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June 19, 2008

Post of the Day

Reader Lela has started her own blog. Recently she asked her daughter to guest post. The result was this delightful entry on what it means to be a woman in the military:

“Describe your military experience, please. What does it mean to be a woman in the military?” Blah. Blah. Blah….

I really hate it when people ask me things like that. “What does it mean to be a woman in the military?” What does it mean to be a man in the military? What does it mean to have brown eyes and be in the military? What does it mean to be short and in the military?

These are characteristics, not definitions. When I look back on my military service, I don’t want to think of myself as a “female warrior” or a “lady pilot”. I’m a pilot. I happen to be a woman, but I also happen to have brown eyes and a tattoo. Those aren’t germane to this discussion, why should my gender be?

And, of course, I know the answer.

The answer is that it’s germane because we as a society have made it germane. It’s almost like a type of voyeurism. We want to know about everyone’s dirty little secrets and experiences. It’s like it gives us a thrill to hear that someone has faced discrimination. For many of us, I suspect, it lets us feel vindicated. Holier than thou, perhaps, as if we’d never, ever contemplate judging someone on the basis of their gender, or race, or appearance, or whatever.

I also suspect that for most of us, that’s what we in the business call “Bullsh**”. (Feel free to edit, Mom. Just leave in my parenthetical. smile.). If those things truly didn’t matter, then we wouldn’t have to ask questions like “so what does it mean to be a woman in the military?”.

See? Catch-22, like so much else. smile. But now that I’ve talked you in circles, let me answer the question I hate.

Go read her answer. What she has to say may surprise you.

The lady takes no prisoners. I don't believe I could have said it half as well.

Posted by Cassandra at June 19, 2008 07:07 AM

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Comments

And you know what? She's 100% right. In my five years of service, I never really considered the gender of the other ops in my shop when deciding if they were competent or not. And of all the things that mattered most on-duty, competence was number one.

My favorite Platoon Sergeant in all my years in was female. She also happened to be the single most competent. Her gender was irrelevant to her performance.

Posted by: MikeD at June 19, 2008 11:06 AM

Competence is the most important thing, I agree.

I don't agree with this claim, though:

"The answer is that it’s germane because we as a society have made it germane."

I would say it's germane because nature made it germane. Sex is the single most important biological factor in human life.

"We as a society," and especially the military, have done everything in our power to make it less germane. The Army, for example, requires mandatory Equal Opportunity training every quarter, that is, four times a year for every soldier in the Army.

That's fine with me -- as I said, I favor lifting the restriction on women in combat, provided that they can meet certain performance standards (not necessarily the same ones for men, even). Still, sex isn't like whether you have a tattoo (which is a personal choice) or whether you have brown eyes (which is a physical characteristic without other consequences). It is a characteristic that informs every cell in the body, and has consequences ranging from health issues to brain structure.

So: credit where credit is due. We as a society have done a great deal to try to minimize that impact.

We should be celebrating the fact that we've reached a point where competence really is the most important factor.

Posted by: Grim at June 19, 2008 11:24 AM

"If those things truly didn’t matter, then we wouldn’t have to ask questions like “so what does it mean to be a woman in the military?”

Yah. I never knew how to answer that question either re firefighting, for the same reason. I noticed something of the same thing she mentions from other women too. That was a long time ago and I had hoped that at least had changed.

Posted by: Maggie100 at June 19, 2008 11:26 AM

That wasn't her about other women, that was in one of the comments--oops.

Posted by: Maggie100 at June 19, 2008 11:30 AM

I doubt we'll ever reach a point where people don't think of sex as the basic difference between kinds of people. For one thing, it really is the basic difference: there's no other physical characteristic that has such far-reaching consequences.

What we may be able to reach, and what I wholeheartedly support, is a society in which women can feel like their competence is more important than their sex. People will always still notice that they're women, and may occasionally be curious about it.

We can have a society -- and to a large degree, do have it in the military -- that offers equal opportunity. I don't imagine we'll ever have one that is blind to sex.

