My boss took the microphone as I stood in front of our 120-person work group, plaque and award in hand, for my send-off from the unit. “I didn’t want to pick you for this [competitive, high operational tempo] position, since you’d just had a baby. But actually you did a fantastic job!” he said enthusiastically.
Cue awkward silence.
I laughed about it later with friends, until the conversation turned serious:
“Doesn’t send a great message to our junior sailors, does it.”
“Yeah, I’ve had this conversation before, too. The detailer once told me he didn’t want to send me to [overseas high-operational tempo billet] because it would be hard on my kids.”
Really, I give my boss credit for honesty—I suspect plenty of senior leaders would have thought the same thing but thought better of speaking it aloud in such a public venue.
I believe we all want our Navy to be an organization that treats everyone with respect and promotes the best talent, regardless of demographic category. But assumptions and holdover cultural norms are keeping us from optimizing our personnel resources.
A Difference in Mentorship
I am a child of Title IX and have never felt limited by my gender. (I had no desire to serve on subs or in special warfare, so those gender restrictions in place when I joined the Navy didn’t seem relevant.) My career has included some amazing opportunities and positive feedback from supervisors. And yet, the more senior I got, the more I began to notice a difference in the tone of mentorship discussions.
The exception that helped me articulate the trend was the elation I felt after my command qualification board, during which three (male) post-command leaders asked questions and offered advice for more than an hour, and the topic of my family came up only in the context of using one’s spouse as a sounding board. They assumed I was there because I was interested in command and advised me accordingly. It was immensely refreshing.
For several years before that, I’d had a string of fitness report debriefs, by-request mentorship conversations, and career discussions with senior leaders (all of them male, just because that’s who was available—a separate but related issue) that worked their way around to statements such as “Active-duty husband? You’re going to have to make some sacrifices for collocation.” Or “No kids? Well, it’s only going to get harder once you have them.”
While I didn’t dispute the sentiments, I was frustrated by their assumptions. They had never met my husband, had no idea what kind of support system I had at home, and didn’t have a clue about my family’s priorities. They had also all mentioned stay-at-home spouses, which meant that if there was a collocation expert among us, it wasn’t them.
What I needed from these leaders was for them to tell me what I would need to do to be competitive or reach the goal under discussion. My family and I could then decide—based on our own circumstances and priorities—whether my pursuing that path made sense for us. But because these senior mentors’ skipped right to doubtful “It’s going to be hard” statements, I felt like I was getting short shrift in the advice department compared with my male peers. Moreover, I wondered if the impact of these assumptions went further than the kind of advice I was receiving.
Not every sailor will seek out the competitive or high operational tempo opportunities, even if they are well qualified. Many—of all demographic categories—will take a pass on the command- or senior-leadership track or bow out before they reach these milestones. That’s great—they are not for everyone. But we should want both policies and culture that allow sailors with the requisite talent who are willing to put in the work to excel in our hardest jobs, including leadership roles.
Policy. Check. Culture . . .
The Navy is getting the policies right, or right-er. In just the past decade, implementation of the Career Intermission Program, longer maternity/convalescent and caregiver leave, and better detailing practices (including dual-military collocation) have made continued service easier and more attractive for many sailors—especially female sailors. Notably, several of these policy improvements allow motivated and talented sailors to throttle back in a predictable, manageable way to take care of family or other personal issues when needed, then ramp back up to full speed. And, of course, Navy policy prohibits unlawful demographic discrimination in the areas of “recruitment, recruitment advertising, training, advancement and promotion, job assignments, collateral duties, transfers, and all other aspects of employment.”1
So, policy: check. But culture is hard to change.
Today’s force is marked by an increasing diversity of family situations and social backgrounds, and the civilian work world looks different than it did when today’s senior leaders were rising through the ranks. The “traditional” Navy family structure, where the sailor is the wage earner and the spouse does the lion’s share of the work on the home front, is less and less common.
Incidentally, this shift has implications for male sailors just as much as female sailors. A trimming of the cultural sails that anticipates and allows for all sailors to address personal challenges and also work to their highest capacity benefits us all. (And would allow for a captain in a high-pressure Pentagon job to leave work to take care of a family member’s medical emergency, to name one example.2)
Leaders, please consider: Unless your sailors explicitly share details of their personal and family circumstances in the context of a career discussion, you probably don’t have the information necessary to judge whether pursuit of the “hard” opportunities would be worth their while. Attentive setting aside of your own assumptions and an intentional effort to counsel (and offer opportunities to) sailors based on aptitude and past performance, rather than demographic factors, will help build the most resilient, highest performing force possible.
Author’s Note: Want to get smart on Navy policies on women’s health? The Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center’s Women’s Health & Readiness page has a great “Resources for Leaders.”