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Supporting Brothers—and Sisters—in Arms

By Lieutenant Ashley O'Keefe and Lieutenant (junior grade) Chris O'Keefe, U.S. Navy

Today, 88 percent of Navy billets are open to women. 8 However, of the 238 combatant ships in commission today, only 11 have women as commanding officers—a paltry 4.6 percent, even though 15 percent of all surface warfare officers are women. 9 This statistic does not suggest that women are not chosen for command, but rather that they do not remain in the service long enough to gain it. For example, only 17 percent of female surface warfare officers are retained past the level of mid-grade officer compared to 41 percent of men. 10

Much ink has been spilled in attempting to discern why women choose to leave the Navy. We believe cultural norms play a key role. The Navy’s culture evolved around a society of men who served on ships and aircraft, and drew its members from an equally unbalanced American workforce. As modern American society struggles with questions of equality and balance, so too does today’s Navy. There absolutely has been a distinct shift in rhetoric and action regarding abusive behavior, disrespect, and intolerance, particularly among senior leadership. However, like broader society, the Navy still has a long way to go in embracing its sisters-in-arms. Until real, mutual trust develops, many women will remain ambivalent about their naval careers and be thought of as outsiders, and they will not be able to fully buy in to a Navy culture that they perceive as devaluing their presence.

The Navy is slowly recognizing the benefits of increased diversity, but counterproductively, at times it seems to work to minimize diversity’s visual impact. These actions help to foster the perception among some women that the Navy would have them look, think, and act like men. Understanding how efforts to integrate women are perceived by women is of the utmost importance. This year’s uniform-wear tests have put female midshipmen into male covers, and will have the women of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2015 graduate in male choker whites and possibly pants. 11 The juxtaposition of statements about gender neutrality, followed by the adoption of the male cover, sends a message that can easily be misconstrued to these rising officers that the Navy is dissatisfied with the way they stand out and make the organization look. Ultimately, while every sailor recognizes that professionalism means looking and acting the part, we should ask, does it really mean looking and acting like a man?

Women and Combat

Combat exclusions historically have undermined the perception of women as equal contributors and have caused some to believe that women are not fit for military service. In 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta eliminated the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, and today the services are implementing plans to facilitate further integration into the riverine forces, SEALs, fast-attack submarines, and Marine Corps ground elements such as infantry and armor battalions. 12 We wholeheartedly support this positive step forward and believe that it will lead to improved outcomes in combat effectiveness. As Secretary Panetta announced the end of the direct ground combat exclusion rule for women, he noted that job standards would not drop in rigorous combat specialties. 13 This is important in building an integrated military; as men continue to progress toward full acceptance of their sisters-in-arms, inclusion cannot come at the expense of readiness. Neither men nor women in our Navy should support this. Nor do we believe that full integration will result in a 50/50 gender composition in every career field. We recognize that few men and fewer women will ever be SEALs, but it is the right to compete as equals that is paramount.

As the military revises its combat exclusion policies, it should work to truly understand what it is asking of its trailblazing women. For example, some women have completed the enlisted infantry course, and several have attempted, but not completed, the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course (IOC). The small numbers of successes to date do not necessarily signify failure of the integration policy. Rather, they highlight several areas for further study and improvement. First, the infantry specialty is still not actually open for female Marines, so the candidates have generally had limited time to prepare. The training has been worked around an existing pipeline already in place for their assigned specialty. This has simply highlighted the obvious: Like men, women will need a significant amount of training and physical preparation to complete ground combat training. Typically, men who want to be infantry officers decide early in their college careers and prepare accordingly, or rise from the enlisted ranks. These early test cases may not reflect the number of women who can make it through the course; they simply may not have had adequate preparation time. Second, attempting to complete the current IOC test process may actually be detrimental to a female Marine’s career, insofar as it delays getting her to her assigned school and reduces her time as a platoon commander. And finally, like the discussion of bad perception associated with changing female uniforms, understanding the perception of the system by the women who choose not to go through the IOC testing process is equally, if not more, important: Women simply may not want to participate in a public test in which they will be physically beaten down, and still barred from joining the community. 14

As we continue to integrate combat units, a common misconception arises in that we conflate physical strength with physical fitness. There is a difference between job-specific physical strength requirements and general physical fitness standards. As rigorous validation and testing of job requirements continues across the Department of Defense, we may even find that physical job requirements actually increase and that some currently qualified members of ground combat communities may not be able to fulfill their current or future requirements. However, the fitness required of our sailors today is multidimensional—not just physical, but also emotional, mental, and ethical. 15 For most jobs in today’s Navy, which is becoming increasingly digitized, automated, and less dependent on manual labor, physical fitness standards are just a part of a larger mosaic that commanders must piece together to maintain maximum deployment readiness among all of their sailors, men and women alike.

