She added that commanders “must not be removed from the decision-making responsibility of preventing, detecting, and prosecuting military sexual assault.”
Her story was troubling to hear, but as one of the US Navy’s first female fighter pilots, I am sorry to say I did not find it surprising.
While I fortunately was never raped, I experienced countless incidents of sexual harassment and assault by my peers and superior officers, both at the US Naval Academy and as a fighter pilot. I served from 1988 to 1999, and back then, there was an unspoken understanding that if I wanted to be in the ultimate boys’ club with “the best of the best,” I would say nothing. It is one of the reasons I left the military midcareer and went into academia.
When I left the military, I thought this kind of culture would not follow me. I was wrong.
I am now a professor of robotics at Duke University and straddle the fields of engineering and computer science. In several respects, both the military and the tech industry, especially in Silicon Valley, have a lot in common — including a critical need to address problems of gender inequality and sexual abuse.
Why do these seemingly disparate cultures — military warfighters and “nerdy” data scientists — have such a similar problem? I believe it fundamentally boils down to two issues, a homogeneous culture of elitism and entitlement as well as a lack of committed leadership at all levels.
Both fighter pilots and artificial intelligence developers, quintessential “ingroups,” are at the top of their respective totem poles, possessing skills that require significant training and experience that make them the elite in their domains.
And these are predominantly male domains, with little outside oversight — and their perceived importance to the parent organization is only magnified by society at large. While recruiting more women in these domains is one partial solution, if the underlying anti-social elements that develop in these groups are not addressed, they will never be eliminated.
As the military knows well, real culture change comes from committed leadership and accountability at all levels — peers, middle management and senior leaders. Of these three, peer leadership is often overlooked. Peers lead by example, and a good example of this is the recent pledge by a European economist not to be on a panel that doesn’t have at least one woman.
This kind of grassroots activism could go a long way in setting cultural organizational tones. How about now extending the pledge to “I will not ever suggest to a group of peers at work that we should meet or dine at a strip club (or other demeaning types of activities)”?
These messages are heard loud and clear by employees: “We promote diversity but only as long as it is convenient to do so.” No one is irreplaceable, and tolerating such behaviors is a core and unaddressed issue for both the military and Silicon Valley as well as workplaces everywhere.
Together, they could then learn in a meaningful way how to build a culture that respects and values women while sending a clear message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated by any employee or military member at any level.