Women in the Navy bid farewell to an iconic uniform item on 31 October 2016. The bucket cover—a fixture in one form or another since women joined the WAVES during World War II—was retired as prescribed by NAVADMIN 236/15. For those in the naval service unconcerned with fashion, the retirement of an outdated piece of headgear may seem of little consequence. For leaders of a diverse force, however, the epitaph of the bucket is a cautionary tale on the tricky world of gender politics, cognitive bias, and well-intentioned policy.
The requirement for female officers and chiefs to wear either the alternative combination cover (ACC) or the male combination cover is the latest effort in establishing common uniform items in the Navy and Marine Corps for both genders. As Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus explained in a statement, “These changes ensure greater uniformity in our service and ceremonial dress, but more importantly, they send a clear signal that we are one in dress, one in standard and one in team. . . . As you look out across a group of Sailors, you ought to see, not female and male Sailors, but Sailors.”
According to Secretary Mabus’s logic, the change to gender-neutral uniforms is in keeping with the Navy’s ethos and its commitment, as stated in the Sailor’s Creed, “to excellence and the fair treatment of all.” By reducing the differences in appearance among sailors, the change is intended to increase inclusivity and esprit-de-corps.
The move toward unisex uniforms, however, has run into unexpected opposition from many of the women it is designed to assist. In comments on social media, questions in captain’s calls, and feedback across the blogosphere, the tide is running against the new cover. Women object to its rapid introduction, the unnecessary cost of replacing serviceable uniform items, and the unfairness of placing the burden for gender neutrality on women.
While these concerns are getting the most play on social media, women’s resistance to the idea of gender neutrality in uniform attire may stem from the phenomenon in gender politics known as the “double bind.” The double bind involves the paradoxical conflict inherent to women in leadership positions. According to a 2007 Catalyst survey, women leaders often must act in stereotypically masculine ways to be seen as competent. Acting “less feminine,” however, results in a female leader being seen as less likeable. Because both likeability and competence are used to judge successful leaders, women face a unique dilemma in balancing the two factors. The double bind is particularly prevalent in traditionally male career fields and in organizations where women are underrepresented in leadership positions.
Researchers at Stanford School of Business found that one strategy that enabled women to navigate the double bind successfully was to “self-monitor” by adapting their behavior in professional situations. Women were able to overcome the double bind by acting in stereotypically masculine ways—exhibiting aggressiveness, assertiveness, and confidence—to project professional competence while still “acting like a lady” when the social situation called for it. The study’s coauthor, Dr. Olivia O’Neill, explained, “These women were able to be chameleons, to fit into their environment by assessing social situations and adapting their actions accordingly.” As a result, women who blended both male and female traits achieved better promotion rates and more professional success than women whose behavior was more binary.
By removing the bucket cover from the sea bag, Navy leadership is removing one tool servicewomen may use to navigate the double bind. Conforming to gender norms through uniquely female uniforms, especially on ceremonial occasions where appearance is more relevant than professional skill, may give women a way to balance both sides of the likeability/competence paradox. Subconsciously, both women and men judge female leaders harshly on the likeability scale when they tend “too far” toward masculine leadership traits. If the Stanford research is correct, being flexible enough to exude both competence in dungarees and femininity in high heels gives women an advantage with both genders, allowing them to build trust, support, and social capital with their shipmates.
Affection for tradition is not justification for stopping the course of progress, in matters of fashion or equal opportunity. Only time will tell if gender neutral uniforms, designed to promote inclusivity, result in better outcomes for women and the wider naval service. Trends suggest that the Navy will continue to adapt to and benefit from an increasingly diverse force. By considering academic research on cognitive biases during policy formation, Navy leaders can reduce unintended consequences when instituting cultural change.