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Pentagon push for women's equality gets murky at academies' doorsteps

As the Pentagon opens more jobs to women, will the three service academies let in more female students? That's unclear, but it's a question with major implications for women's equality in the military.

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    Graduating 2nd Lieutenant Natalie Justice (r.) smiles during the commencement ceremony for the class of 2013 at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado.
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In Jennifer Bower’s freshman year at the United States Air Force Academy in 2003, a sexual assault scandal gave her a glimpse of where she stood as a woman at the school.

To its credit, the service appeared to be taking the scandal seriously. The three-star general who led the school was demoted amid charges of a coverup. In a subsequent survey by the Air Force inspector general, nearly three-quarters of the 659 women at the academy reported that they had been victims of sexual harassment. 

But one of the solutions struck her as odd.

Captain Bower and some of the women in her class were told to move from their originally assigned dorms into new rooms clustered around the bathrooms. The intent was to reduce the risk that women might be assaulted on their way to the showers. 

That led the women to joke about “whether there really was safety in numbers, or whether it was now just one-stop shopping.”

Not long after, there came other apparently well-intentioned changes, including “the brief but illustrious period of time,” she says, when men and women were not allowed to sit on the same horizontal surface, and all dorm doors had to be open to 90 degrees.

The academy “was trying to eliminate opportunities where something untoward could happen,” says Bower, who left active duty in 2011 and now serves in the Air Force Reserves.

The problem was that “it really had this shaming effect,” she recalls. “There were times when I really thought maybe this place would be better off without us. I thought, maybe I’m ruining all the fun.”

For more than 30 years, many women have felt like party-crashers at the nation’s three service academies – the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy, and the Military Academy. And for more than 30 years, there has been a good reason for the mostly male student bodies: The academies have needed men to fill a certain number of combat jobs that women were not allowed, by law, to do. 

As early as next year, however, that barrier could disappear as women are set to be cleared for combat, with growing numbers of those jobs now already open to women. For the academies, the mounting question is: Will they follow suit?

For now, the answer is something of a mystery. No service academy has a student body that is more than 20 percent female, and it is unclear why. While it is presumed that more men than women apply to the academies, just how many more is not. Nor is it clear whether the armed forces are particularly interested in trying to increase the number of women admitted.

That’s because the Pentagon isn’t saying. It rejected a Freedom of Information Act request from the American Civil Liberties Union asking for admissions data for the military academies. So this month, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit demanding it.

The legal wranglings are just one sign of how the push for equal status for women is rippling through the military. But the academies’ admissions policies are particularly important to the broader cause, advocates say.

In lifting the ban on women in combat in 2013, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said having “separate classes” of male “warriors” creates an environment that can lead to harassment.

Moreover, many female service academy graduates argue that having more fellow female classmates would, for starters, create a larger and more diverse cadre of troops who might encourage each other to stay in the military and make a career of it. 

Indeed, pushing more women through the academies could be one of the most effective ways to get women into the midgrade and senior positions that General Dempsey has said is a priority.

The current ratio of women in the service academies “is sort of out-of-whack. Women can now do so many jobs within the military, and will soon be able to do many more,” says Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney for the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU. 

“It just doesn’t make sense anymore,” she adds.

The academies contend that the size of their female student body is based on “goals” and not caps or quotas, but without admissions data it is difficult to know how the admissions process works, Ms. Migdal says.

West Point’s first coed graduating class was 10 percent female in 1980. Nearly 35 years later, that figure has risen 7 percentage points. 

What the groups involved in the lawsuit are trying to do is to get a clearer picture of the process for selecting students.

“What is the percentage of women who start an application who are ultimately deemed to be qualified candidates? And how about recruiting – is there any particular effort made to attract women?” asks Greg Jacob, policy director at the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy organization that is also taking part in the lawsuit.

For example, candidates must go through a pre-qualification process before being considered for admissions, including receiving congressional nominations. That is an opaque procedure, Migdal says, since lawmakers are not required to keep any statistics on who gets nominations through their office, who requests them, or the number of men compared to women who are deemed worthy candidates.

It is a question of fairness, she says, to make sure a US taxpayer-funded institution that spends approximately $350,000 on the education of each cadet is not excluding women.

For Bower, who lived through the door-open-to-90-degrees-rule at the Air Force Academy, it might mean a different sort of fairness. It would mean “having women not feel like a bunch of intruders,” she says.

