Sunday, October 13, 2013

BTTF 5: Retaining Female Talent

This post is part of a series that will continue over the course of the next few months. The series will look at the future of the Marine Corps after the end of Operating Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It was inspired by Robert Kosloski’s article in the Naval War College Review, “Marching Towards the Sweet Spot: Options for the Marine Corps in a Time of Austerity,” (Available Here) Mr. Kosloski has also written for this blog. It will include guest posts and posts by Gazette blog authors. This series is being organized by Capt Jonathan Rue, USMCR, who writes at Gunpowder and Lead and the Guardian, and Capt Brett Friedman, USMC, who writes here and at Grand Blog Tarkin.

Capt Lindsay L. Rodman, USMC is a judge advocate currently assigned to the Office of the Legal Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The opinions presented below are hers alone, and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Joint Staff or the Department of Defense.

The Marine Corps is headed toward a time of fiscal austerity, and is therefore going through the task of force reshaping, considering new combinations of battalions, and even tinkering with the size and composition of squads and fire teams.  In separate rooms within the Pentagon, other officers and senior civilians are sitting together discussing better integration of women into the military, thinking about issues of sexual assault, combat integration, and physical requirements.  One concern pervades both of these conversations: how do we leverage the talent we have, through engaged leadership and other programs, to get the most out of the Marines who remain after the drawdowns?   

While the Marine Corps is likely to change dramatically as drawdown policies are finalized and begin to take place, the proportion of female representation within the Corps is likely to remain the same.  The Marine Corps has historically had the lowest representation of women among the services, recently reaching around 6%.  By contrast, the average military-wide has been between 14 and 15% for the past 15 years, and may even be headed slightly downward.  Neither number has changed significantly, despite dramatic changes in force structure due to war.  [For historical figures further back, see here.]  The lifting of the combat restriction might help recruit women, and perhaps media discussion of the military sexual assault problem will harm female recruitment.  In the end, it looks like a wash, especially because it does not appear that there is a movement within the manpower system to set recruitment quotas at different levels, and our recruiters are Marines – they will meet the standard wherever it is set.  

In light of the Marine Corps’s hard work on sexual assault issues and lifting the combat restriction on women, senior leaders should consider whether the gender composition of our Corps has struck the right balance.  It is a fair question: the mission of the Marine Corps does not appeal to many women, and the physical requirements exclude many others.  No one is interested in degrading capabilities or altering the mission of the Marine Corps.  Having more women is not an end to itself – it must actually improve the organization as a whole.

Fiscal austerity, drawdowns, budget cuts, and force-shaping will require the Marine Corps to “do more with less.”  The key to success in the long run will be retaining the most talented Marines.  Fewer Marines of the same talent level may perform at a lower level, but fewer of the most talented Marines will be able to maintain the readiness we require as a nation.  The Marine Corps’s primary manpower goal should be to calibrate the Service to retain the very best – not just to make numbers.   

Looking at the status quo, we should ask ourselves whether we are doing well in retention generally, but especially when it comes to women.  There are many relevant indicators, and many areas in which the Marine Corps and the military writ-large could do better at data collection, but the clearest indicator is that in both the enlisted and officer ranks, women have always been heavily concentrated toward the bottom – at the highest ranks of the Marine Corps only about 1-2% are female; at the lowest ranks the number is much closer to 10%.  There is a dramatic drop-off at the field grade ranks among officers.
There have only been about 40 female active duty lieutenant colonels at any given time in the entire active duty Marine Corps for at least the past 10 years.  The numbers have gotten worse: fifteen years ago the number was 58.  While women have increased slightly as a percentage of the overall Marine Corps population, more women are leaving or falling out as rank increases.  So why do women leave, while men stay?  For one reason or another, women are dissatisfied with the idea of continuing to serve.   As we face the impact of drawdowns and austerity, the Marine Corps should consider this a red flag.

There are many external societal reasons that women fall off of career ladders.  Many professions face similar problems.  However, Marine Corps women do not get stuck in middle management – they get out.  The Marine Corps is not entirely to blame for this phenomenon, but the Marine Corps does have control over its people, and therefore has control over potential solutions.  And, with a starting population of women that is so much smaller than those in general society, the numbers within the Marine Corps are that much more stark at the top when the Service fails to retain the best women.

The fact that there are few female leaders at the top really does affect the experience of the women coming up behind them.  There is one female general in the Marine Corps.  She is proportionally representative of the colonel’s pool the board was pulling from, but not the roughly 10% female class of Marine Corps second lieutenants each year (her class 27 years ago was probably closer to 5%).  Though the few who have made it to the top are all individually impressive, their sparse numbers actually make them seem like exceptions that prove the rule.  Seeing none at the top can motivate a woman to be a trailblazer.  Seeing one or two at the top, among dozens or even hundreds of men, when so many other women have obviously left, might make one wonder why she would want to be there.   

There is no single obvious solution – the problem stems from many interrelated factors.  This issue is intertwined with many of the other issues facing our military.  As the military continues to integrate gays and lesbians into the ranks, and to recognize their marriages and their families, the Services will also have to learn to accommodate the notion that not everyone’s spouse fits the paradigm of a traditional military wife.  As leaders continue to address the military sexual assault question, the discussion often devolves into consideration of the way women are treated within the military.  Especially with respect to lifting the combat restriction, the need for female leadership has been discussed and is apparent.  However, we do not have women represented in the leadership of most combat service support units, let alone new units previously not open to women.

The one obvious way forward is to put the onus on addressing this question where it belongs: on leadership as a whole, not the women at the top.  This idea is not novel – the best leaders I have personally encountered in the Marine Corps take this matter to heart.  However, I have also had more than one O-6 explain to me that women do not belong in the Marine Corps, including one who insisted on explaining this to me at length over lunch in Afghanistan.  I question the professionalism and propriety of colonels cornering company grades to explain to them that they do not belong.  In my own anecdotal experience, those officers tend to grow up in combat arms communities where they work with women so rarely that their opinions are theoretical.  However, I have also seen that those opinions have not hurt those leaders, and since the Marine Corps promotes at the top from the combat arms community in larger numbers, some of those colonels become generals.  

I have been extremely fortunate in my career to have had, for the most part, outstanding leadership.  I do not need female leadership to feel like I belong within a unit, or that I will be respected, and the onus is just as much on the male leadership as the female leadership to ensure that everyone works within a professional climate of respect.  The best leaders – male or female – are the ones who create a climate of earned trust: giving every Marine a fair shake and rewarding, commending, and advocating for promotion based on merit, achievement, and future potential.  

However, there is also an important symbolic significance to knowing that women are succeeding within the Marine Corps, and enjoying their service so much that they want to continue in their career, to the same degree as their male counterparts.  As women are deciding whether to stay or leave, they cannot help but look toward female leaders as they try to assess what their own futures might look like.  Unless the Marine Corps becomes a place where women succeed at a rate closer to their male counterparts, the Marine Corps will continue to lose talent, and stagnate in its integration of women in to the Service.