It's Not Easy Being Green...and Female

The Army earns high marks for struggling to fix a gender-unfriendly culture, but it still has a long way to go.

By Robert J. Grossman Sep 1, 2001
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HR Magazine, September 2001​The U.S. Army was still on a high in the fall of 1996. Public confidence and pride in its esprit de corps and professionalism were soaring as a result of its spectacular performance in the Gulf War.

Even the recruitment numbers were looking goodfor both genders. Young women increasingly were signing up for noncombat jobs, and career tracks formerly designated exclusively for men were opening up.

Yet all the while an elephant was slumbering in the barracksa huge HR problem that the Army had yet to acknowledge publicly. In early November, accusations emerged of shocking sexual misconduct at the Army Ordnance Center and School at Aberdeen, Md. Female trainees leveled all manner of accusationsranging from rape to inappropriate touchingagainst their male drill sergeants. The disclosures ignited a public furor.

And with that, the elephant sprang to life, trumpeting a jarring reveille.

Abuses at Aberdeen

Each year about 7,500 troops, many of them young and fresh out of basic training, come to Aberdeen for Advanced Individual Training (AIT), which consists of eight to 25 weeks of instruction in mechanicssuch as repairing guns, tanks, air conditioners and generators.

But in 1996, something more nefarious than training was taking place at Aberdeen. Army investigators discovered that drill sergeants and other instructors routinely engaged in sexual conduct with female trainees. Some 50 victims were identified; 1,800 witnesses were interviewed; 20 instructors were suspended from duty.

Ultimately, a dozen drill instructors were charged with sex crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Four were sent to prison; eight others were discharged or punished administratively. Letters of reprimand were issued to Aberdeens commanding general and three other senior officers.

The most serious punishment was handed down to Staff Sgt. Delmar Simpson, a drill sergeant sentenced to 25 years in prison for numerous counts of rape and abuse.

Tip of the Bayonet

By the time the dust settled, Aberdeen had been dubbed the home of the worst sex scandal in U.S. military history. But it was more than an isolated incidentit also was an indication of a larger, endemic problem.

Several committees and task forces, which were commissioned to investigate gender issues in the military, unearthed the scope of the problem. One of those groups, the Senior Review Panel on Sexual Harassment, was commissioned by Secretary of the Army Togo West in November 1996 to examine the HR environment in the Army, to review policies and procedures contributing to that environment, and to recommend ways of ensuring that soldiers and civilians would be treated with dignity and respect. Of all the investigating bodies, this review panel perhaps best captured the essence of the problem. Two highly respected officers came out of retirement to head the panel: Maj. Gen. Richard S. Siegfreid served as the panels chair, and Brig. Gen. Evelyn Pat Foote served as vice-chair.

As part of its research, the review panel distributed the Sexual Experiences Questionnaire, which asked Army personnel if they had experienced various types of uninvited, unwanted sex-related behaviors during the past year. Overall, 84 percent of Army women and 80 percent of men reported in the affirmative.

Soldiers also were provided with definitions of different kinds of gender-based behavior and asked to comment on their experiences during the past year. The results were shocking. (See Equal Opportunity Abuser, above.)

After 10 months, thousands of interviews and significant scientific study, the Senior Review Panel delivered in September 1997 a searing indictment of the Armys gender relations. It concluded that while sexual assaults and abuse of female recruits that occurred at Aberdeen were comparatively rare, lesser degrees of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and other gender-based problems were common throughout the Army, at all levels and ranks.

Fundamental to the breakdown was the Armys lukewarm commitment to HR and the people it asked to do the job, the task force found. For example, anti-harassment training programs were old-fashioned and lecture-based; trainers were not adequately screened or prepared; staff positions in equal opportunity (EO) and HR, from EO advisers to chaplains, who provide another avenue for lodging complaints, were left vacant; and soldiers and officers who chose HR specialties were seen as working at dead-end jobs.

Practice Makes Perfect

Long before Aberdeen, Army leaders had demonstrated concern for gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Policies and procedures guaranteeing fair and equitable treatment were on the books. And for years, Army brass spoke eloquently about the importance of mutual respect and dignity and of making these training imperatives.

But teaching and leading by these values became a second-tier priority. The equal opportunity program looked good on paper, Foote says, but it didnt work worth a darn.