Instead, “It could open up the spectrum of women you come across,” she adds. “And the examples of women that you see succeeding.” 

At the very least, the number of women wouldn’t be so small that you could have them all cluster around the bathrooms, she says.

The service academies say that they are endeavoring to improve the process. Naval Academy officials say that they are aiming for a student body that is 20 percent female next term.

In 2013, the Air Force Academy appointed the first-ever woman to lead it, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson. 

“I think that’s awesome,” says Allison Doerter, a 2006 Air Force Academy graduate. “It’s great for the guys to have somebody in charge of them who’s a woman,” she adds.

“They get there, a woman’s in charge of them, and that’s the norm. That should be the norm.”

For their part, West Point officials say that “women have naturally matriculated in at about 17 percent for several years,” according to a statement provided to the Monitor.

With the revocation of the combat-exclusion policy, however, West Point is now seeking to “increase interest in college-age women,” and, to that end, “has initiated a marketing campaign in the past two years specifically to increase interest in this population,” says Lt. Col. Webster Wright, director of public affairs at West Point. 

The class of 2018 was the first class admitted after the marketing campaign was launched. It saw “an increase in the number of women completing their applications and becoming qualified for admission,” Lieutenant Colonel Wright adds in an e-mail to the Monitor. That resulted in a “marked increase in the acceptance rate of women in the class of 2018.”

Women applicants for the class of 2019 have increased by more than 30 percent from last year’s applicant pool, he says. 

“It is still too early to say how this increase will affect the candidate acceptance rate, but suspect we will see an increase in the accepted women applicants for 2019 as well.” 

Figuring out how to make the academies more equal is key to the Pentagon’s stated goal of fully integrating women into the armed forces. The more that the military “can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally,” said Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 2013.

That includes getting more women into midgrade and senior positions, as well as into commands where women are being introduced into combat roles, Dempsey added in the 2013 memo. “This may require an adjustment to our recruiting efforts, assignment processes, and personnel policies.”

Through the military service academies, the Pentagon can “get the senior women leaders that all of the military is saying that they desperately need,” adds Mr. Jacob of the Service Women’s Action Network.

It is clear that the services place a special value on a military academy education. Roughly 60 percent of the Army’s four-star generals and 90 percent of the Navy’s four-star admirals are academy graduates. What’s more, every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – except the Marines – are academy graduates.

That goes for women, too. Of the three women who have been promoted to the rank of four stars in the military, two of them are academy graduates. 

“The people who are setting policy and enforcing regulations about women in the military are academy graduates,” Jacob says.

Now there needs to be greater transparency in the admissions process, says retired Col. Ellen Haring, a West Point graduate who has advocated for the inclusion of more women in her alma mater and the rest of the service academies. 

“No one – not even faculty who read admissions packets – has the full picture.” 

For now, Jacobs adds, “A lot of this academy stuff is still shrouded in mystery.”

For her part, Ms. Doerter, the 2006 Air Force Academy graduate, says there were some benefits to being in a small herd. The academy divides first years into units of about 30, which means about five or six women per group. 

“Those girls – a lot of them are still my best friends,” she says. “You’re going through all this stress together, and you have this bond that I don’t know you would get anywhere else.”

It also accustomed her to being the only woman in the room, a skill that has come in handy in her new career learning the family business of farming.

Doerter now travels to farm shows, and recently attended a young farming professionals conference. At each of these stops, “I mean, there weren’t a lot of women, and when there were, they were all wives,” she says. “I thought, ‘Where am I?’ It was a worse ratio than my military experience.”

In her nearly four years in the reserves, Bower says she has encountered a wider variety of women serving than she did during her time in the active duty. “It’s really been wonderful in terms of opening up the spectrum of women I’ve come across, so that’s been really cool.”

That’s partly because back during her active-duty days, she was a human intelligence officer working with Special Operations Forces, which are all-male. During her three deployments to Iraq between 2008 to 2011, she worked on the Special Operations compound at the US base in Balad.

“I volunteered for special operations knowing I’d deploy – that was my intent,” she says.

But she didn’t escape the sexual assault concerns, and the Air Force responded in a way that brought her back to her academy years.

On her third deployment, she arrived just after a sexual assault. “The women had to move rooms to all be together again,” she says. “And at that point I’m 27 years old.”

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