Over the past decade, the Navy has made it an imperative to grow the proportion of its officer cadre holding science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees. Subsequently, 65 percent of new accessions from the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps are required to complete these degrees before earning their commissions.1 Statements such as “highly recommended” and “highly preferred” are regularly cited as degree requirements for other commissioning programs, such as Officer Candidate School, further emphasizing the Navy’s demand for STEM degrees.
Aiming for an officer corps largely comprising technically savvy and scientifically astute men and women is desirable. However, data strongly suggests this policy has created obstacles for racial minorities, women, and people of lower socioeconomic status.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael M. Gilday has set an ambitious goal of becoming the U.S. military’s most diverse service.2 His vision promotes diversity not only regarding race and gender, but also in career and life experience. The composition of the Navy’s officer force, however, indicates a problem within the officer accession process. In 2016. White people comprised the majority at 78 percent, though they make up only 61 percent of the U.S. population.3 Another disturbing reality is that women accounted for only 18 percent of officers that same year.4 Although these numbers have slowly improved since 2016, the Navy will not meet its diversity goals without more policy changes.
Task Force One, which the Navy established in 2020 to address issues of diversity and inclusion (D&I), provided dozens of recommendations.5 Some focus on officer recruitment and STEM educational development for minorities and women, but none address the requirement for STEM degrees and its unintended consequence of creating obstacles for talented individuals who wish to serve in the Sea Services.
Improving D&I is not only a CNO requirement levied on the fleet, it also will fuel the innovation central to gaining competitive advantage in great power competition. To achieve the diverse and inclusive culture necessary for the Sea Services to compete, leaders must broaden the Navy’s scope by modifying its requirement that 65 percent of officers graduate with a STEM degree.
An Apparent Disadvantage
The Navy’s 65 percent STEM goal is at odds with its goal of increased diversity. Black students may suffer the most from the current policy, as they earned only 7 percent of U.S. STEM degrees in 2018. a far cry from the 15 percent of the national population they represent.6 Hispanic students also are vastly underrepresented in STEM. In 2018. STEM degrees amounted to only 12 percent of all degrees conferred to Hispanic individuals, despite Hispanics accounting for 16 percent of the total U.S. population.7
The Navy’s STEM requirements also negatively affect women, because most students who pursue STEM degrees are men.8 Women earn 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in the United States but only 36 percent of all STEM degrees, resulting in an underrepresentation of women of all races and ethnicities.9
In addition, he focus on STEM also affects those of lower socioeconomic status, which may be the biggest barrier to participation in STEM programs. A longitudinal study from 2018 found that girls, minorities, and students from lower socioeconomic tiers have consistently less interest in STEM fields during high school compared with White boys from higher socioeconomic status, which perpetuates racial and gender disparities in officer accessions.10
In 2016, only 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded were in STEM fields.11 By focusing so intently on less than a fifth of the total talent pool of college graduates wherein women, most ethnic and racial minorities, and people of lower socioeconomic status are vastly outnumbered. the Navy continues a policy that continues to homogenize its leadership.
Though the Navy can and is doing more to encourage STEM at historically Black colleges and universities, that is not enough.12 To fulfill Admiral Gilday’s vision to promote D&I, the Navy should significantly reduce the STEM requirement so the officer corps more accurately reflects American society. By creating more commissioning opportunities for non-STEM graduates, the Sea Services will improve the most important aspect of winning the next war: fostering an environment of innovation in which U.S. society is represented through diverse leadership. thought, and experience.
A Round Turn To Soft Skills
STEM degrees are coveted primarily because of the belief that technical expertise is a prerequisite for tactical prowess. The Navy is not the only enterprise whose policy-makers are quick to link desirable leadership with technological proficiency. Google has long been known for its cutting-edge technology, algorithms, and quantifiable decision points. For the better part of two decades after its foundation, most executives at the company assumed STEM degrees were necessary for success in its workforce. That all changed in 2013. when the tech juggernaut launched an effort to scientifically deduce the traits of its star managers and leaders.13 The initiative was dubbed Project Oxygen, and its results shocked much of Google’s C-suite.
Google found its best managers:
- Are good coaches
- Empower teams and do not micromanage
- Create an inclusive team environment, showing concern for members’ success and well-being
- Are productive and results-oriented
- Are a good communicators who listen and share information
- Support career development and discuss performance
- Have a clear vision/strategy for their teams
- Have key technical skills to help advise their teams
- Collaborate across Google
- Are a strong decision-makers14
The trend of valuing these soft skills has permeated the entire technology industry. Other technology companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking strengthens their teams and drives rapid growth powered by innovation.15 The liberal arts degree holders scattered throughout these organizations have earned their keep by bridging the gap between technology and the human element required to lead workers to become their best.16
The core role of managers at Google and other technology companies bears a striking resemblance to the jobs of officers across the Sea Services. Both groups direct teams comprised of smart young professionals performing highly specialized and technical work. If the men and women charting the future of one of the most innovative, dynamic technology companies in the world can achieve superlative results without STEM degrees, then the same holds true for officers within the Sea Services.
