The Athena Conference, “Heroines of Past, Present, and Future,” held at the U.S. Naval Academy to celebrate 40 years of women midshipmen, provided the opportunity for women leaders from the military, government, and private sectors to offer views and anecdotal experiences on workforce integration. Panelists from all three sectors stressed the need for men and women to work together to continue the workforce integration progress.
As women increasingly enter nontraditional career fields (where one gender constitutes less than 25 percent of the workforce), organizational cultures are affected. Consequent gender-related issues fall into structural, institutional, and cultural categories, which frequently create institutional sexist policies to “protect” women (called benevolent sexism) from activities traditionally considered male-appropriate. Institutional sexism can be rule-based or cultural, often eliminated through gradual integration processes. On an accumulated and (even tacitly) tolerated basis, these attitudes and behaviors can constitute invisible, unspoken institutional sexism.
Although women have made inroads in workforce integration, it has not been without trials. In 2014, Michelle Howard was named the Navy’s first woman four-star admiral, recognizing her exemplary operational record as a surface warfare officer. But as Howard stated in 2012, “There were individuals who didn’t want me there or wanted to undermine what I was trying to do.”
Harvard University defines inclusivity as “accepting and valuing differences as strengths, going beyond statistics and toleration.” As the benefits of workforce diversity are well documented, current research now focuses on developing an inclusive culture.
Numbers are important to this. Until the demographic mix reaches a critical mass (generally considered 30 percent), minority views can be easily discarded. But “body counting” alone neglects the context of social relations and subjectivities by which inclusivity occurs. Numbers fail to consider that a hostile culture can exist, largely invisible, subjective and often unchallenged due to its embedded nature.
Army Colonel Diane Ryan examined resistance to diversity in her 2008 doctoral dissertation, where she referenced Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) theory, the general tendency of people to form and maintain group hierarchies to uphold the status quo.1 Ryan drew from a 2004 study suggesting that men impose social dominance because they belong to a higher status group. SDO provides the rationale necessary to legitimize otherwise unacceptable personal behavior, specifically sexism. Ryan’s results supported previous work suggesting men in male-dominated career environments may feel compelled to ‘hunker down’ in the interest of preserving male privilege.
Sexism is sometimes simply a function of the “blind fish” phenomenon, where individuals fail to recognize sexism, or their involvement in its propagation.2 Sexism can thereby pervade merely through benign neglect. It becomes a form of prejudice more acceptable than others, affecting employment and credibility.
A 2012 double-blind study evidenced that among resumes of randomly selected applicants for an academic laboratory manager position, faculty reviewers considered those with male names more highly qualified and hirable.3 Similarly, a 2014 study found both men and women more likely to hire a man for a job that requires math.4 In 2015, a peer reviewer recommended improving a rejected study by evolutionary biologist Fiona Ingleby by adding a male coauthor. Doing so, the reviewer suggested, would reassure readers of empirical results versus ideologically biased assumptions.
The commonality of challenges faced by women in nontraditional fields is considerable. The Athena Conference referenced three related factors that are reinforced by research as critical to hiring, retention, and promotion: competence, confidence, and mentoring.
Competence, Confidence and Mentoring
Athena speakers stressed that women in nontraditional fields must be, as former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy stated, hyper-competent. What constitutes competency, however, can be knotty. General Ann Dunwoody, U.S. Army (Retired), remarked that as a lifelong athlete she could outrun her male colleagues and match them in push-ups, thereby establishing her competency. But audience comments suggested that too often PT scores become the default measure of competency, disadvantaging women.
Not all women are more, or even equally, as qualified as men for all or particular positions. But studies find that competency can work against women in performance evaluations. In 2014, London Business School researchers studied 200 U.S. military commanders responsible for performance evaluations and found high gender bias “when the evaluator was male and high social-dominance oriented and when the female subordinate’s objective on-the-job performance was high.”5 They concluded that in hierarchical organizations, past accomplishments actually can be detrimental to women because they may be viewed as threatening.
A 2010 MIT study examined how meritocratic ideals and performance awards unfold in organizations considering themselves committed to diversity. Called “the paradox of meritocracy,” study findings evidenced that managers gave higher monetary awards to male employees than equally performing female employees. The study concluded that individuals who consider themselves unbiased (blind fish) do not scrutinize their behavior but instead assume their assessments are accurate.
In addition, genders tend to be assessed on different criteria. A 2014 study examined performance reviews given to men and women across 28 companies.6 Managers, regardless of gender, gave female employees more negative feedback than male employees. Further, 76 percent of the negative feedback given women included personality criticism, such as being “abrasive,” “judgmental,” or “strident,” whereas only two percent of men’s reviews included similar negative personality comments. Women are judged in personalized ways that can mar confidence.
Women, including leaders, can suffer from “imposter syndrome,” stemming from lack of confidence. A 2003 study looked at the relationship between female competence and confidence. On a quiz of scientific skills, women rated themselves more negatively than men, yet performed about equally well.7 A 2011 U.K. survey of managers found that half of female respondents had doubts about their job performance, while less than a third of male respondents reported similar feelings. This self-doubt, referenced by Athena speakers, can lead women to forgo tasks before even starting, because of a fear of failure or demonstrating incompetence.
There is another important link between competence and confidence: confidence is challenged when colleagues do not take you seriously. Research led by Hastings Law School Professor Joan Williams in 2014 cites having to repeatedly prove themselves to their male colleagues as one of five reasons women, particularly women of color, leave science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
However, a 2011 Stanford study documented what many women already know: if women behave in too feminine a manner, they are seen as weak, but if they are too masculine or too confident, they are considered aggressive—and consequently ostracized.8 The study concluded that women must learn to switch on and off masculine behaviors of aggressiveness, assertiveness, and confidence.
