“One of the things that I think we ought to do, is that when we look out, we shouldn’t see male sailors or female sailors. We ought to see sailors. United States sailors,” former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in a Navy Times article. Appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, Secretary Mabus served from 2009 to 2017. During his term, he emphasized gender equality as a key focus area—a vision that aligns with the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) commitment to diversity, equality, and inclusion throughout the workforce. Accordingly, policies and procedures were implemented to enhance diversity, including a priority to unify sailors by way of gender neutrality. Such policies addressing gender uniformity, however, varied among the Sea Services, exhibiting inconsistency and disorder. While such administrative changes aimed to improve diversity, the component of inclusion was, and is, lacking.
During the fall of 2015, an official Navy administrative message introduced unisex uniform standards. Effective immediately on the message’s release, the male-style combination (combo) cover and enlisted white hat were designated as unisex and authorized for wear by both female and male officers and chief petty officers (CPO). Other major changes were implemented over a multiyear timeframe, such as new jumper-styled service dress blues (SDB) and service dress whites (SDW), new unisex Navy fitness suits, and the availability of female SDW (choker) coats. All gender-neutral uniform changes included fleetwide mandatory possession or wear target dates to reflect a uniform, professional appearance.
Despite the noble intent to integrate gender through uniform standards, a look beyond the wardrobe reveals that this initiative was ill-executed and missed the mark in terms of inclusion. In her Proceedings article, “CNO, Are you Listening? Why Uniforms Matter to Female Officers,” Navy Reserve Lieutenant Andrea N. Goldstein expanded on the policy’s shortfalls. For instance, female officers were responsible for paying out of pocket to conform with new standards, placing an undue burden on the service’s female leaders to “come into compliance,” while their male counterparts simply carried on. Evidently, there is a price to look the part and women in the service are footing the bill, an outcome more exclusive than inclusive.
These uniform changes were not consistent throughout the Sea Services. For example, the Coast Guard has yet to incorporate any substantial gender-neutral uniform changes. The latest iteration of the Coast Guard uniform standard, updated in July 2020, continues to mandate men and women’s versions for SDBs among many of its formal dress attires. The results of the latest Coast Guard Uniform Board, held in October 2018, revealed weak changes in the realm of gender neutrality, offering a feeble single line to, “Test a female Combo Cap similar to the male’s cap in appearance and slightly smaller in size.” More disappointing, the board disapproved a recommendation to “have the SURFMAN designation renamed to SURF COXWAIN or something gender-neutral and not necessarily male specific.” This is especially surprising for the Coast Guard, a branch typically viewed as the frontrunner for U.S. military policy regarding women. And, as a primary lifesaving service, the Coast Guard once was recognized as the only service to offer all job specialties to women before the Combat Exclusion Policy lift in 2013, which excluded women from serving in combat positions.
However, the Coast Guard has made commendable efforts toward gender neutrality. Three years ago, the Coast Guard sponsored a large-scale study to identify the root cause for the attrition of women in the Coast Guard. RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis group, conducted a study involving 164 focus groups in ten locations, and communicated with more than 1,000 female participants across ranks, specialties, and marital and parental statuses. In March 2019, RAND published its findings and recommendations, one of which resulted in the service removing gender-specific pronouns (he/his and she/her) from member evaluations and promotion boards. While seemingly subtle, this was a highly effective policy change that will slowly turn the tide on gender-specific vernacular, where promotion-based documentation will eventually be completely gender-neutral.
Gender-Neutral Rating Titles
Dating back to September 2016, the Navy announced the decision to remove 91 of its enlisted rating titles and sought to “find gender-neutral rating titles that stripped them of the word ‘man,’ in an effort to be more inclusive to women sailors who make up an increasing size of the force.”
This initiative was largely attributed to Secretary Mabus and further aligned with the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps military occupational specialty (MOS) codes. This two-pronged approach not only replaced the word “man” with a gender-neutral one such as “technician” or “specialist,” but also completely disbanded the rating system and adopted one based only on rank in a new Navy Occupational Specialty (NOS) structure. For example, the rating of yeoman, a person designated to perform administrative and clerical work, would be given the NOS code C250.
The extensive rating overhaul did not go well. Not long after the message’s release, the proposed changes faced widespread backlash, as certain job titles date back centuries and are part of the nomenclature embedded in the Sea Service’s history and culture. The title of yeoman, for instance, was established in 1794 and one of the original chief petty officer ratings. Further, naval badges and classic insignias faced an unknown fate. From anchors to propellers affixed on collars and sleeves, these long-honored symbols representing U.S. sailing origins were potentially doomed, a tradition with which the fleet was unwilling to part.
