Gender Integration: Or, Why It Doesn’t Look Like We Thought It Would.

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By: Shelby Hensley

As a junior Officer still early in my career, I seek out any female role models I can find across the military, with the ranks of the Army being my preferred source of inspiration. We all seek to find those key individuals that we identify with and aspire to follow, the people we can look to for guidance and motivation when things get rough. As a result of my search, I have what I like to refer to as the “Career Goal Wall of Fame” proudly displayed for all to see. This list includes LTG Laura Richardson, MG Jody Daniels, Senator Tammy Duckworth and Representative M.J. Hegar. All of these women have had incredible military careers and ended up breaking a proverbial barrier in some way through their occupation.

 I display this list, along with their photographs, right next to my computer screen so I can see them every day and look to their steady gaze when I need the reassurance. I frequently have coworkers comment on my display, usually positively, and especially when they see LTG Richardson’s job title. At the time, she was still the Deputy Commanding Officer for FORSCOM, not having been made the Acting Commander yet. One time, a coworker had read my wall display and said, “Oh, I didn’t know that FORSCOM had a female DCO! That’s unbelievable!”

Normally I would just nod and smile, and offer a fact or two I had read about the careers of these women to open discussion. After a while I began to grow confused, and then irritated – why is it surprising that LTG Richardson would be DCO of FORSCOM after reading about her accomplishments and experience? Why does it surprise everyone, and why should it matter that she’s a female Officer? Her career had spanned years of extremely competitive assignments, actively engaged command time, and achievements some would only dream of having on their resume. The same was true for all of the women on my wall – they each had incredible careers and brought their experiences forward into leadership roles where they had a greater impact. Yet after gaining this knowledge about their careers, I would still have people reacting with shock or disbelief. After some time stewing in my cubicle and talking about this frustration with a close friend, I had come to what I believed to be a feasible conclusion.  

Growing Accustomed to Gender Integration of Combat Leadership Roles
(Or, Why It Doesn’t Look Like We Thought It Would)

In today’s military, we have grown so accustomed to enforcing integration of women into combat roles that we don’t really stop to consider what that integration might look like across the entire force as a general action. It’s one thing to say you adhere to an equal opportunity policy or to integrating women into your formation in leadership roles, but to actively seek out ways to improve your application of it to your daily social interactions is something else entirely. As a force, we never collectively came together to determine what the social outcomes of integration would look like. When I refer to social outcomes, I’m referring to the way we interact with our peers and our leadership all along the chain of command. The way we speak to each other can greatly impact our professional relationships in the workplace while on duty, and can quickly cause a unit to be combat-ineffective if the communications issues are not curtailed.

Personal Experience – We All Deal With It

I work frequently with a male First Lieutenant on various projects. We are both CBRN Officers, and have about the same time in service and time in grade. Comparatively, we have had developmental assignments that carry equal weight for our career paths. It would appear that we would have some equal footing professionally, and therefore should be able to communicate easily about our experiences or have discussions. For some reason, he cannot look at me if we have a conversation. Every time I have spoken to this Officer, he will acknowledge whoever else is with us before responding to the group with an answer to my question, if he acknowledges at all. The few times I have managed to grab his attention, he has only offered monosyllabic responses before turning his attention elsewhere.

Is this because he thinks I’m inferior, or not worth his time? I don’t believe he acted this way purposely; I do believe that he didn’t realize what he was doing was coming off as offensive or unprofessional because we do not identify the impacts on social behaviors that come with equal opportunity policies. This same outcome can be translated across many other experiences from women all over the military. Our presence in a professional setting is usually just tolerated, as opposed to being considered on equal ground with our male counterparts. Astoundingly other women are guilty of this same behavior. I have observed female Noncommissioned Officers (NCOs) that will act this same way to their female peers, taking the input or opinions of their male counterparts at a higher value than female peers with extensive experience. Again, I do not think this is purposeful, but I do think this is a product of the widespread tolerance I was speaking of earlier.

Balance the Equation

In a recent study conducted for the National Defense University, Captain Elizabeth Trobaugh (USAR) summarizes her research on integration across the force as follows:

“Instead of arguing whether we should integrate women into the force, the better question would be to ask how we can better prepare all Soldiers for upcoming global strategic challenges. The changing face of battle includes the fact that women are part of the success equation.”

So how do we balance this success equation? Or more importantly, how do we prepare to face this changing battleground? As daunting as it sounds, it really doesn’t take much personal or professional investment. Change starts in the small gestures and works its way up to a larger impact; we all just need to get behind it. In ten years, I don’t want to hear the same tone of disbelief when we have a female Commanding General of any force; I just want to hear the admiration that comes with a great leader taking on a new role and making the force better.

 

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Shelby Hensley is an Operations Officer and incoming HHC Commander for 415 CBRN BDE in Greenville, SC. She holds a Master of Business Administration in Project Management from Norwich University, a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology from Florida Institute of Technology, and is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Biotechnology through the University of Maryland University College. When the occasional occurrence of free time graces her schedule, Shelby enjoys running and training for Spartan Races across the country and takes pride in being a “lifelong learner”. Her opinions are her own and not necessarily reflective of the positions of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.