Women in Uniform: Not Accepting 'That's How It's Always Been'

Dec. 11, 2023
Generational perspective can create workplace prejudices that we need to strive to avoid.

While planning this article, and yes, it’s going to be contentious for many readers, it was necessary to plan a title that fully captured the topic. While the article addresses fair treatment of women, equal treatment of women, equal opportunity for women in uniform and many related topics, it became obvious that there was no simple title to encompass the plethora of related concepts and ideals. Understand this as you (hopefully) continue to read: This article isn’t about declaring what’s right or wrong when assigning duties to your officers of either gender. It’s about recognizing how, generationally or culturally, we may carry inherent prejudices without recognizing them, or if we do recognize and acknowledge them, we dismiss our behaviors based on them by thinking, “It’s just how I was raised.” Recognizing that you carry a prejudice and then dismissing it as acceptable based on how you were raised is as bad as not training for active shooter events because “it’s never happened here.” Just because “that’s how it’s always been,” isn’t a good reason for accepting an imbalanced, unfair or unequal circumstance.

The topic was brought to the forefront by way of multiple posts on social media sites regarding the recent assignment of a female sergeant in the U.S. Army to an active-duty scout sniper position. For many it was a surprise as they believed that females were still restricted from serving in forward or potential combat roles. For others, even aware that the restriction against such had been lifted in 2013 by order of Defense Secretary Leon Penetta, they still object because of their personal held belief that “women don’t belong in combat.” With the change ordered in 2013, it wasn’t until 2016 that women were eligible for all combat jobs. So, here we are seven years later, and social media shows that, for many men, the idea of women in combat is still anathema.

Having recently published a course about Contemporary Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Concerns, the idea that women were still viewed as unacceptable in combat roles, or not welcome even if capable, seems antiquated. That brought forth thought and discussion on why such prejudices might still exist and how they could be mitigated.

The first goal was to identify the source(s) of the prejudice and whether it’s based on any rational position. What was observed was that men from the Baby Boomer or Gen X generations were more likely to hold misogynistic views. When looking at why they would, it was obvious and simple: They were raised that way.

For men born any time before 1980(ish), “being a gentleman” meant treating women with deference. It meant protecting them. It meant holding their chair for them. It meant opening doors for them. If you were head of the household, it meant providing for your wife and, by extension, your children. Men of those generations were taught to show their respect for women by never raising a hand to them and by showing an appreciation for them.

In today’s society, those very same behaviors are sometimes referred to as “toxic masculinity,” and viewed as somehow disrespectful to or demeaning of women in general.

What can get confusing, for those in uniform, is when you realize that an intrinsic part of serving in uniform is protecting others. Our military “protects and defends” our country. Our law enforcement professionals “protect and serve” their communities. Both uniformed professions, military and law enforcement, have long been male-dominated professions and remain so today. Roughly 85% of all law enforcement officers are male. Moving that number closer to 50% will likely require decades of societal realignment that utterly changes the roles of men and women as we know them today.

The next two generations, commonly referred to as Millennials and Gen Z, weren’t raised the same way. Understand that those Boomers and GenXers were raised throughout their childhood and young adulthood to simply believe and accept the gender roles of male and female, men and women… protector and protected. Millennials and GenZers have largely been taught a wider perspective on respect and protection; one that encompasses everyone regardless of gender. They either were taught to open the door for everyone… or no one. Does anyone hold a chair for anyone else these days except maybe a host or server in a higher end restaurant? Does anyone still walk on the street-side of the sidewalk to reduce risk to the person they’re walking with?

What those two younger generations understand, mostly due to a difference in what they were taught during their formative years, is that how we treat people shouldn’t be based on gender and how we select people for jobs should only be based on competency and performance. So when a woman becomes the first active-duty scout sniper in the U.S. Army, some among the older generations feel it shouldn’t happen, while most among the younger two generations say, “Congratulations!”

What we (and yes, this author is among them) in the older two generations need to understand is that while our basic values and beliefs were formed in such a way as to view women with deference, when we serve in leadership roles, we need to treat them without regard for that deferential outlook. When considering candidates for a given job opening, no consideration regarding gender should occur. Which candidate can fulfil the duties of the job best based on their knowledge, experience, education and demonstrated performance? That’s who gets the job.

It can be difficult to think and act in such a way. When you have to “go against” all that you were raised to believe were foundational values, setting aside those values to perform your job in a non-prejudicial fashion can cause cognitive dissonance: acting one way while thinking another. It doesn’t feel right and takes some practice, but it’s worth it. In today’s world, job assignments should not be based on gender unless the population served is gender-specific, i.e. matrons in all-female prison populations.

As the older generations leave the command and leadership positions, both in the military and in law enforcement, and those from the younger generations move up in the ranks, this will probably become less of a concern, but will need to stay in focus. If awareness of the potential challenge wains, the prejudices will move in to fill the void. Be aware of your own values, beliefs, and thoughts, and don’t let misogynistic values dictate your decisions or control your behaviors.

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