While the sole move to reduce gender-specific job titles might have stirred a manageable list, combined with the total abandonment of the rating system was like drinking water from a firehose. Within three months of the rating message release, the Navy received a flood of adverse comments, and quickly reversed course in a message that restored the status quo, bringing back both rating names and structure. Had the Navy been more inclusive in its pursuit toward diversity, the criticism could have been preventable. A poll or survey of the fleet, much like the Coast Guard Women’s RAND Corp study, might have changed the course of this policy and facilitated a smoother transition. Unfortunately, the sudden revamp of the Navy rating system halted the simultaneous objective toward gender neutrality.
At the time, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John M. Richardson indicated there would be a continued modernization of ratings. However, nothing has been updated since 2016. It is unclear when these efforts will be revisited, but they are bound to resurface, especially if the Navy strives to remain true to its current diversity and inclusion mission statement.
Including Nonbinary Service Members
According to the DoD Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, a primary objective is to develop a demographically diverse leadership that reflects the public it serves and the forces it leads. Society is ever evolving, steering away from binary gender construct toward gender fluidity and the nonbinary. For example, in 2019, the Merriam-Webster dictionary expanded the singular pronoun to “they,” which may refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.Neither male nor female; not he or she; but they. Currently, 14 states offer a third gender option on driver’s licenses and state-issued identification cards, i.e. gender X. Evidence of this also exists in the private industry where airlines have added new gender options for passengers such as “unspecified” and “undisclosed” and educational institutions have further extended gender-neutral options from identification cards to housing.
In the military, few conversations, if any, have been held about gender fluidity and nonbinary service members. The military is rooted deep in male and female gender roles and construct in which strategies toward diversity—toward gender neutrality—have primarily been focused on integrating women in a male dominant workforce, and thus through a patriarchal lens. Claiming gender diversity should not solely be about increasing the number of women relative to men. True inclusivity is exactly that; including everyone regardless their gender—male, female, or nonbinary.
Consider the core values of respect (Coast Guard) and commitment (Navy). They are absolute, an obligation the moment we raise our right hands, and applicable not only to the public we serve, but also to the shipmates we serve among. Therefore, every opportunity provided to fulfill core values should be taken, and the Sea Services must discuss policies to best incorporate nonbinary service members. Understandably, the concept of a third gender poses a logistical nightmare when there is not a “box” to place someone into, from barracks to bathrooms.
Physical accommodations continue to present a challenge with integrating women in the Sea Services. A common recurring issue is the availability of shipboard berthing and afloat career opportunities for women. The pursuit of gender diversity has become hyperfocused on building more walls, i.e., more barracks and more berthing to accommodate women. However, these physical barriers inadvertently isolate and exclude. Because there is only a finite number of billets for Coast Guard women on board cutters, their afloat opportunities are limited, and their sea-based career trajectories are stunted. The oft-touted solution is to build more accommodations, more gender-specific spaces to further divide.
Perhaps the solution is not to create more boxes, but instead tear down the bulkheads of exclusion. One strategy is to eliminate female-specific berthing altogether and implement unisex berthing. In his Proceedings article, “The Coast Guard Needs Mixed-Gender Berthing,” Coast Guard Lieutenant Joseph Trump described how unisex berthing currently is possible on board certain existing Coast Guard cutter classes. For example, the 87-foot marine protector class patrol boat is equipped with single-occupancy heads and showers, and two-person staterooms. Mixed-gender berthing also was a recommendation in the Coast Guard RAND women’s study, suggesting that creative solutions to be explored for more-flexible privacy options for cutters without permanent physical barriers, and the end goal for all assets to be mixed-gendered.
To maintain course and speed with our progressing society, the Sea Services need to take a round turn on inclusivity. While intentions may be good regarding gender diversity policies, they are not well thought out in terms of execution and especially communication. The failed overhaul of the Navy’s ratings indicated that the opinions of the fleet—she, he, or they—matter. Strategies toward success should incorporate the voices of sailors on the deckplates. This includes, but is not limited to, surveys and other methods of listening and information gathering as best practices forward while developing policies. Creating a lasting cultural shift within the Sea Services will not happen overnight, but conversations on the full spectrum of both diversity and inclusion must get underway to chart the course ahead.