“You are not an individual!” my instructors yelled repeatedly during my indoctrination into the Navy. This may seem aggressive, but the point is important. Uniformity has been a cornerstone of effective military performance for thousands of years.1 We learn quickly that we are part of a team, and that our ability to put aside our differences will make or break our unit. Historically, many feared what would happen if anyone “different” joined the unit, but this bias is far more disruptive to a unit than integration. Since it is widely understood by now that diversity is critical for the success of any organization, the Navy must correct the parts of its culture that derail efforts to diversify.2 Even in subtle ways, it denies the Navy the chance to see the full benefits of diversity. After years of dragging its feet, creating an inclusive Navy will be achieved most efficiently by focusing on team building and resilience.
Integrating minorities into the Navy has never been smooth sailing. When debating letting women fly combat missions, Senator John McCain stated, “if we’re going to make such a radical change, a year or so of careful deliberation would be invaluable.” With all due respect, what was so radical about it 50 years after thousands of women had flown in World War II? Aviatrix Ruth Law warned in 1918 that “the world-old controversy . . . crops up again whenever women attempt to enter a new field.” Today, women comprise less than seven percent of total Naval aviators and less than one percent of Marine Corps’ fixed-wing pilots. The Navy only got its first Black female tactical jet pilot in 2020.
Men often range from being unengaged with diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) to feeling threatened by it. Numerous studies show many men (but not most women) are resistant to diversity programs because of the perceived threat to their job security. This is often called “Zero-Sum Thinking”—essentially the idea that “if things are better for women, things get worse for men.”
This is not stated publicly, though. When integrating women into combat roles was brought to Congress in 1993, a summary of findings submitted that, “although logical, such a policy would [erode] the civilizing notion that men should protect . . . women. Such a change would have . . . negative consequences for all of society.”3 This argument would be laughable if it were not so troubling. The other main reason given was that women might be distracting and “disruptive to unit cohesion.”
When it came to preventing members in the LGB community from serving openly, the rationale was similarly thin. Top brass claimed that “letting gays serve openly would ruin [unit cohesion],” but according to former Judge Advocate General of the Navy Rear Admiral John Hutson , the resistance was “based on nothing” except “our own prejudices and . . . fears.” Dozens of studies conducted by the U.S. military and 25 other nations confirmed the presence of gay soldiers had no impact on unit cohesion. These results were ignored in “the service of an ideology equating heterosexuality with bravery and patriotism.” President Donald Trump even decided to prevent transgender men and women from serving in the military due to the “disruption [to unit cohesion] that transgender in the military would entail.” This argument offers a convenient justification for keeping out the “other.” Examining these things together makes it obvious that any difference will be disruptive. If the unit can be so easily disrupted, then does this reveal the unit’s fragility, and furthermore, the underlying fragility of those reluctant leaders?
Unit cohesion is not in jeopardy—or if it is, then it is certainly not the newcomers’ fault. In a study with British Special Operations Forces, researchers discovered that almost all the male soldiers felt serving alongside women had no adverse effect on their effectiveness in combat; those who disagreed had no concrete reasoning—just a feeling, or a fear that women might have an adverse effect in the future. The RAND National Defense Research Institute found that the success of gender integration on cohesion was influenced by whether men perceived women to be competent at their jobs (frequently based on past experiences working with women) and if the women were “accepted as full members of their teams.” These studies suggest both that unit cohesion is impressionable, and that the real disruption stems from misguided perception, assumption, bias, and lack of acceptance.
General Henry Arnold, U.S. Air Force, wrote in 1941 that “the use of women pilots serves no military purpose” only to have “nothing but praise” for them by 1944. A survey in 1945 revealed that the majority of white troops who claimed to have an unfavorable view of integrating with African Americans changed their view to favorable after fighting alongside them.
In the military, it has been proved that white men are proportionally more likely to be promoted than minorities. In addition to the representation problems this creates among upper leaders, it also has long-term effects on wages during service and after retirement for minority members. Some researchers blame this disparity on evaluations of sailors by their superiors, one of the only subjective criteria weighed on promotion boards, which suggests that this is where bias creeps in. The Chief of Naval Operations’ Task Force came to a similar conclusion in 2020, writing in its report that “indications of bias exist . . . that jeopardize the Navy’s ability to retain and enable the progression of the best and most qualified sailors.” They recommended that promotion boards receive bias awareness training, and though I would argue that everyone should receive it, the thing about unconscious bias is: If you cannot tell when you have it, then how do you know when it has been eliminated?