Men’s Leadership Role

Men have an essential role to play in building a better work-life balance and improving gender relations. First, they must recognize and understand that there is a problem, and then actively participate in attaining the solution. Paradoxically, it is men, more than women, who must play the pivotal role in the final steps towards full integration and equal opportunity for women in the Navy. And, while support for their sisters-in-arms is important, the policy changes required for full integration are ultimately in men’s best interest, too. Those updated personnel policies that would encourage women to stay in the Fleet longer would also improve the quality of life on shore and at sea for the vast majority of Navy men.

Today, many issues framed as “women’s issues” are equally important to men and to male retention. Work-life balance, family support, deployment cycles, childcare, and maternity and paternity leave are all identified in retention studies. Thus while we focus primarily on the status of female officers in this discussion, many of our policy recommendations will apply to every sailor—man, woman, officer, and enlisted. To catalyze change, men will need to speak out too.

While high achieving men and women look to accomplish the same goals, some gender biases in our society make it much more likely that men will reach those goals. 16 Gender norms still drive conceptions of the “proper” roles for men and women, and the Navy tends to mirror society. 17 But societal changes over the past four decades have transformed our understanding of the meaning of work-family arrangements. The labor force encompasses more women, including mothers, and the labor force participation rate for mothers has increased from almost 50 percent in 1975 to nearly 75 percent in 2011. The homemaker-breadwinner family model of the 1950s has decreased from 70 percent of families in 1960 to 31 percent in 2011. Married couples with children with both husband and wife in the labor force have increased from 25 percent in 1960 to 59 percent in 2011. 18 As discussion and debate swirl around the shifting role of women in the military, family, and society, perhaps one of the largest hurdles is the lack of discussion of an equal shift in the role of men in those areas, particularly in the Navy.

As a dual-military couple, we run head-on into a wall of restrictive gender norms that are evident in the Navy. As a masculine institution, the Navy still promotes a work-family dichotomy that demands a “two-person single-career” family. 19 Accordingly, wives are expected to stay at home and support their husbands as they complete deployments and maintain a high operational tempo. As a military couple balancing two careers and the household, we frequently confront traditional gender norms that assume the wife will drop out of the workforce and support her husband. The concept of the “stay-at-home dad,” or even of a man committed to sharing equally in managing the household, is still relatively alien in the military environment. Thus in addition to the normal stresses of military life, we add the personal stress of fighting gender bias and traditional gender norms. This is not a complaint, as we have chosen this life. However, it may help to illuminate the additional stresses placed on married military women, 48 percent of whom marry military men, as well as other non-traditional military families. 20

Career Flexibility

One of the most important discussions to come out of the full integration of women into the Navy has been the concept of career flexibility. Data show that accommodating flexibility in naval careers will improve retention and satisfaction within the ranks among both men and women.21 Furthermore, we must adapt to a restricted fiscal environment that will likely end the viability of the 20-year retirement model while still providing meaningful opportunities for advancement and career progression based on consistent, measured performance. 22

Men and women want to serve, but sometimes to continue their service they need more flexible options than the traditional pipelines offer. Understanding this need, the Bureau of Naval Personnel has implemented a career intermission pilot program that aims to provide just that. Structured for women and men, officers and enlisted, the pilot offers up to three years in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) in exchange for a follow-on tour of double the elapsed time in the IRR. This concept might allow for graduate school, travel, family care, or even simply time in the civilian work force. Unfortunately, this program is limited by law to only 20 officers and 20 enlisted personnel per year, and has highly restrictive entry requirements that dampen participation.

