Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Is patriarchal sexism alive and well in the military? Where do you think bears poop?

Sexism in the U.S. military is perpetuated by officials who refuse to recognize its existence.


By Joan Johnson-Freese and Ellen Haring

Best Defense guest columnists

When Michelle Howard was named the Navy’s first 4-star admiral last summer, it was reported that one of her peers told others that he believed Howard’s promotion to vice admiral was sped up because of her race and gender, and she “may not have had to cross as many hurdles in the same fashion to get where she was at.”

That comment exemplifies how a large camp often views women’s success, and it is indicative of subtle but pervasive sexism. Despite the fact that most research shows that women who succeed have had to meet and excel at more hurdles than their male peers, the pervasive view is that they benefited from shortcuts. Worse, there may be an even larger camp, particularly within the military, that doesn’t believe that sexism exists, or who can’t see it even when they are personally articulating patently sexist views.

Here are two illustrative examples:

-Several years ago, when asked if women had complained about sexism in a recent Command Climate Survey, the provost of the Naval War College said that they had, but that the numbers were not “statistically significant.” Due to the low number of women in the institution, however, even if every one of them had complained, the number would likely not be “statistically significant.” So, there was no problem.

-More recently at DOD lab facility, EEO took another survey. The results of the survey indicated that the men who work there overwhelmingly say that gender is not an impediment to promotion or getting choice assignments (respondents were differentiated by gender) while women overwhelmingly stated that gender is an impediment. Because the majority of respondents were male the stated conclusion from the total numerical responses — briefed by a man who referred to the women who work at the lab as “the gals” at least three times in the course of the presentation — was that gender is not an impediment to promotion. Case closed.

So sexism within the military doesn’t exist, according to most men.

Recent comments received in response to a paper submitted to a Professional Military Education (PME) academic journal expressed similar views, but took them even further. The thesis of the submitted paper was that women in non-traditional fields, including the military, face different challenges in hiring, promotion and retention than men because the avenues used by men- – competence, confidence, and mentorship – – are not as valued or are less available to women. Therefore, women must develop different skills, or employ skills differently, to overcome the challenges.

In support of the thesis, each point made in the paper regarding the obstacles women face were documented by studies from Stanford, Harvard Business School, London Business School, private researchers, Cornell, and more. Nothing was assumed.

Yet the paper was summarily rejected by the editor. In explaining its rejection, he provided some very illustrative examples of how sexism is manifested by men who don’t see it and refuse to accept information that doesn’t fit within their beliefs.

Despite the fact that multiple studies were cited that show that women’s career advancement is impeded by male professional culture, the editor wrote, “I believe it does no favors to anyone to assume that any obstacles in the way of career advancement for women are primarily the result of male cultural attitudes and male dominance of the profession, as you appear to do.”

By rejecting the results of studies from the likes of Stanford Business School that document this problem for women, the editor is engaging in cognitive dissonance. He is rejecting data that doesn’t fit his personal beliefs.

Later, in response to research that demonstrates that greater gender diversity improves organizational effectiveness. the editor rejected the notion “that the military ‘needs’ diversity and must seek to expand it – i.e., more women and in ever higher positions, without any consideration for the impact of that on the military mission. The fact of the matter, not to put too fine a point on it, is that the military doesn’t ‘need’ women, but for transparently powerful political reasons must accept them.” In this comment the editor reveals that he sees the greater inclusion of women in the military as a politically motivated agenda rather than for any reasons of greater organizational effectiveness. Again he rejects the extensive research that documents improved capabilities of gender-diverse organizations.

However, he does say that, “I do believe that another kind of diversity should be vigorously pursued in the military, namely, intellectual and cultural/linguistic diversity.” What he fails to recognize is that the type of diversity he supports, and is considered key for innovation and creative thinking, often comes through a diversity of racial, ethnic and gender perspectives. The editor actually suggested that more appropriately the paper ought to look at “the proper place of women in the military.” This statement, more than any other, revealed the depths of the editor’s bias and its patriarchal nature. If we were to replace “women” with “African-Americans,” there would be no doubt about the inherent bias in such a statement. Furthermore, the notion that women’s “proper place” still needs to be examined smacks of patriarchy. Who gets to debate “the proper place” of women in the military.

And as one naval officer at the War Colleges pointed out in response to the comment regarding women not being “needed” but merely “accepted”: “I’ve always thought there is a full-citizenship aspect to military service. While the U.S. does not require all to serve, there is no class of citizens who are prohibited from serving (provided age, physical, and cognitive standards are met). That means that there is no group which can be considered of lesser value due to lack of participation by members of that group in the forces dedicated to defense of the society. I think this is one of the marks of a just and egalitarian society.” In other words, in the military, just as in an egalitarian society, there are — or should be — no second-class citizens, or those with a “proper place.”

But the views expressed by this individual are only those of one individual, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that his willingness to so openly share these views clearly reveals that he doesn’t see them as prejudicial or sexist.

The bigger problem is that, unchecked, editors such as this have a strong voice in filtering what ideas, information and perspectives get shared and debated. Military leaders with similar views select who gets key positions and ultimately who gets promoted, thereby limiting diversity and effecting retention. And those are very big problems.

Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and the author of Educating America’s Military (2013). Ellen Haring is a senior fellow at Women in International Security and a retired Army colonel. The views expressed here are those of the authors only, and not of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

via Linda Tanner/flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1