In 2015, Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened more military jobs to women, specifically combat arms roles. Last year, the first two female officers made it through the rigorous Army Ranger School, in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Woman are striving for equal promotion to the highest echelon of the military. Some savvy go getters have succeeded, standing shoulder to shoulder with their top brass male counterparts. The few females who succeed in reaching those levels have found opportunities for receiving the mentoring and career experiences available to their male counterparts early on in their career.
Nevertheless, most of the top military advisors today are males who have been to infantry training and combat leadership schools, and have been entrusted with important leadership positions that have catapulted their advancement. It’s interesting to note that 25 years ago, in the early 90’s, women made up barely 11% of the total force. Today, women still only make up less than 15% of the total military service, which statistically affects the number of women who are actually able to compete for these leadership positions.
When Secretary Carter expanded the roles for women, he certainly opened a Pandora’s box of questions, nightmare scenarios, and harsh objections from military service members. Low grumblings of an impending deterioration of U.S. military forces due to the lowering of performance criteria in allowing women to serve in infantry roles was heard throughout the force. There are reasonable questions and concerns. How does the military maintain the level of proficiency while still offering males and females equal opportunities in career advancement? What are the effective measures of success in a traditionally male-dominated culture, and should that culture change for females? The military responded by opening all combat arms career billets to females, as long as they could meet the long established performance criteria, just as the males have to.
Having spent close to 20 years working for the Department of Defense, previously serving on active duty in the Army, later transitioning to civilian roles in DoD, I’m left with a mixed bag of perspectives on this topic. Today we see women performing roles that have traditionally been left to males. Women find themselves stepping outside of traditional gender roles more and more.
On one hand, we’ve come a long way, but a long way from what?
In the first Gulf War and then during the second 20-year stint in the Middle East, the DoD was challenged to delineate combat from noncombat roles. Women have been fighter jet pilots, manned machine guns, patrolled outside the “wire.” With the quickly shifting boundaries of “hot zones,” at anytime, they could have found themselves in combat. To this point it would be prudent to ensure everyone is adequately trained for combat readiness, regardless of gender.
Even so, I’m not sure we are taking the most effective approach by opening previously all-male infantry occupations to women. Maybe we should be asking different questions about how to fully utilize the talents of the female workforce?
Promotions to the highest level of military leadership should be open to men and woman alike. Surely we want the most qualified and experienced individuals advising the Commander in Chief on important military world issues. But how does a person become the most qualified? They are given opportunities, groomed, mentored, and relied on. They are scored against criteria in which they exceled and their talents are identified, exploited, and cultivated. Our nation’s military makes great leaders; we have the formula down pat.
However, we are on the cusp of major changes in our country and still working on a legacy leadership model. With an evolved leadership model, we could learn to maximize potential of a diverse work culture. Putting everyone into the same box and measuring them with one set of established criteria leads to optimization of one type of skillset and cultivation of one type of leader. This limits our success. For example, women are allowed to compete for infantry positions, but success is measured with decision criteria based on areas where males tend to excel. Certainly, there are exceptional women that can and have competed under that criteria, bypassing their male counterparts. However, they are outliers. So what about the rest?
Moving toward a more innovative leadership approach would require us to ask how we cultivate the talents that women inherently bring to the work force. Right now, women are measured against a criterion that is akin to asking a cat to act like a dog. You can train a cat to act like a dog, but a dog will always be the best at being a dog, and nothing is better at being a cat than a cat. That idea may infuriate some women, but as a woman, I personally want to be judged for who I am, and not be shoved into a matrix of male qualities that I have to exhibit to compete for leadership roles. At the same time, I don’t want to be marginalized to less important roles based on my gender. What if the training and mentoring cultivated all the best of what women bring to the table in leadership?
Robert Sherwin, the former COO of leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman, did an interesting three-part series for Business Insider on why women are more effective leaders than men. The first part of the research was published in the Harvard Business Review in 2012.
In the 360-degree review of 16 measured competencies, women scored higher than men in 14 of the 16 categories. Women outscored men in areas such as taking initiative, building relationships, collaborating, championing change, motivating others, developing others, driving for results, and integrity and honesty. Men outscored women on technical or professional expertise and developing strategic perspectives.
To make the biggest impact with the total workforce, it would be beneficial to learn how to leverage and develop the skills women naturally possess. I fear we are missing the point by trying to equate equality of opportunity with open participation to combat arms roles. The real opportunity to meet our greatest potential is in recognizing the over looked and unused talents that are lying dormant within a culture that sees the male infantry officer as its biggest leadership asset.
As a woman, I appreciate the bold move Secretary Carter made as a leader in an attempt to level the promotional playing field for men and women. Would the organization, country, and women be better served if the leadership would stop trying to make women more like men and learn to embrace the difference and use the skillsets of men and women to our advantage like other countries such as Israel has done? We definitely need the balance of both attributes to fully utilize skillsets and be completely successful.
Equality isn’t about letting women be combat engineers, as much as it’s about optimizing their strengths and making real investments in the potential that women bring to the work environment. We do that by adopting more acceptable criteria of what success looks like for a military leader, not by lowering standards.
For optimizing diversity and the use of innate talent, recognizing the natural roles for women, and making a shift in promotion criteria is in the best interest of the nation and the force.
Darcy Hotchkiss, a U.S. Army Veteran, is the author of Life in My Hands – Healing Myself, Healing Others.
Photos from Bigstock