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Gender Bias in the Military
by Kelley Donovan, SGGT, Air Force

Men and women think differently.  That’s an undisputed fact.  But what happens when women in a predominantly male institution, such as the military, are evaluated based on preconceived gender biases rather than their actual merits as people?  They become undervalued, disillusioned and disappointed.  They hit the proverbial glass ceiling.  Yes, it does exist in the military, despite the supposed gender-neutral promotion system of tests and boards. 

Women have been serving in the military for many years, but they still experience many barriers to their acceptance and complete participation.  Many of these barriers are based on the ideas of military leadership and government regarding what a woman’s role is and should be.  These ideas are formed as a result of long-standing prejudices that create stereotypical roles for the female gender.  Women are often referred to as the “weaker sex.”  Men are taught to protect and treasure women, and as a result women are strictly forbidden to participate in combat roles and are marginalized when they choose the military as a career. 

When women perceive certain behaviors as inherently feminine or masculine, they may be more likely to act in a manner consistent with what they behave to be feminine and resist engaging in behaviors that they consider masculine.  When they are initially entering the military, they must often learn to act in a manner contrary to what they believe is appropriate for them as women.

It is likely that women who identify strongly with the traditional female gender roles will have more trouble acquiring those personality traits associated with military success that they consider masculine.  It is also possible that these same women will no longer identify as strongly with the traditional female gender role once they have successfully completed training; they will identify with more traits previously thought of as masculine because they will have been indoctrinated into the military mindset.

However, regardless of how women see themselves, they are evaluated by a predominantly male contingent.  The Air Force employs the highest percentage of women, with a whopping nineteen percent.  Despite this relatively large number of women, the Air Force as an organization is largely ignorant of their gender bias.  Although it states a zero tolerance policy regarding harassment or gender-based discrimination, the fact of life for many Air Force women is that they are evaluated by misogynistic men who still see them as inferior just because they were born female.

As a result of the inherent gender inequities women need to understand the barriers they may face if they choose to join the military.  The knowledge will help them to combat the prejudices held against them, or at least to understand them.  It will also help military leadership to understand this problem and potentially address it through training. If leaders can see how their prejudices affect their evaluation of women, they may be able to learn how to avoid this evaluation error and evaluate students strictly based on skills.

Military leaders have the job of evaluating their subordinates’ potential capacity for leadership and their ability to acquire militarily significant skill sets.  Some of this evaluation is tightly controlled and based solely on numerical test scores, but many components can be influenced by the evaluator’s innate bias.  The enlisted reporting system is based on the evaluator’s subjective assessment of an individual’s ability to meet standards, her conduct, character, military bearing, appearance, wear of the uniform (which was designed by and for men), ability to meet training requirements- both mental and physical and her teamwork.

Supervisors can fall prey to evaluation errors such as the halo effect or logical error.  These errors can be influenced by their prejudices and bias.  The halo effect takes place when an evaluator bases an evaluation on his basic perception and either favorable or unfavorable impression of the individual rather than on actual skills.  The logical error occurs when an instructor bases an evaluation on the pairing of two characteristics that may seem to be related in a cause and effect relationship, but in actuality are not.  An example of this is the assumption that women are by nature weaker and less assertive than men.  An evaluator could easily make either of these mistakes based on their perceptions of appropriate gender roles.

There are a multitude of underlying factors that may cause a person’s particular perception of what is appropriate based on gender as well as that person’s evaluation of specific subordinates.  Some of these factors include: upbringing, religious affiliation, hometown region, socioeconomic status and prior experiences with members of their perceived out-group. 

Regardless of these factors, the sad fact is that women continue to be undervalued in the military because it is a predominantly male organization that prizes characteristics that many see as inherently masculine.  Since they see women through their lens of experience, they fail to see their true value to the organization.

Kelley Donovan, SSGT, has been in the Air Force for 8 years.  She is originally from New Hampshire, but has since lived in Wyoming and Missouri with her one true love, (her cat) Serenity.   She considers herself a feminist, thanks in large part to her experiences with the predominantly male military setting. She may be contacted at kelley.donovan@us.army.mil