When submariners finish their warfare qualifications, they earn their dolphins. Wearing the submarine warfare insignia distinguishes them as experienced, knowledgeable, and steeped in the history of the submarine force. It is tradition to read an excerpt from a World War II submarine history as the dolphins are pinned. At the end of the reading, the reader announces, “This is the salt and steel that submariners are made of, and today we welcome another into our midst.”
Until recently, the submarine community was all male. Even working on a submarine base where women have been serving since 2011, I still regularly get double takes. Last week, as I was walking into the gym, someone—their eyes having found the dolphins on my chest—reached out their hand to stop me. “Hey you’re on submarines aren’t you?” they asked. “You must be one of the first ones! What’s it like?”
This question is not meant to be loaded, but it includes significant unspoken undertones. This person was not asking me What is it like to be a submarine officer? but rather, How does a force rooted in a tradition and history of maleness adapt to women on board? How is it to be in extremely close quarters with a hundred men on a tiny tube deep in the ocean? What is it like to be a woman on submarines?
Even though I often am asked these questions, I am caught off guard every time, and I never know what to say. I have not come up with a canned response that simultaneously conveys the tremendous pride that comes with wearing dolphins, the challenges faced by every person working on a submarine, and my general distaste for being singled out based on gender. Instead, I usually respond with something such as, It’s been great! It’s a job like any other. This does not answer the real question, but I feel compelled to discourage that question on principle. Public statements from groundbreaking women leaders who I respect trend around a common theme: I am a sailor/Marine/submariner/diver like any other. Do not focus on my gender. I am not a female submariner. I am a submariner.
While I admire this attitude, it fails to acknowledge the dramatic transition happening in the submarine community today. Twenty years ago, the idea of women being integrated into the submarine community was laughable and deemed logistically impossible and economically unfeasible. Today, female officers and enlisted sailors are serving on board nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines (SSGNs), and female officers are on board nuclear-powered ballistic-missile (SSBNs) and Virginia-class attack submarines (SSNs). Women serve as department heads, division chiefs, and leading petty officers. This year, the first female officer was screened to serve as an executive officer.
Although female submariners often are asked what it is like to be a woman in submarines, in our desire to divert focus away from gender we can fail to acknowledge its relevance in the context of leadership during this lengthy integration process. Our unwillingness to allow gender to dominate conversations about our service is for good reason: job performance is not gender dependent. However, ignoring the significant changes associated with integration is a disservice to the submarine force. Some day there will not be a sailor in the Navy who remembers what the submarine force was like before women were serving, but for now, gender matters.
Gender matters not because of any stereotypes about behavior or disposition, but rather because of the unique opportunity and responsibility that a female leader has in a changing workplace. While we can repeat the dogma “a sailor is a sailor,” it is disingenuous to pretend that gender has no impact on those we lead. A female leader has an opportunity to set standards in a way that her male counterparts may not. She also has additional responsibilities as one of a small minority. Her standards will set the expectations for other women on board.
As I am one of four female officers in a crew of 160, sailors pay particular attention to what I have to say. I look different, I speak different, my physical readiness standards are different, and regulations allow my hair to touch my ears. Any newly reporting junior officer is the subject of the crew’s discussion and interest, but female officers naturally receive even more interest. From my first day on board, for instance, I could tell my new shipmates were wary of me and anxious to find out what kind of leader I would be.
There is tremendous responsibility inherent in being a female leader. As subordinates pick apart our actions, words, and leadership styles, our command presence could dictate attitudes toward the few other women on board. In a small data set, each observation dramatically impacts the average. The fact is, as long as women are an extreme minority on board, their performance will be scrutinized more closely than that of their male counterparts, and they will often be binned together. Women leaders will not find themselves under the radar.
As leaders, regardless of gender, we aim to inspire those around us through our example. As then-Commander of Submarine Forces Admiral Joseph Tofalo articulated in his 2018 Commander’s Intent, “Trust is earned over a long time of demonstrated performance. Trust creates a special bond and accumulates slowly on a foundation of confidence, expertise, and character.” Developing trust takes time and a platform on which to demonstrate “confidence, expertise, and character.” As female leaders, our differences provide us a more prominent platform. These differences present a unique opportunity, as sailors look to us to set standards.
As a newly qualified engineering watch officer, I would stand hours of watch in the engineroom with my watch team, many of whom were junior enlisted. I recognized early that I often was being tested during the watch. The conversation would slip from professional to slightly less than, and I would start to get surreptitious looks from my team. They were testing the waters, trying to determine where I would draw the line. While it frustrated me that the crew believed me to have different, perhaps more stringent, standards of professionalism than my male counterparts, I relished the opportunity to set the standard.
In addition to resetting expectations for professionalism in the workplace, a female leader on a submarine has the opportunity to demonstrate that, like job performance, leadership is gender independent. A woman may display the same or different leadership traits as her male peers. As Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson wrote in his “One Navy Team Guidance”:
We all have built-in biases that unconsciously influence our choices and decisions. Putting measures in place to help us overcome these biases will help us first to form a diverse team and then to include that team to achieve the fullest advantage. Being inclusive and open to diverse perspectives will produce leaders and teams who learn and adapt to achieve maximum possible performance, and who achieve and maintain high standards, to be ready for decisive operations and combat.
A female leader can discourage biases in her shipmates through her leadership and performance. Sailors who admire my leadership skills will have a new data point in their mental calculus. They will see a successful leader who looks very different from the rest of the crew and the captain. Diversity in leadership is the responsibility of all leaders on board. The submarine force depends on new ideas to improve efficiency and hone tactical readiness. Diversity in the wardroom (in gender, perspective, background, race, religion, or orientation) prevents stagnation and groupthink and promotes a healthy command culture.
History, Tradition, Legacy
The submarine force is in the midst of tremendous change. It is modernizing, soon to commission a new Columbia class to replace the Ohio-class submarine, and it is rapidly changing the force structure to include women. It is important to discuss the implications of these changes for sailors and officers. Gender will not always matter, but for now it does, because those we lead see female leaders as unique. This presents a responsibility, an opportunity, and a challenge. No submarine leader can go wrong if they strive to set high standards, demonstrate engineering and tactical prowess, lead with fairness and by example, and grow into professional submariners and determined warfighters.
My understanding of my unique position on board became clear when I attended the pinning of a female chief petty officer on my crew. It may have been the fact that I was the officer who sat her submarine warfare qualification board, or that her grandfather (a former submariner) pinned his own dolphins on her chest, or that I was off-going duty and very tired, but as the reading finished I could not stop the tears from running down my face. Another chief saw me and froze, “Ma’am what is going on? Submariners don’t cry!” I laughed and wiped my hand across my face showing him my tears, “This is the salt and steel submariners are made of.”