Rain
49°
Rain
Hi 49° | Lo 41°

Column: Stark Challenges for Women in the Military

Annapolis, Md.

The U.S. Naval Academy presents a challenging venue for Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” pitch.

On the one hand, the academy’s female midshipmen inhabit a post-Sandberg world. They are already the ultimate leaners-in, super-achievers making their way in a traditionally male environment. They might be the last to need to sign up for one of the “lean-in circles” Sandberg urges women to form.

“Every day you are on this campus, every day you are on a ship, you prove to everyone out there that women can do what men can do,” Sandberg told the midshipmen on a recent visit. “If anyone was ever leaning in, you are leaning in.”

On the other hand, the female midshipmen have chosen a career path that consigns them to permanent minority status: of the 1,408 members of the class of 2017, only 333 — less than a quarter — are women. Upon graduation, they will confront an even more male-dominated world, with women accounting for 17 percent of officers and enlisted personnel. In this setting, leaning in becomes simultaneously more important and more difficult than in the civilian context.

“We are women trying to fit into a man’s world,” Sandberg said. “It is a man’s world in the business world. It is a man’s world in technology. And it is a man’s world in the military.”

The discussion of women in the military today, both at service academies and in the regular ranks, tends to be dominated by the issue of sexual assault — rightly so, given the prevalence of the problem and the lapses in handling it.

But to listen to Sandberg’s speech — and to talk to several midshipmen afterward — is to be reminded that assault is far from the only obstacle military women confront. The military is transforming itself, with previously closed combat jobs becoming open to female personnel by January 2016. But it remains an overwhelmingly male institution and culture. One benchmark of this “brass ceiling”: Only two women have been awarded a fourth star. Less than 8 percent of general officers — generals and admirals — are female.

The men and women gathered to hear Sandberg offered a glimpse of a new generation of military leaders grappling with how to navigate the challenges of gender. How does a woman command without alienating? How does she avoid the self-imposed curtailing of ambition that Sandberg discusses, especially in a context that values physical strength and fitness? How does she manage the feat of combining not only motherhood and work, but motherhood and the relentless demands of active duty?

“Some of your words really resonated with me, especially when you asked women if they’d been called bossy or the other ‘b’ word that’s not quite as nice, and I have, on many occasions,” senior Olivia Kosaka told Sandberg. She is an executive officer, second in command of 150 students, which makes her “kind of the enforcer” of standards for orderly rooms and uniforms.

“So my question is, how do we deal with that as women?” Kosaka asked. “Do we need to change the way we act so that we can come off as being approachable and likable? Or can we be ambitious, competent and strong and enforce the standards? Because oftentimes that kind of attitude isn’t accepted coming from an authority figure who is a woman.”

Ryder Ashcraft, another senior, described how she had refrained — leaned back? — the previous year from applying to be a training sergeant, even though “I know now that I was very well-qualified for it.” Now, as a squad leader of 10 students, she sees the women not being ambitious enough in applying for leadership positions. “It’s really amazing,” she told me. “It’s recognizing the bias that we were talking about, the lack of confidence.” More female role models will help, perhaps, as a new generation of female officers emerges, less bent on “blending in” and more willing to mentor younger women.

“It’s not just getting more women into the military,” Sandberg told me. “It’s getting more women into the leadership ranks of the military.” Which is going to take a whole lot of leaning in, not just by women but by the institution itself.