadership. If the command atmosphere clearly does not tolerate fraternization, professional Navy people will hear and understand.
► Move on sexual harassment complaints hard at the outset. People who work sexual harassment taskers every day see a common thread in the intractable cases: light command response at the outset of a complaint. If the member lodging the complaint perceives a flippant or lukewarm initial response from the command, the Navy will have missed its only opportunity to deal with the complaint at the informal level.
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Whether the complaint is justified or frivolous, and even if the command eventually does a thorough and fair investigation, if the command’s initial attitude is “We’ll look into it, but that’s what you get for being alone with him in the first place,” no amount of intervention by senior leaders is ever likely to satisfy the member and close out the case. There is a narrow window of opportunity in each sexual harassment case that we cannot afford to miss. > Overcome the shipboard hardware barriers. Heads and berthing areas are not mountains that stand in the way of bringing women on board ships; they are speed bumps. The difficulties cruisers and destroyers endure in embarking a staff or groups of distinguished visitors are not unlike what they will have to handle when preparing for women to come on board. There is nothing about this conversion, especially on board aircraft carriers, that is beyond the ability of a ship to handle. The one exception is on board submarines, which arguably have no space or privacy for the men already there.
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The net effect of all these conditions is a level playing field. It is paramount that all Navy people believe they are equally free to prove themselves worthy of getting under way, standing watches, promoting, advancing, and leading.
The role of Navy leadership in this scenario is like that of government in a true free market economy: enforce the rules, ensure fair competition, and stay out of the way. Fine-tuning and micromanaging the integration of women for a specific desired outcome is tempting; but it is gundecking, and it will fail. We don’t need to create speed lines just so society can see what a great job we are doing incorporating women. We do need to open up the same career paths for women to tread alongside men, and let society judge us by our ability to complete our mission.
Lieutenant Palzkill, a naval flight officer, is on the staff of Commander Naval Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. He previously served as aide to Commander, Carrier Group Eight, as editor of Perspective, and with VAW-121.