On the other hand, if we view the degree to which she is right that her competence is what matters -- and it absolutely is what matters most in the Army -- then we can realize how far we've come toward the goal. This ought to be a cause for celebration: here's a female pilot who finds that what really matters is that she's a good pilot. Of course people notice that she's a woman; people always will. But the opportunity is there for her to do whatever she wants, if she's good enough.

Posted by: Grim at June 19, 2008 11:46 AM

The overarching principle in play here is competence and a shared value to increase our odds of surviving the experience.

Breathing is good. The alternative is the unspoken (Usually) goal of avoiding that which prevents one from pulmonary function.

Now that we have that cleared up, back to work.

Posted by: vet66 at June 19, 2008 12:33 PM

Of course people notice that she's a woman; people always will. But the opportunity is there for her to do whatever she wants, if she's good enough.

Yup. Fair test: is the chance there AND is she good enough?

Posted by: Maggie100 at June 19, 2008 01:27 PM

I agree.

I'm glad we are where we are. I only mentioned my objection at all because I think part of the anger we see between men and women comes from an unaddressed need to update our thinking about what "our society" is and does.

For example, let's say you were going to do business with a person, and you were going to be told only two things about them beforehand: the native language of their country, and their sex. How important is their sex?

If their native language is Arabic, extremely important -- you'll need to make some special arrangements to address it if they are female, to avoid creating serious problems.

If their native language is Chinese, somewhat important. You'll need to make some adjustments depending on whether you're dealing with a male or female.

If their native language is American English, almost not important at all. The second piece of information is as irrelevant as we can make it.

I think we ought to recognize that our society really does a whole lot to mitigate in favor of equal opportunity. We do this both legally, through regulation (like the Army's quarterly mandatory EO training), and culturally -- Hollywood works very hard these days to turn out "you go, girl" movies.

It may be all that is necessary to create a playing field as level as this one. We ought to recognize, though, that we've done a remarkable job as a society. I think people would be happier if they looked at it that way: from the perspective of just how much we do.

That's not to say there's no discrimination, or that there's nothing left to do. There's some residual discrimination in some fields, both for men and women (try getting a job as a kindergarten teacher as a man, for example -- Dr. Helen posts about that from time to time).

But most of the difference between men and women are natural, not social constructs, and therefore they are no one's fault. What we have constructed is actually a very praiseworthy system, that goes to great lengths to mitigate toward equal opportunity.

Posted by: Grim at June 19, 2008 02:06 PM

It may be all that is necessary to create a playing field as level as this one.

I don't think that's a point conservatives tend to appreciate, Grim. Which is odd, given their natural bent for raising kids correctly. People don't generally behave well unless they are either encouraged to rewarded for doing so. The latter is more effective than the former.

Companies learn this when they fail to reinforce desired behaviors through pay/bonuses, but also when they fail to provide continual training and supervision for their employees. Anyone who thinks you can hand your employees a list of company policies the day they're hired and they'll dutifully absorb all of that and continue to march without constant reinforcement from management that this stuff is expected and important (and hopefully will be rewarded) is smoking crack.

This is a large part of why so many things "work" in the military that don't, so well, in the civilian world. It takes work.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 19, 2008 02:20 PM

Well, I can certainly understand the irritation with the whole EO structure. It so often takes the form of moralistic lecturing of the type that we Americans normally hate. That's natural too. In a society based on freedom of conscience, you get annoyed when people tell you that you'll do it their way or you're wrong.

I mean, soldiers hate the quarterly training. Every three months, they're back in a classroom being lectured again. And the Hollywood hectoring has gotten to the point that you almost can't make a movie about a hero saving a heroine -- the heroine has to turn out to be the real hero, like with the silly Pirates of the Carribean movies (and like how Hollywood won't make a war movie about soldiers acting decently -- they've gotta be psychotic or damaged or murderous).

So, you know, I can see the other side too. And I can see the side of the small business owner who hates that he can't hire the person he or she most wants, without having to explain it to the government on command. None of that is fun or pleasant for anyone.

I do agree, however, with the goal of equality of opportunity. It may be that a lot of this, maybe even all of it, is necessary to achieve that.

