Dec 5, 2011

Navy Notes 2: Sisters-in-arms

This is the second installment in a series of posts based on my experience on the Navy aircraft carrier (USS Carl Vinson) through the Educators to Sea (ETS) program.
Let's be clear. While growing up, I didn't see very good press about the Navy and women, so I was especially observant of the situation of women on this trip. What was the Navy's commitment to having women?

I found that in many ways, the experience of women in the Navy seems to parallel that of women in engineering (my experience). Interestingly, the military approach may provide some insight for corporations who want to improve their relations with women. I'm definitely not advocating the adoption of military methods in civilian life, but as an engineer, it would be foolish of me not to investigate and evaluate existing designs.

Not for "High Maintenance" Women
What's it like being a woman on deck? I asked the female officer over lunch. "It's not for everyone," she replied. "My sister, for example, really wouldn't fit in." How so? I pressed further. "Well, you can't be worried about your clothes, or your nails, or your hair," she explained. Ah, I responded, you mean you can't be "high maintenance"? Yes, that was it, she responded, happy that someone understood. It wasn't a judgment; she obviously loved and respected her sister. But it was a style. As a woman in the military, you have be able to run with the boys, literally, but as a woman engineer, there is a need to run with them figuratively.

Most women engineers I know are comfortable with “not normal.” I can’t tell you how many women starting in engineering don’t mind “being the only girl” in classes or teams ("Women making slow, sure strides in science, math"). It’s something that we’ve gotten used to. Some even say they get along better with guys, feeling that they’re not a “normal” girl – at least in the “girly back-biting" way that one sees in movies like Heathers or Mean Girls. Many are excited about the prospect of meeting other women who are also interested in engineering, but they are used to being looked at as “less feminine” than the average woman. Being “different,” “abnormal,” or “quirky” doesn’t have as much stigma for us as it might for our other female friends.

It's About the Job
The military, in stereotypical form, has dictated standard operating procedure (SOP) for everything for both men and women, starting from the identity-blurring dress code down to how to enter berthing for the opposite sex. The result, for better or worse, largely eliminates individual identity and puts focus on the job. Consider the fact that that The shirt color of those on board indicates their job and the words or emblems on them indicate the rank. Except for my host and the CMC I had breakfast with, I sadly can't recall individual's names. For example, I shook the Airboss's hand (pleasant fellow, but what I remember most was that he had "AIRBOSS" stamped right on his shirt).

On the flight deck, the blurring became even clearer. After watching cat-launches and recoveries, one of the teachers exclaimed that if she were a girl, she would want to be on the flight deck, not in an office doing paper work (like the yeoman we met in the bathroom). But there were women on deck, we were told. The protective gear just made them indistinguishable at times from men. As a woman engineer, I sometimes wished for that. Too many times in class, my female classmates and I would stick out like sore thumbs. When I worked in the factory, I invested in navy blue coveralls so I would blend in with the male factory workers (mainly so they wouldn't come over and socialize with me since they actually associated women with people to chat with); I needed to get my job done, after all.
Airboss and Pri-fly personnel

It's About Clarity
The SOPs about berthing privacy tells me that women are around to stay. After all, if they were an exception, they wouldn't have gone to the trouble of detailing the procedure and posting them on the berthing doors.

This clarity translates to requirements for promotion. A recruiter on the tour explained the experiences required to get promoted, in addition to good performance in one's current job. Industry may have something to learn from them as a peeve of many women engineers is a lack of clarity on how to navigate advancement through the system ("Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering").

It's About the Facts of Life
The Navy doesn't deny what can happen when you put 18-24 year old men and women together for long periods of time. There is a bluntness about the fact that women are a different sex. Sex (and I mean the act) is tackled head on: "There is no sex on deck," our host informed us because they all had to stay focused on their mission at hand. But, sometimes camaraderie changes to more. The CMC informed us that sometimes people do fall in love. Marvelous, she said, but let me move each of you to a place where you can stay focused on your job. So your shipmates don't get compromised, and so neither of you do something that would jeopardize your careers. There wasn't a denial that sex was a part of life, but there clarity that being on tour is not the time or place, whether you are a man or a woman.

"The Head"
Distinguished Visitors' Head
For me, though, the trip confirmed the real indicator about the Navy's commitment to women: their investment in separate bathrooms ("heads"). During my research on co-education for the book, She's an Engineer? Princeton Alumnae Reflect, I found after sexist arguments were put aside, the real concern alums had about admitting women was "the cost." It took me a while to figure out they were talking about the bathrooms.

In my consulting days in factories, women's bathrooms were about a quarter mile away from the machines I worked with since all the operators who used my machines were male. The absence of facilities really can say something about the institution's commitment to having women.  Surprisingly, even today, students me that they visit engineering buildings that have no women's bathrooms in them.

Contrast this with Executive Officer Tolliver proudly telling me that submarines, the last all-male frontier in the Navy, were going to have women officers next year. Just officers? I asked. He explained that the officer bathrooms were easier to make unisex than enlisted ones. Our host on deck confirmed the role of the head on diversity: Though the Navy is about 20% women, women made up only about 10% on the aircraft carrier. "It will probably stay that way," she said, "because of the bathrooms."

So apparently. in addition to policies and procedures, the way to measure the Navy's commitment (or any other male-dominated institution) to women on deck is to look at the plumbing investment on any new vessel. Think about that next time you are in the head.

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