The Army had good policies on the books that would have prevented what occurred at Aberdeen, agrees Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Womens Law Center in Washington, D.C., and an expert on women in the military. But it seems that people were looking the other way.

The Buck Stops Here

The review panel placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Army leaders, determining that their passivity and lack of attention to HR had fostered the pervasive harassment climate. The leadership had failed so miserably that soldiers had come to accept various forms of gender discrimination as a normal part of Army life, the report stated.

The report offered specific recommendationsall with HR and training implicationsto improve the training environment, including:

  • Improving the screening of drill sergeant candidates.
  • Adding incentives to attract highly qualified men and women to trainer duties.
  • Increasing the number of female drill sergeants.
  • Expanding HR instruction for trainers so they would be prepared to properly resolve conflicts.
  • Improving staffing throughout training facilities.
  • Teaching Army core values throughout training.

When the bad news reached the top brass, they did not equivocate. Endorsing the review panels recommendations, they reaffirmed the armys Zero Tolerance policy on gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment and misconduct are intolerable because they undermine the mutual trust and confidence at the foundation of senior-subordinate relationships, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis J. Reimer said at the time. We have a moral obligation to insure that this bond of mutual trust and confidence is protected. This bond is the glue that holds the Army together and has a direct impact on our readiness.

To its credit, the Army put its money where its mouth was: It began a series of stepsmore than 200 in allto eliminate discrimination throughout the Army, poured resources into EO programs and upgraded and filled vacant positions.

For example, at the time of the scandal, the army had 366 Equal Opportunity Adviser (EOA) positions, which work full time on such issues; today there are 484, an increase of 32 percent. Off-site EO training programs under the auspices of the Department of Defense with a customized Army component were extended to 16 weeks.

Criteria for drill sergeants were upgraded. And more positions were created3,721, up from 2,897 in 1997. Of that total, 127 currently are female, up 49 percent from 1997.

In addition, training methods were modernizedat least on paperand content was revamped to address everyday challenges of mixed-gender training.

Prevention of sexual harassment (POSH) training was mandated twice yearly. An HR-grounded Consideration of Others program was started. And leaders were required to administer climate surveys to assess the human relations environment of their commands.

We require all company commanders to conduct climate assessments within 90 days after they take command and yearly thereafter, explains Lt. Col. Walter Golden, chief, Leadership Division, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, Human Resources Directorate at the Pentagon.

Looking back, experts believe the Armys approach was correct. The Army is to be congratulated because it decided it was a leadership problem, not a training or diversity problem, says Murray Dalziel, global managing director, The Hay Group, Philadelphia. Many private sector companies would have looked at it as a failure in training. The fact that theyve identified it as a leadership problem and are taking a lot of actions indicates theyre probably a lot further ahead than the private sector.

The Army deserved the rap it got, but it deserves credit for making the situation better, says Lory Manning, director, Women in the Military Project, Womens Research and Education Institute, Washington, D.C. Department of Defense data show a reduction in sexual harassment complaints for all of the services.

The number of complaints within the Army, specifically, has dropped. Overall, in 1997, the Army recorded 390 sexual harassment complaints and substantiated 128. In 2000, 104 complaints were filed and 46 were substantiated. Army-wide there were two substantiated complaints about gender discrimination in 1997, seven last year.

And its worth noting, says professor Madeline Morris at Duke University Law School, that such a number of complaints in a workforce of nearly a half million is lower than one finds in civilian life.

When Doing Right Isn't Enough

But the number of formal complaints represents only one aspect of the situation. Other factors present a less rosy picture.

For example, there is evidence that soldiers who feel victimized are bypassing the Army entirely. Case in point: The Miles Foundationa research and advocacy organization for women in the military in Newtown, Conn.handles harassment and discrimination problems for soldiers who choose to go outside the Army. Since Aberdeen in 1996, our caseload regarding sexual harassment has increased by 60 percent, says Christine Hanson, executive director.

The issues they bring to us are fear of retaliation and retribution, says Hanson. Theyve chosen to make the Army their career and fear that if they complain through the system, theyll be sidetracked.

In addition, new data released by the Army in July also suggest that its efforts have been unsuccessful: When soldiers throughout the Army anonymously assessed the gender climate, their responses showed that conditions had deteriorated since 1997. (See Failing Report Card, on page 45.)