Preserving naval superiority requires leaders with reliable critical thinking skills, not specific degrees. Research suggests that critical thinking improves markedly throughout the process of a normal college experience regardless of major, which challenges the efficacy of the Navy’s STEM degree policy.17
Shifting focus from specific degrees toward the types of soft skills outlined by Project Oxygen and those prized by large tech companies will have two positive effects in the Navy. First, recruiting candidates with skills foundational to stellar performers will improve management and leadership outcomes among junior officers. Simultaneously, diversity within the officer ranks will improve.
Training Trumps Degrees
One fundamental principle that drove the Navy to focus on STEM graduates is indisputable: Education is essential to the development of competent officers. But the technical acumen of Sea Service leaders should not have to come solely from a university. Today, new surface warfare officers are expected to integrate rapidly with their assigned crews following commissioning, with very little military training. Instead of relying on the civilian education system to instill requisite technical proficiencies, the Navy should ensure all junior officers are provided world-class military training that will help them develop the hard skills and prepare them as warfighters to operate in dynamic environments.
In place of requiring most officer candidates to obtain STEM degrees, the Sea Services must develop fresh, contemporary curricula to better prepare junior officers on accession. It can start by incorporating the perspectives of younger officers recently off operational tours. To that end, all Navy communities should prioritize detailing top junior officers to training commands. By the Sea Services taking full ownership of the training provided to newly minted officers, the perceived need for such a high proportion of STEM degrees will erode. Efforts at improving D&I within the officer community will be more successful, and junior officers will become more effective and tactically astute leaders.
After constructing targeted training for the junior officer force, the next step is to allow the fleet to do its job. While it is important for officers to have a firm grasp of the work their teams perform, true mastery must reside at the operator level. Warrant officers and senior enlisted develop deep, task-specific familiarity that they then impart to junior enlisted members to keep the force sharp and maximize mission readiness. It is incumbent on junior officers to combine the formal Navy training they receive with knowledge gleaned from these experts—not their degrees—to develop the skills necessary to effectively employ teams and equipment under their authority. This can be accomplished by smart women and men from all educational backgrounds; shifting recruiting efforts to identifying candidates best equipped to do so will be critical to sustaining advantage at sea while also enhancing D&I initiatives.
The Future Of Officer Diversity
The Navy’s current STEM-degree accession policy has stymied diversity within the officer ranks. Casting a wider undergraduate degree net will empower diversity of thought and will incorporate a broader variety of backgrounds and cultures. Expanding and improving training with an emphasis on accession-level pipelines will allow a more diverse cadre of leaders to thrive.
More energy must be expended to identify and incentivize essential soft skills in Navy officers such as those Project Oxygen identified. These core competencies represent essential building blocks for effective leaders regardless of educational background. If successful, the Navy will generate access to careers in the Sea Services for thousands of talented Americans who currently are considered ill-equipped. Their powerfully unique perspectives are ardently needed to facilitate innovation while also meeting Admiral Gilday’s goal of becoming the U.S. military’s most diverse service.
- Naval Service Training Command, NSTCINST 1533.3A, “Academic Major Selection Policy for Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps Navy Option Scholarship Midshipmen.”
- Diana Correll, “Gilday Outlines Goal for Navy to Become the Most Diverse Service,” Navy Times, 24 September 2021.
- Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity, Navy by Race, Gender and Identity (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2021).
- Department of the Navy, Task Force One Navy Final Report (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2021).
- Department of the Navy, Task Force One Navy Final Report.
- Richard Fry, Brian Kennedy, and Cary Funk, “STEM Jobs See Uneven Progress in Increasing Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Divides,” Pew Research Center, 1 April 2021.
- Fry, Kennedy, and Funk, “STEM Jobs See Uneven Progress.”
- Fry, Kennedy, and Funk.
- Fry, Kennedy, and Funk.
- Grant Cooper and Amanda Berry, “Demographic Predictors of Senior Secondary Participation in Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Earth Sciences: Students’ Access to Cultural, Social, and Science Capital,” International Journal of Science Education 41, no. 1 (2020): 151-66; and Guan Saw, Chi-Ning Chang, and Flsun-Yu Chan, “Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Disparities in STEM Career Aspirations at the Intersection of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, and Socioeconomic Status,” American Educational Research Association 47, no. 8 (November 2018): 525-32.
- National Center for Education Statistics, Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, February 2019).
- Office of Naval Research, “Department of Navy’s Historically Black College and Universities/Minority Institutions Program.”
- Melissa Harrell and Lauren Barbato, “Great Managers Still Matter: The Evolution of Google’s Project Oxygen,” Re: Work, 27 February 2018.
- Harrel and Barbato, “Great Managers Still Matter.”
- George Anders, “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket,” Forbes, 29 July 2015.
- Anders, “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree.”
- Christopher R. Huber and Nathan R. Kuncel, “Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis,” Review of Educational Research 86, no. 2 (2016): 431-68.