The stresses placed on families by long and unpredictable deployments as well as high operational tempos tend to enforce the perception that Navy service is incompatible with family life. 23 To change this perception, officer career paths, especially for aviation, must be revamped to allow for improved family balance. Today, when aviators leave the operational fleet, they must go to a “production” billet—in a fleet concentration area, teaching future pilots—or be left behind. This leaves little room in a female aviator’s career to remain competitive and have a child. Thus, the fact that 88 percent of female aviators between the ages of 28 and 55 are childless comes as no surprise. 24 Furthermore, this lack of career flexibility contributes to the increasing and costly problem of low retention rates among all aviators, men and women, with only 36 percent taking the department head bonus last year—well below the required uptake rate. 25 After investing heavily in their training and development, the Navy is losing these talented men and women not only to families, but to high-end startups, graduate education, and career opportunities in the private sector. A more flexible career path with on and in the off ramps would allow some of these individuals to stay Navy, return to active duty, and enhance the force with newly acquired, valuable skill sets.

Policy Considerations

While we have discussed the impact that cultural norms and current policies have on gender integration, we have not acknowledged the cost to the Navy of the war for top talent. Given the enormous investment the Navy makes in developing officers, we believe the Navy must now do more to protect this investment and improve its long-term return. We close this discussion with a summary of key recommendations that, taken together, can ensure the Navy’s success in attracting, developing, and retaining the best and brightest.

Congress and the military must seriously consider ending the up or out personnel policy that has been in place since 1980. The on-off ramp component of the Career Intermission Pilot Program challenges the stringent career timelines implied by up or out. This new level of flexibility might allow for more career specialization, as with the Permanent Military Professor program, and even impact the operational fleet. Such specialists might stay in a certain position for more than just three years in exchange for foregoing promotion with their year group.

Continue improving the basic support systems available to military families. Today, many single parents and dual-career couples struggle to find adequate childcare compatible with ship duty. Making 24-hour childcare available would help in handling extended commitments to watch rotations, overnight underway periods, and temporary training requirements. Improving access to childcare would go a long way toward removing a major obstacle to continued service. 26

Tackle misconceptions about physical standards by increasing awareness of the difference between job-specific physical capability standards and gender-specific wellness standards. Clarify how the overall health and wellness of sailors is decoupled from the requirements of their jobs. Men and women have different physiologies and body fat standards. Conversely, when job fields are all mixed-gender, job-specific physical capability standards must apply uniformly to both sexes.

Design career paths that account for and promote departure from and reentry into a “fluid” pipeline, focusing on improved work-life balance and increased retention. A 20-year retirement is no longer fiscally viable for the Navy. By increasing flexibility and promoting alternative career paths and intermissions, we will be better positioned to respond to increasing economic pressures regarding pensions, healthcare, and competition for the Navy’s talent pool. 27 This policy will allow career intermissions and provide an onramp for talented officers to resume active duty.

Increase participation by men in efforts to build an inclusive Navy culture through direct involvement in organizations like the OPNAV Office of Women’s Policy. Men must be part of the solution to build an inclusive culture and ensure women’s full integration. Ultimately, when full integration is achieved, this office should cease to exist.

Work to eliminate the stigma of pregnancy by enforcing paternity leave. Fathers should be required to take paternity leave, which would help normalize maternity (convalescent) leave for mothers. Research shows that paternity leave results in better outcomes for children and families—and could potentially increase readiness. It would also normalize the inclusion of women by revising the idea that pregnancy is only a “women’s issue.”

Continue to challenge Navy leaders—both enlisted and officers—to build and maintain healthy command climates in which sexual misconduct and gender bias are not tolerated. To equip all of our leaders with the tools in how to do this, incorporate training and education curricula for our “school houses” to ensure leaders receive this education and training at typical career milestones. These opportunities would educate men and women about how bias, prejudice, and discrimination occur in the workplace, help them acknowledge and understand their own biases, and model how to confront others and create a healthy command climate. These issues are not just problems for the Office of Women’s Policy; they are a reflection of leadership. By emphasizing the importance of inclusion, respect, cooperation, and personal accountability, commanders can set the right tone for productive and professional behavior. Consistent leadership across all commands would end the threat to safety and well-being that harassment and assault still pose for many sailors.

And finally, let’s stop trying to make women look like men. Instead, we should celebrate the fact that the Navy is a truly diverse force representing the best that our nation has to offer.

We recognize that some of these personnel recommendations disrupt the traditional career pipeline, favor a non-chronological promotion system, and would likely lead to greater specialization in the services. We also acknowledge that each of these actions would pose new challenges for the Chief of Naval Personnel by reducing predictability in force planning. Even with new force-planning structures to address the dynamic nature of this system, there will surely be challenges to successful implementation. Yet without these changes, our Navy will fail to adapt to the requirements of today’s sailors, and continue to struggle with retention of many of our best officers.