Some critics say the results from climate surveys and other anonymously collected instruments should be discounted. Others disagree, such as The Hay Groups Dalziel, who says, Softer measures like climate surveys should be given more weight as a diagnostic tool. I would put more teeth into the climate surveys. I would put almost as much salience on that as on combat readiness scores.

Even if the methodology is questioned and a fudge factor is allowed, the percentages still show that the campaign aimed at changing a culture that features gender discrimination and harassment is having little impact.

Ironically, while Army data show that conditions have worsened at Army facilities in general, they appear to have improved at Aberdeen, the site that initially drew national attention to this problem. (The Miles Foundation has not received a single complaint from Aberdeen since the scandal broke.) Even there, however, some question the long-term wisdom of the tactics being used. (For more information, see the article Aberdeen Revisited on page 52.)

Golden cites statistics showing that the percentages of trainees who reported gender discrimination Army-wide have fallen between 1997 and 2000from 24 percent to 10 percent for women, and from 8 percent to 3 percent for men. Yet even these figures seem to be at odds with the experiences of the Miles Foundation.

We receive a small number [of complaints] about basic training, says Hanson. Most of our complaints come from AIT and beyond.

Training Weaknesses

Given the evidence that gender problems persist in the Army, its perhaps not surprising that it continues to face challenges. One of the more interesting challenges apparently stems from overexertion: Pentagon studies reveal that POSH and other HR programs are considered overkill by rank-and-file soldiers.

Our data shows that soldiers think theres an overemphasis on HR-related topics, admits Golden.

The sexual harassment training is definitely an overload, confirms Drill Sgt. Dara Wydler, Company B, 16th Ordnance Battalion, Aberdeen. They get it in basic training and then again here. They dont need that much. They could do fine with training thats less frequent.

Some of the training is good, but its overblown, says Pfc. Andrew Bradborn in Aberdeens 16th Ordnance Brigade. To keep pushing it this way is a little much.

Many of the soldier trainees interviewed at Aberdeenages 17 to 22say theyre resigned to the repetition. Its said to us a lot, but I understand why, says Ronald Akins, Company C, 16th Ordnance Battalion, Aberdeen. Its like a safety net.

Theyre aware of what happened back then, and they want to make sure it doesnt happen again, agrees Pfc. Latosha Brand, 143rd Brigade, Aberdeen.

Some soldiers learn to appreciate the repetition. I went to Fort Benning for all-male basic training, and it seemed irrelevant at the time, says Pfc. Paul Nosevich, Company A, 16th Ordnance Brigade, Aberdeen. Now Ive received it here again and can see the reason for it. Its a good thing to keep in the back of your mind.

Col. John Rocky Hills, the current commander of the Army Ordnance Center and School at Aberdeen, appreciates the risk of being perceived as too pushy when it comes to gender relations.

There are many issues and this is an important one, he says. But you can overdo it. If you push too hard, people may shut down communication and then youve lost your edge. You need to show that EO carries a lot of weight, but at the same time keep it in context with other issues.

Appearing to favor one gender over the other is another potential pitfall. The program must be designed to protect everybody, not just a particular group, says Maj. Gregory Peterson, executive officer of Aberdeens 16th Battalion.

Disparate treatment isnt an issue, as far as Brand is concerned. Females can do whatever men can do. Im a mechanic, and men see that whatever they can do related to mechanics, I can do, too.

But male soldiers dont always see it that way. When they perceive disparities, EO representatives step in. Sgt. 1st Class Ismael Martinez, equal opportunity adviser at the Ordnance Center and School, says, There may be a situation where a male thinks a female is doing less work than he isthis goes to the issue of disparate treatment. When we investigate and explain the reason, the complaint goes away. Communication is key. Our systems are enabling us to pick up misconceptions and dispel them at all levels.

Quantity or Quality?

There also is evidence that soldiers negative reactions to training may be a response to a lack of quality, instead of an overabundance of quantity.

They [soldiers] tell us that materials to teach the information are outdated, that the instructors teaching them dont appear energized and seem to be motivated by a check the box mentality, says Golden.

People snicker about the training, observes Campbell at the National Womens Law Center. Theyre still at the point of telling people what they shouldnt do. I dont think theyve reached the level of sophistication that corporate America has reached.