Mentors may be helpful with learning that skill. Commander Darlene Iskra, U.S. Navy (Retired), the first woman commanding officer of a U.S. naval ship (1990), considered mentorship in her 2007 dissertation “Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling: Elite Military Women’s Strategies for Success.” Mentorship is considered important to success, yet she found a noticeable lack of female role models and mentors. While in some instances men are willing to mentor women (multiple Athena speakers praised their male mentors), it is not always the case.
Why men are reluctant to mentor women was considered in a September 2016 Proceedings article by Brad Johnson and Captain David Smith titled, “It Takes A Few Good Men.” Asserting that mentorship is key to attracting, retaining, and promoting the women needed to develop an inclusive and diverse workforce, the authors identified reasons—mostly rooted in gender stereotyping—behind what they dub “reluctant male syndrome.” Individually and in combination, those reasons inhibit men from mentoring female colleagues.
Women also can be reluctant to mentor women. Organizational structures may create competition between women, inhibiting mentorship. Women mentoring other women is often characterized as favoritism. “Queen Bee Syndrome,” a term first coined in the 1970s, alleged that successful women didn’t help and sometimes actively held back other women. A 2015 Columbia Business School study debunked the Queen Bee myth, citing instead hidden quotas as the culprit for the low numbers of women in high positions.
Fight or Flight
Once in nontraditional careers, some women opt out to raise families or attend to other personal issues. Athena participants repeatedly stressed that accommodation of women’s overlapping career and family goals is a structural responsibility that must be organizationally addressed. Some women, however, leave based on what has been called the “fight-or-flight” moment.
In 2008, Harvard Business School researchers conducted a study of women in male-dominated science, technology and engineering fields, with results broadly applicable to nontraditional careers. Researchers found that five factors—many gender-centered—played into highly qualified, talented women opting out at about the ten-year mark. For example, women in the study cited hostile macho cultures that marginalize women. The macho cultures can result in environments that are exclusionary or even predatory, as recently evidenced in the “Marines United” scandal. They also reported feeling isolated and out of sync with the field’s tendency to recognize and reward risky behavior, as women generally are more risk adverse. In addition, women reported the extreme work demands disadvantage those with family responsibilities. Athena participants raised comparable issues from varying perspectives, but all agreed that addressing “fight or flight” issues requires both structural and cultural changes.
Differences in numbers, opportunities, and challenges faced by women midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy 40 years ago and those today evidence positive change is occurring. But work remains to be done. Understanding personal biases is a first step toward accepting inclusivity, but until inclusivity is the norm, competence, confidence, and mentoring remain key to effective integration of women into the workforce. Further, as several panelists pointed out, women must pick their battles at work. Humor was repeatedly cited as a necessary self-defense mechanism for women in nontraditional career fields. Women were advised to seek out mentors, apply for positions, and speak up. Athena panelists also urged women to forgo striving to be “liked,” and instead strive to be respected.
It is in the nation’s interest to hire, retain, and advance the best and the brightest. It is the responsibility of the relevant organizations to provide those individuals the opportunities to reach their full potential and an environment conducive to doing so. It is the responsibility of women pursuing nontraditional careers to prepare themselves for the inherent challenges. The Athena Conference brought issues to light and provided a discussion venue. Now, action items are needed.
Editor’s Note: The Athena Conference was hosted by the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Naval Institute with support from the William M. Wood Foundation at the U.S. Naval Academy, 8-9 September 2016. Details at www.usni.org/events/2016-naval-history-conference.
1. Diane Michele Ryan. In Their Place: Measuring Gender Attitudes and Egalitarianism Among U.S. Army Personnel, University of North Carolina State University, 2008. https://repository.lib.ncsu.edu/ir/bitstream/1840.16/5085/1/etd.pdf.
2. Laurie Rudman, in John Dovidio, Peter Glick and Laurie Rudman eds., On the Nature of Prejudice: Fifty years After Allport, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 107.
3. Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, et al., “Science faculty’s subtle gender bias favor male students,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 109, Number 141, 2112. The findings of that study were challenged, and those challenges were challenged, perhaps demonstrating the subject sensitivity. www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.full.
4. Ernesto Reuben, et al., “How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 111, Number 12, 2014, www.pnas.org/content/111/12/4403.full.
5. M. Ena Inesi, Daniel M. Cable, “When Accomplishments Come Back to Haunt You: The Negative Effect of Competency Signals on Women’s Performance Evaluations,” Personnel Psychology, Vol. 18, 2015, 615-657.
6. Kieran Snyder, “Performance Review Gender Bias: High-Achieving Women Are “Abrasive,” Fortune, August 26, 2014, www.fortune.com/2014/08/26/performance-review-gender-bias.
7. Joyce Erlinger and David Dunning, “How Chronic Self-Views Influences (and Potentially Mislead) Estimates of Performance,” labs.wsu.edu/joyceehrlinger/wp content/uploads/sites/252/2014/10/EhrlingerDunning2003.pdf.
8. Olivia D. O’Neill and Charles A. O’Reilly, “Reducing the Backlash: Self-Monitoring and Women’s Promotions,” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 2011, Vol. 84, Issue. 4., www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/publications/reducing-backlash-effect-self-monitoring-womens-promotions.
Professor Johnson-Freese is the former chair of the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. She has taught in professional military education and civilian academic institutions for more than 25 years. She is the author of numerous publications on space security, military education, and gender issues.
Photo credit: USNI