This is a conversation happening on the deckplates and among our peers. As young officers, we are deeply invested in the Navy. We want the institution to continue improving so that when our generation has command of ships and aircraft, we are leading the best and most integrated force in the world. Having a diverse workforce where people are accepted, encouraged to contribute, and supported will make every sailor and the Navy more successful.

We are encouraged by the fact that some senior Navy leaders are already discussing these policy recommendations but believe the time has come to move beyond discussion to implementation. To support this change, we must create an open dialogue between men and women, superiors and subordinates, and encourage buy-in at all levels. Ultimately, to build and sustain the best fighting force for the nation, we collectively must acknowledge the strategic significance of these challenges, and address them soon. For in an increasingly connected, fast-moving world, we need the best leaders, strategic thinkers, and problem-solvers available—and can no longer afford to selectively filter half of the population due to their gender.

1. Mark Hugo Lopez and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, “Women’s College Enrollment Gains Leave Men Behind,” Fact Tank , 6 March 2014, gains-leave-men-behind.

2. Department of Labor, “Table: Civilian Labor Force by Sex, 1970–2012,” .

3. Robin Ely, Pamela Stone, and Colleen Ammerman, “Rethink what you ‘know’ about high-achieving women,” Harvard Business Review , December 2014,; Sangeeta Bharadwaj Badal, “The Business Benefits of Gender Diversity,” Gallup Business Journal , 20 January 2014, .

4. “Today’s Women and Tomorrow’s Navy,” OPNAV N134W, 20 March 2013, , slide 10.

5. Ibid., slide 10.

6. Ibid.

7. “Report to Congress on Women in the Services Review,” Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel & Readiness), July 2013, .

8. “Facts and Statistics,” OPNAV N134W, .

9. “U.S. Ship Force Levels,” Navy History and Heritage Command,; OPNAV N134W, “Today’s Women and Tomorrow’s Navy,” 20 March 2013, .

10. “Today’s Women and Tomorrow’s Navy,” slide 10.

11. “Women’s Uniform Initiatives,” NAVADMIN, May 2012, .

12. Ray Maybus, “Department of the Navy Women in the Service Review Implementation Plan,” 2 May 2013, , Encl. 1; “Women in Combat: The Military Faces Reality,” Editorial, Washington Post , 24 January 2013, .

13. Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, “Military Chiefs’ Personal Encounters Influenced Lifting Women’s Combat Ban,” The New York Times , 25 January 2013, .

14. Sage Santangelo, “Fourteen women have tried, and failed, the Marines’ Infantry Officer Course. Here’s why,” The Washington Post , 28 March 2014, .

15. “About,” 21st Century Sailor and Marine Office, .

16. Ely, Stone, and Ammerman, “Rethink what you know.”

17. David Smith, “Developing Pathways to Serving Together: Dual Military Couples’ Life Course and Decision-Making,” dissertation, University of Maryland Press, 2010, 39.

18. Ibid.

19. Hanna Papanek, “Men, Women, and Work: Reflections on the Two-Person Career,” The American Journal of Sociology , vol. 78, no. 4, 852–872.

20. Eilen Patten and Kim Parker, “Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile,” Pew Social & Demographic Trends , December 2011, , 6.

21. “Executive Summary: Navy Retention Survey,” 1 September 2014, .

22. Todd Harrison, “Rebalancing Military Compensation: An Evidence-Based Approach,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, 12 July 2012, Austin Hulbert, “A Bad Time for Timing: An Analysis of the US Navy Officer Promotion Process,” 2014, .

23. Carol Stoker and Alice Crawford, “Surface Warfare Officer Retention: Analysis of Individual Ready Reserve Survey Data,” Naval Postgraduate School, 22 January 2008, 40.

24. “Today’s Women and Tomorrow’s Navy,” slide 10.

25. Guy Snodgrass, “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon,” 20 March 2014, .

26. Joy Moini, Gail Zellman, and Susan Gates, “Providing Child Care to Military Families: The Role of the Demand Formula in Defining Need and Informing Policy,” RAND National Defense Research Institute, 2008, .

27. Harrison, “Rebalancing Military Compensation.”

Lieutenant O’Keefe is a surface warfare officer and the flag aide to the Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Lieutenant (j.g.) O’Keefe is an intelligence officer currently stationed at the Pentagon. He is the producer and director of the series “A History of the Navy in 100 Objects.” The coauthors are married and reside in Annapolis, Maryland.


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