The Navy is failing its mothers. I am not talking about the women who raised us (though we may be disappointing them, too), but the mothers we serve with every day—our sisters in arms. A 2020 study released by the Government Accountability Office reported that women are 28 percent more likely than men to leave military service. The culprits? Family planning, sexual harassment, inadequate access to dependent care, and career path inflexibility—issues that have an especially damaging effect on servicewomen who have, or want to have, children.
Fortunately, the Navy has the talent to develop evidence-based, data-driven tools to correct these problems. These tools, if implemented sincerely, will eventually see a more even ratio of women to men at the highest ranks, the normalization of pregnancy and parenthood in the Navy, and the retention of the best, most qualified enlisted sailors and officers. The Navy must be inclusive of mothers and make women’s career paths more dynamic and flexible, funding mutually beneficial alternatives to traditional career paths if it wants to improve long-term retention. The Navy must also demonstrate unequivocal support for breastfeeding mothers. This is not a comprehensive list of problems for mothers in the service, but if the Navy can start to address these areas, it will be uniquely positioned to capture—and keep—the female enlisted and officer talent that will help lead the next generation of sailors and sustain dominance at sea.
The “I” in D&I
At the heart of any conversation about diversity and inclusion is a fatal flaw: A singular focus on diversity. The Navy devotes boundless energy to recruiting a diverse force but neglects to integrate its diverse players once they join.
A 2020 report published by Task Force One Navy (TF1N), a CNO-mandated effort to “identify barriers and corrective actions to eliminate inequalities between groups of people'” states:
without inclusion and connectedness, diverse perspectives can lead to friction and conflict in thoughts and opinions. Military and civilian perspectives must be actively included to harness the creative power of diversity, accelerating our Navy’s warfighting advantage.
The inclusion of pregnant and postpartum women begins with a force-wide understanding of what inclusion is and what it looks like. The President’s 2021 Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce prohibits discrimination against pregnant and postpartum women in the military and unambiguously defines inclusion as “the recognition, appreciation, and use of the talents and skills of employees of all backgrounds.”
The inclusion of active-duty military mothers warrants an aggressive approach. The Navy must take a definitive stance for women’s empowerment. For the celebration of female achievement. For women’s health and safety. For inclusion. If the Navy proactively focuses on cultivating a positive climate instead of reacting to these issues from a place of fear, it will be successful in moving the “inclusion” needle in the right direction—an upward trend in retention of future female leaders will follow.
The Flexible Career Path and More (Wo)Manpower
The perennial question triggered by talk about family planning is the flexible career path. To the Navy’s credit, one of the lines of effort (LOEs) outlined in TF1N is to “review and update as necessary officer community and enlisted rating career path/leadership and development requirements to ensure all have been reviewed to account for appropriate [D&I] considerations.” Opaque language aside, it looks as though the Navy realizes that flexibility in a woman’s career path is a critical determining factor of retention.
Everyone’s situation is different. The timing of the female reproductive system seldomly conforms to the Navy’s traditionally rigid career timelines. But instead of making a challenging situation worse, why not empower these women to work on projects that shipboard crews do not have the bandwidth to tackle? Why not send them to schools or courses on programming or data analytics to develop skills sorely lacking in the fleet? For example, one of TF1N’s LOEs is to “leverage AI to minimize bias in selection board processes.” There is a talented individual somewhere in the Navy behind this “AI leverage.” It is a project that probably took several months to imagine, develop, and perfect. Why not select pregnant service members to drive these types of special projects and initiatives when they get to a shore command and encourage them to come up with their own?
This asks the Navy for flexibility not only in the question of timelines, but also in its concept of what valuable work—of what “counts” as productive work—is, particularly in the surface community. Surface warfare is no longer exclusively waged on ships at sea; there is plenty of valuable work to be done by surface warriors on land, too.
The Navy will miss opportunities to improve as a service if it overlooks the talents and unique perspectives of pregnant and postpartum women. These women want and deserve challenging careers as much as anyone else in the Navy, and they are as motivated, if not more, than their teammates to contribute to the mission. As Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener, Commander Naval Surface Forces, said at the Surface Navy Association’s symposium in January 2021, service members are not incentivized by more money; they want the work they do to have a purpose, they want to feel like they are making a difference. If this is true and if the Navy has the talent (it does), then it should assign pregnant and postpartum service members the most challenging and rewarding projects that have the potential to change the Navy for the better. They are up for the task.
There’s No Lactation Without Representation
The Navy’s “Guidelines Concerning Pregnancy and Parenthood” instruction states that “COs must ensure the availability of a private, clean room for expressing breast milk.” But in 2018, only 45 percent of women in the Navy had “access to a lactation room in compliance with requirements outlined in OPNAVINST 6000.1D, meaning a nursing room separate from a bathroom with running water,” according to the Personal and Professional Choices Survey administered that year. “In comparison,” the survey said, “27% pumped in a nursing room with no running water, 26% pumped in a separate work space, 25% pumped in a restroom and 3% pumped at home, in their car or at a daycare.” As a direct result of their commands’ failure to act in accordance with the instruction, these women are forced to spend a significant amount of time away from work, which seems like de facto segregation. This leads to low breastfeeding success rates (48 percent of breastfeeding women in the survey stopped earlier than planned because of a “lack of time,” “pressures and lack of understanding from coworkers,” and “difficulties in finding a place to pump and store breastmilk at work”).
Non-compliance with the pregnancy and parenthood instruction does not necessarily mean that the Navy does not value nursing service members, but it does convey a damaging message to the fleet: maternal health is not a priority. It reflects a lack of attention that commands place on breastfeeding, motherhood, maternal health, and female service members in general. As the authors of the TF1N report put it: “All members up and down the chain of command need to own [D&I] to both hold themselves and others accountable. Many think that this issue is often about ‘what others are doing’ not what ‘you are doing.’ No one is exempt, as this is a top down issue.” When leaders at the upper echelons outwardly and unequivocally demonstrate their support of nursing mothers, they send a powerful message to the fleet: We support women, so should you.
This crucial message will increase the amount of lactation rooms and support in the fleet, but commands should also be required to periodically verify compliance with the instruction, so the Navy can direct resources to commands that either lack space or money to meet the requirements. This will make female service members, especially pregnant and postpartum women, feel more included in the organization. It will also lead to better collaboration, more buy-in, and, ultimately, better retention. When people feel valued by their organization, they will stay, and the Navy’s return on investment will increase.
Treat Moms Better
The Navy is struggling to recruit and retain people. It cannot afford to marginalize women when they get pregnant or when they are nursing. Creating career flexibility, finding meaningful work for expectant or new moms, and making life easier for nursing mothers will go a long way to making women’s choices to stay in the Navy easier. Women are not asking to be spared from the rigors of sea duty and hard jobs; they just want the Navy to help them choose to have families and Navy careers—not either/or.