Sgt. 1st Class Rodney Yelder, equal opportunity adviser, 61st Ordnance Brigade, says its not the training curriculum, its how the materials are presented. People havent adopted the new training techniques. Theyre still doing the lecture format. Get rid of the lecture; youre gonna bore people.

Wydler concurs. Small groups, interactive discussions and scenario discussions are superior to the old lecture format. I like the small group training better than bringing people into an auditorium and preaching at them, she says.

EO Migration

Another challenge for the Army is holding on to its EO expertise.

Since the Aberdeen scandal, the Army has extended the duty assignment for equal opportunity advisers, requiring them to serve in the slot for at least two years. But at Aberdeen and elsewhere, the staff that works with EO tends to move around more quicklysometimes quarterly.

Sustaining our equal opportunity program is a challenge. Its hard to keep things going quarter to quarter because the knowledge base deteriorates, Yelder observes. I stay for two years, but the 12 to 15 men and women in the group I facilitate rotate.

A Reluctance to Mentor

In addition, male soldiers are increasingly wary about serving as mentors because they fear being hit with unfounded charges or claims. They want to help out but are afraid their careers will be damaged if unsubstantiated complaints enter the system.

But male mentors certainly are needed. Given the ratio of men to women, and the relatively low number of female officers (10,000), female Army personnel will need to look to men to serve as mentors.

No problem, says Darlene Sullivan, special assistant for military equal opportunity, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, Human Resources Directorate at the Pentagon. I was a master sergeant and all my mentors were men. Theres this perception that youve got to go out to a bar or something if youre in a mentor/mentee relationship. It just isnt so.

Golden says Army research has determined that leaders are unclear about what mentoring actually entails. As a first step, the Army plans to distribute an explanatory pamphlet.

Macho Culture

Foote says making changes is a long-term project in what remains a male-dominated, macho culture.

The lack of a critical mass of women may be a factor. Women account for only 15 percent of active Army personnela distinct minority. Their numbers may simply be too small to influence the culture.

It will take 40 years to change the culture, says Foote. When the current generation goes, say 10 years down the line, and you have a new generation of leadersmen and women who have been trained together and served togetheryou will see positive changes.

Experts like Linda Grant DePauw, professor emeritus at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and president of The Minerva Center in Pasadena, Md., a nonprofit educational foundation supporting study of women and the military, predict that changing the Armys climate is an impossible dreamthat the Army always will be a male-dominated culture. In general, she says, women who enlist knowingly accept the rough and tumble of military life and are prepared to give as good as they get.

Sullivan seems to confirm this view. Before, women just sort of sucked it up and said, Thats how it is; I have to accept it. Now its, I need to do something about it, I cant let it remain this way.

According to Manning, Things are changing as the demand for qualified people goes up, and more often than not, the best qualified are female. Theres a sense in the military that people have to be treated with respect because you have an investment in them.

Even Golden acknowledges that the Army still has room for improvement. Things are not where wed like them to be, he says, but were improving steadily. Change takes time. Its a growing process. Right now, soldiers are internalizing these issues. They will be more energized later on. Were embedding our values through our training.

Moving Forward

Through June of this fiscal year, 22.3 percent of new Army enlistees were female, according to the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. These numbers suggest that the Armys climate is not a deterrent to female recruitment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the reforms weve implemented have convinced the fathers and mothers that weve overcome the problems of Aberdeen, says Golden.

But as Foote points out, Its only when things go bump in the night that we put the spotlight onits too easy to drift back.

Foote is surprised that the Army hasnt kept her and the chair of the Senior Review Panel apprised of the situation. I had always hoped we would be called back and given a thorough briefing.

But she credits the Army with not trying to bury the issues. I dont know of any other organization that spends as much time looking at the human dimension. These issues are certainly on the radar screen. Theyre trying to make things better.

But it will take more than a good effort to win this battle. Youve got to have an organization that looks at its warts and wrinkles and is willing to make sea changes, Foote says.

And if four years after the Army committed to gender equality, the interventions dont appear to have their intended impact? Back to square one, says Foote. If the improvements havent been made, look to the leadership. Good leadership thats institutionalized gets you out of messes and keeps you on the right course.

Robert J. Grossman, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
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