Reframing the Question
The RAND report’s findings that the success of integration could be negatively affected by perception bias is a sad discovery. However, it also conceals a potential silver lining. If the team could be weakened by not accepting the newcomer, could acceptance strengthen it? Diversity is often seen as a problem to solve, when the chance to embrace and leverage differences is an opportunity to seize. Reframing the question could make the fight easier: Could we be more successful fighting for acceptance than fighting against bias?
Though service members should work to unlearn their biases, the Navy might make faster headway in DEI if it focused on general team building. No single policy change or statement from a commanding officer will change how people feel working alongside those who are different from them—they need opportunities to connect as people. As part of NASA’s Unity Campaign, NASA encourages its employees and leaders to spread “empathy and compassion,” “positivity and kindness,” and even recommends networking, social activities, events, cross-organizational lunches, retreats, and team-building experiences. The idea is that as coworkers strengthen relationships, their differences cease to be fearsome and misunderstood.4 This improves morale, cohesiveness, and motivation, which contributes significantly to mission accomplishment.
The Army has made similar recommendations, publishing a guide in 2015 stating that having a resilient team required that the members “have fun with each other.” Leaders should build time into the schedule for fun. They should shuffle personnel around, encourage cross-pollination of backgrounds and perspectives, and give sailors the chance to plan events from talent shows to bingo and trivia nights. A culture of acceptance is more likely to be fostered through improv games than a PowerPoint presentation.
Integrating women into combat was resisted because it might “interfere with male bonding.”5 Well, it is time to invent group bonding for everyone. Leaders may bristle at the idea of creating innovative team-building activities all by themselves (though they could delegate and empower their sailors to help in the effort), but when the benefits of diversity are vital to future success, those promoted to positions of leadership should be able to take on this challenge. Evaluations should assess the skills that successfully facilitate DEI so those who can do it best are given more opportunities to lead.
Bonding activities are just icebreakers, though. A recent Forbes article stated that true teamwork requires a foundation of trust based on vulnerability. Given the nebulous and ill-defined concept of fraternization, leaders may be anxious to connect in this way but reaching this level of friendship and trust is not just important in building a strong team—Forbes calls it the only way. Not only can it be done, but the best professionals are already doing it. The Army’s guide states that members should share personal information with and confide in each other as a “powerful way to form and cement friendships.” Salty chiefs and captains may shake their heads, thinking “The Navy is a global force for good, not a place for making friends,” but why not both?
There are systemic institutional issues at play that impede DEI, and while many of the Task Force’s recommendations address those well, there is a problematic culture underlying them. Efforts to introduce friendship and fun into the military culture may seem at odds with the warrior mentality, but business experts would call this kind of team building “the most important investment an organization can make.” By deliberately having positive experiences with people who are different, unconscious bias is addressed too.6 Leaders have the chance to build a healthy and rewarding culture where diversity can thrive, and it is imperative they take it now. NASA, Forbes, and Harvard all recommend it. Even the Army does. So, Go Navy . . . Beat Army!
Lieutenant Morris is an MH-60S pilot and the creator of The Landing Strip webcomic.
1. Frederick J. Manning, “Morale and Cohesion in Military Psychiatry,” in Military Psychiatry: Preparing in Peace for War (Washington, DC: Borden Institute, United States Army Medical Department, AMEDD Center & School, 2018), 1–18.
2. Martin N. Davidson, “Introduction: A New Possibility for Difference,” in The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012), 4–16.
3. United States Congress, Women in Combat Hearing Before the Military Forces and Personnel Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, One Hundred Third Congress, First Session, Hearing Held May 12, 1993, vol. 4 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994).
4. Davidson, “Introduction: A New Possibility for Difference.”
5. United States Congress, Women in Combat Hearing.
6. Malcolm Gladwell, “The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Tall, Dark, and Handsome Men,” in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York: Back Bay Books, 2019), 97.