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11 August 2010

Women, Leadership and the US Military: A Tale of Two Eras

A female US army officer renders a salute, courtesy of VA Comm/flickr
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Female military unit, US Army

Despite women's sweeping advances in the US military in the past 30-plus years, marked gender bias remains in some organizational corners. But a common thread links women's stories then and now: Resistance to progressive gender policies can be fierce, but persistence is ultimately rewarded.

By Gail Harris for ISN

As a retired US Navy officer, I am often asked to write and speak on the topic of leadership. Since I am also a woman, I'm frequently also asked if my sex was a disadvantage during my time on active duty.

Men did sometimes refuse to work for me; and on several occasions I was denied promotions and/or leadership positions because of my sex. But, ultimately professional success was within my reach because of three converging factors: progressive, supportive Navy leadership; developing personal leadership skills in the midst of adversity; and demonstrating professional competence. These factors in combination helped level the playing field for me - and other military women.

In 1973, 20 years before federal laws were changed and it became common practice, I was the first woman in US naval history to be successfully assigned to a combat unit. A loophole in the law opened the door for me. When I joined the Navy in 1973, I was told intelligence work was closed to women because of federal restrictions prohibiting their service on ships that went into combat. Traditionally naval intelligence officers are assigned to aviation squadrons which operate from aircraft carriers for their first job. I did some research and asked why I couldn't go to one of the Navy's land-based aviation squadrons; those aircraft did not operate from aircraft carriers, and therefore the restrictions didn't apply. Eventually, the Navy agreed, marking a major US Department of Defense policy shift.

This sea change would not have been possible without the support of Navy leadership.

Leadership - inside and out

In particular, I would highlight the accomplishments of one remarkable man, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, then Chief of Naval Operations. He was the youngest man to ever hold the position and was a visionary. One of his primary objectives was to end racism and sexism in the Navy. At the time the organizational culture was so bad that race riots took place aboard US aircraft carriers and women were restricted from performing most jobs. Admiral Zumwalt pushed the laws to the limit: He promoted the first female admiral, Alene B Duerk, and assigned the first female pilots; He made it mandatory for everyone in the Navy to attend training designed to promote racial and sexual harmony. His leadership at the top created an environment of acceptance for my recommended policy change.

Of course, policy changes at the top are not always successfully implemented. It falls to leadership throughout the rest of the organization to carry it out, and many in middle management were resistant, still believing that women didn't belong in the workplace. I experienced many situations were leaders gave lip service to, but did not enforce or carry out, human resource policies that they did not believe in.

For example, when I arrived at my squadron, my supervisors wanted the 'bragging rights' of having the first woman on board but didn't entrust me with any responsibility. As a result I was given virtually no official duties during my first two-and-a- half years. As I walked around military bases, men would look me straight in the eye and refuse to salute me or approach me and start yelling that I didn't belong and was taking a job from a man.

In spite of not officially being given much to do, I persisted - pitching in and helping out where I could, learning the ins and outs of the job. Finally, in my third year the tide began to change in my favor, when I was designated the squadron intelligence officer.

Many asked how I not only survived but ultimately thrived in such a hostile workplace. The answer is simple: the support of key members of leadership and my refusal to quit. For example, the Navy chiefs, the most important members of the leadership chain, tasked with making sure the organization ran smoothly, were highly supportive of my presence and work. Their leadership and guidance gave me the strength to carry on at critical moments.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, the adversity I faced during my first assignment helped me begin to learn the leadership skills that contributed to my future success. A 2005 study on women and leadership describes much of my attitude and experience during my Navy career: "Feeling the sting of rejection, learning from adversity and carrying on with an 'I'll show you attitude'" made many women leaders more successful than many of their male counterparts. It concluded that as a result "women leaders are more assertive and persuasive, have a stronger need to get things done and are more willing to take risks than male leaders."

That was then; this is now

Since I first joined in the 1970s, tremendous advancements for women have been made within the US Navy. Women now serve in virtually every career field, many in senior leadership positions. When I first joined, women could not have children, not even step-children and stay in the Navy. Now the Department of the Defense is the nation's largest day-care provider.

In spite of the many advances, however, problems persist. In April, the Navy announced that it would finally allow women to serve on submarines, starting in late 2011 or early 2012. The Navy will begin by assigning a total of 24 women to four submarines.

Reaction reported in the media was swift and primarily focused on the negative. The New York Times covered opposition to the plan from both active-duty and retired Navy men. One retired Navy chief has apparently gone so far as to circulate an online petition to garner support to stop the plan. Reportedly he has "collected the signatures and comments of nearly 550 retired and active duty military personnel as well as their spouse - all of whom argue that submarines are no place for women." The article went on to state that many active-duty sailors believed the decision was political and that pregnancy would disrupt the missions. Others felt the presence of women would negatively affect camaraderie and effective work and present problems of sexual temptations because of the close quarters.

There has been longstanding opposition from many in and associated with the submarine community to assigning women on board - even though women have been serving on US Navy logistic ships with distinction since the 1970s and combat ships since 1994. Additionally, women have served on submarines for some time: First, Norway in 1985; Denmark in 1988; and Sweden in 1989. Women also serve on submarines in Canada, Spain, and Australia. In 1995 Norway appointed the first woman ever to command of a military submarine.

A NATO-commissioned study on the effects of women serving on submarines, which looked specifically at Canadian submarine forces, concluded that "[a]lthough only a handful of women currently serve aboard Canada's operational submarines, they have seamlessly integrated into the environment with few problems. No attempts have been made to segregate the genders, and no special provision has been made for bunking or shower facilities."

This study illustrates the push-and-pull of organizational change as it relates to issues of sex and gender as I, and so many other women, have experienced: At first, fierce resistance to change is inevitable, but once a new policy has been successfully implemented opposition dies down. Of course, growing pains are unavoidable, but as always, professional competency and leadership skills will level the playing field. This was true for me 30 years ago - and it will be the same today for those women currently on the front lines of organizational change in the US Navy and beyond.


Gail Harris was the first-ever African-American woman assigned by the US Navy to a combat intelligence job. Her 28-year career included hands-on leadership in the intelligence community during every major conflict from the Cold War to Desert Storm and Kosovo, and most recently at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense's newest challenges: cyber warfare.

At her retirement, she was the highest ranking African-American female in the Navy. Her professional ventures have been chronicled in her autobiography, A Woman's War: The Professional and Personal Journey of the Navy's First African American Female Intelligence Officer.

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