Attrition: The Missing Female Chiefs


July 8, 2014: The U.S. Navy has a problem with women serving at sea. Over 12 percent of crews are female and because women reenlist at half the rate as men there is a shortage of female chiefs (senior NCOs) to supervise these women. The chiefs that are available tend to be less experienced than their male counterparts and that leads to discipline problems. Combine that with the political pressure not to discipline women who misbehave on the job and the lack of experienced female chiefs means there are more problems than the navy is comfortable with. It’s not just sexual problems but female sailors using those ploys that women have long employed to get their way in the workplace. It’s not politically correct to even admit this sort of thing exists, but in the last few decades the U.S. military has found it prudent to modify NCO training to include showing the male sergeants and petty officers how to handle female subordinates. After generations of dealing only with men, these NCOs, even those with daughters, were surprised to be told what they could expect from female subordinates. Female NCOs don’t have to be taught, they already know. Thus having experienced female chiefs on ships keeps the younger female sailors in line.

The underlying problem is that women often prefer to leave the navy rather than put up with long periods away from their young children. The navy tries to accommodate the sailors who mothers but the U.S. Navy is a navy that spends a lot of time at sea and if the female sailors are allowed to spend less time at sea the male sailors will spend more and that will cause morale and retention problems with male sailors (and anger the wives of those male sailors).

The navy also loses a lot of female officers to motherhood, but that is less noticed because the female chiefs are more essential and the shortages there are noticed. As the old saying goes, officers command but it is the chiefs who actually run the navy. Moreover female officers, like female civilian managers, can still achieve high rank if they have fewer children, none at all or simply put up with long separations from the kids. Thus female officers have reached high rank while the enlisted chiefs are in short supply.

The high ranking female officers tend to get more publicity as well Thus it was big news in 2010 when the navy had the first female officer serving as CAG (commander of the air group on an aircraft carrier.) This was no surprise to those in navy. This was not a surprise to the admirals as it was part of a long-term trend. It began in the mid-1970s when the U.S. Navy began letting women into Annapolis (the Naval Academy) and flight school. Within four decades there were women commanding combat aircraft squadrons, cruisers, an amphibious task force (expeditionary strike group) and a strike group (a carrier task force.) The 2010 female CAG had, two years earlier, been the first female commander of a navy combat squadron (VFA 105) a unit of 245 personnel that operated a dozen F-18Cs. The squadron commander flew combat missions, in addition to running the squadron. The new CAG has been in the navy since 1985, when she entered the Naval Academy. She was a flight instructor in 1993 when the Department of Defense changed its policy and allowed women to fly combat missions. When she took over VFA 105, she already had 3,000 hours in the F-18, and 600 carrier landings. After running VFA 105, her next assignment was a staff job in the Pentagon. Her husband is also a naval aviator, and she has a young daughter.

At the same time another female 1985 Naval Academy graduate took command of Task Force 73 (CVN USS George H W Bush and escorts). This was another first. There have also been some less memorable firsts. Like the removal of a female captain of a warship for abusive treatment of the crew, and her demeanor and temperament in general. The relieved captain was also a 1985 Naval Academy graduate.

Over the last century women have been increasingly a part of the military. In most Western nations over ten percent of military personnel are female. In the U.S. military it’s now 15 percent. A century ago it was under one percent (and most of those were nurses and other medical personnel). More women are in uniform now because there aren't enough qualified men, especially for many of the technical jobs armed forces now have to fill.

In the United States women became more of a presence in the armed forces after the military went all-volunteer in the 1970s. That led to more and more combat-support jobs being opened to women. This became popular within the military because the women were often better at these support jobs. This led to women being allowed to serve on American combat ships in 1994. In most NATO countries between 5-10 percent of sailors are women, while in Britain it is 10 percent, and in the United States 16 percent.

Once women were allowed to fly combat aircraft, it was only a matter of time before some of them rose to command positions. By 2010, about ten percent of navy officers are female, as were nine percent of enlisted personnel. Only 4.2 percent of navy aviators (pilots) were women, as were 6.9 percent of flight officers (non-pilot aircrew). In the air force five percent of pilots were women. By 2010 women commanded warships and air combat units (including fighter squadrons). As the reduced its strength over 13 percent in the last four years more women were retained than men, largely because the women generally did better in their jobs than men. Thus the proportion of women in command positions continues to rise while the navy has growing problems obtaining enough female chiefs.

During World War II over five million women served in the military, although they suffered fewer losses than the men, several hundred thousand did die. These women were often exposed to combat, especially when fighting as guerillas or operating anti-aircraft guns and early warning systems in Russia, Germany, and Britain. Russia also used women as traffic cops near the front line, as snipers, and as combat pilots. They tried using them as tank crews and regular infantry, but that didn’t work out. Women were most frequently employed in medical and other support jobs. The few who served as snipers or pilots were very good at it.

In the last century there have been several attempts to use women in combat units, and all have failed. When given a choice, far fewer women will choose combat jobs (infantry, armor, artillery) than will men. But duty as MPs does attract a lot of women, as do jobs like fighter, bomber, helicopter pilots and crews, and aboard warships. That works.

Meanwhile the casualty rate for women in Iraq was over ten times what it was in World War II, Vietnam, and the 1991 Gulf War (where 30,000 women served). A lot of the combat operations experienced by women in Iraq involves base security or guard duty. Female troops performed well in that. These were jobs that required alertness, attention to detail, and ability to quickly use your weapons when needed. In convoy operations women have also done well, especially when it comes to spotting, and dealing with, IEDs (roadside bombs and ambushes). Going into the 21st century, warfare is becoming more automated and less dependent on muscle and testosterone. That gives women an edge, and they exploit it, just as they have done in so many other fields.

But most women still want to have children. That’s kind of essential because without lots of new kids humans would be another species gone extinct. The military life, at least in the American forces, is not hospitable to child rearing, at least for the troops themselves.





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