But given that, we really should adjust our thinking on what "our society" does. Really, we go to tremendous lengths on this score. It hasn't always been this way, but the teaching we give young people like this soldier should be adjusted to reflect the current reality. America as it is today does remarkable things to mitigate in favor of equal opportunity. We should celebrate that fact.

Posted by: Grim at June 19, 2008 03:19 PM

I will give you the 100% god's honest truth on EO briefings as they are perceived by the enlisted man. Back in my day, I remember when we went from 1 per year to 2 per year (in the Army at least). It was following a scandal where some Drill Sergeants had been accused of having improper relations with some recruits they were in charge of. The introduction of EO briefings (you may recall) was a little thing called Tailhook. Prior to the increase, we'd bitch constantly regarding the yearly briefing. "Why are we having to sit through these [darned] briefings when it was a bunch of squid officers who [fouled] up in the first place?!?" Seemed wierd to us that we were getting "punished" for something someone else did.

That went away a bit once it was our own service (and pay grade) that [fouled] up. But even still, we failed to see why we were getting 'punished' for something we didn't do. Now apparently it's quarterly. How absolutely wonderful. I'm 100% positive that having a briefing that most Soldiers (and I am sure Airmen, Sailors and Marines) consider to be 'punishement for something someone else did' and 'a waste of time' once every THREE months rather than once every 6 or 12 months will cut down sexual harassment even more.

Or how about this. Instead, lay it out in basic (ya know, the way the REST of the UCMJ was?) and then simply bust the folks who do it, rather than give 'training' to the rest of the service? I have yet to hear a single case where one of these briefings enlightened someone that making improper advances in the workplace was a bad idea that you could get in trouble for. I'm sorry, I was unaware that common sense was apparently so lacking. I never received a yearly briefing on what did or did not constitute illegal drug use within the UCMJ, but I somehow managed to avoid shooting heroin or smoking pot in the Army for FIVE WHOLE YEARS. Now how is that possible given that I didn't receive mandatory quarterly training?

Fact is, the briefings were perceived as (and I agree that they are) nothing more than senior officers and governmental officials showing that they were "doing something" about a sexual harassment problem that occured. All at the expense of the servicemembers.

Sorry, that's a pet peeve of mine.

Posted by: MikeD at June 19, 2008 05:11 PM

... we go to tremendous lengths on this score. It hasn't always been this way, but the teaching we give young people like this soldier should be adjusted to reflect the current reality. America as it is today does remarkable things to mitigate in favor of equal opportunity. We should celebrate that fact.

I agree.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 19, 2008 05:25 PM

Outside my normal posting times, but I feel the need to confess. I had a sexist thought.

I went to the grocery store on my way home and purchased cigarettes (a bad habit, I know... but I feel every adult should be allowed to have ONE legal vice) when the pretty young woman at the cash register said "Can I please see your driver's license, because you look under 27." My sexist thought was "I could KISS you!" Which I TOTALLY would not have thought had she been a man. I restrained myself and answered with a heartfelt, "Thank you VERY much!" But still, that was sexist of me. Mea culpa.

Posted by: MikeD at June 19, 2008 06:36 PM

Wet Towel Warning

Most of the women I served with in the Air Force were unable to accomplish the bare minimum. This generalization was true of pilots, navigators, line officers and staff officers. I observed this around the world in various commands.

Are there some gems who stand out and can do their jobs in an exemplary manner? Yes. Are there more women bums than men bums by percentage? Yes.

Please don't forget that the orders given to the USAF Selective Early Retirement Boards and promotion boards in the 1990's had extremely limited direction concerning job performance. Instead they were given clear direction to retain and promote women. Extremely qualified officers were dismissed because they were white, anglo men not because the women that were retained were better.

One of the few women who did stand out from 1976 on was Sue Desjardins. She is currently the Commandant at the USAF Academy.

Sorry to throw the wet towel.

Posted by: Dave at June 20, 2008 10:48 AM

Usually the military units and services that are more politicized (read, involved in less combat missions overall applied to all personnel) value other things than competency.

Aside from that, good stuff, Cass.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at June 23, 2008 12:39 AM

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