Focusing on Skills, Not Gender, in the Military

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Vice Admiral Ann Rondeau

The latest issue of the Association of the United States Navy’s magazine sits down with Vice Admiral Ann Rondeau, the Navy’s senior three-star officer and president of the National Defense University, to chat about how far women have come in the military — and how far they have yet to go. She discusses the myriad of changes in opportunities for women since she joined the Navy in 1973. She also carefully navigates around the minefield of gender-neutral policies:

I am in favor of gender neutral assignments as an outgrowth of talent-driven focus. To me, it is a secondary effect of the primary value which is we want skill and talent, and people who meet the standards.

This is, of course, what advocates for increased military roles for women have been saying all along. However, the bottom line is gender does matter. Otherwise, we would not be having this discussion.

Gender is a master status, in sociological parlance, which means that it defines you as a person…not only how you view yourself, but how others view you. It is the first status you are given as soon as you are born. And it matters in how you are raised, how you are treated by your parents, your extended family, your teachers, your schoolmates, even your friends.

Remember the androgynous Pat from Saturday Night Live? How everyone was trying to trick him/her into revealing his/her gender? What made it funny was that Pat was able to somehow curb that ball every time! Whether you care to acknowledge it, you are also judged by it. While we are all human beings, there is no genderless human being. We are defined from birth, as boy or girl.

And of course gender matters in the military, because the military is a masculine institution. Women have learned to work around many of the testosterone-based “traditions,” and have successfully pushed open doors that could not even be imagined when VADM Rondeau was an ensign.

Let’s face it. In general, women are less physically strong than men. Pound for pound, a woman will have more fat and a man will have more muscle, thus he, on average, will always be stronger than she. Yet, getting through the tough Special Forces training is not just about strength. It is about stamina, endurance, motivation, reliance on teamwork, sticking together. There is, after all, an 80% attrition rate among guys. But they are given the opportunity to fail because of their gender, while women are not even allowed to try.

I believe there are some women out there who could do it. Women are now doing amazing endurance events, and our female athletes are awesome. Not too many of those women are in the military, however. However, it only takes one to be the first, to break the barrier. And the Special Forces are getting used to operating with women, as they regularly deploy with Special Forces Units as Female Engagement Teams.

As VADM Rondeau says, “Firsts are starting points. Next is the continuous line, based on performance and value to mission and organization.” That’s where it becomes all about talents and skills. But so long as women aren’t given the opportunity in these realms where they’re still barred, they’ll never get the chance to prove they can do it.