This is a series of posts about discrimination that happened to me as a girl and woman in the 60s-80s. See the first three entries at:
When we had to wear dresses to school
Look around the room, you don't belong here
Anyway, we wanted a man for the job
This is a record for my kids, and for others so we don't forget how it was and what we can't go back to.
The military ended up being an experience that really helped me discover what I truly was capable of, what I could weather, and to finally realize what I didn't need to deal with any more.
I went through some nasty sexual harassment at my first duty station. And being thought of as not as capable as the men was part and parcel of the experience of being a woman in the military, it was just about constant. But that would be a lot to go into, so I'm going to stick with one blatant instance of how extreme the reaction to a woman could be in the military.
At my second duty station after working for a while in the main watch section, I was picked to work in the special operations watch section, a subset of the group that worked in a back room with a special clearance for some compartmentalized information. I was still doing the same job, but in a new setting and continued to excel at what I did.
Then a family catastrophe happened for one of the watch leaders in the special projects area. His brother's wife had died in childbirth, and they had also lost the child, a horrendous family tragedy. He had to take emergency leave to support his grieving brother and they tapped me to take my first leadership position in the military. I would take over his watch section group.
The watch section consisted of 4 guys, it had been an all male group. On the night I arrived for my first watch the officer of the watch section announced to the team that I was taking over the supervisory spot for the special operations group. Nothing was said, but one of these men visibly reacted in an extremely hostile manner. He stomped his foot audibly, anger and agitation written all over his posture and face. Oh my god, what was I in for? The officer in charge (a woman!) said nothing.
So the tone was set, I warily took charge in the back room, laid out people's responsibilities and started getting to know this group. The one who had reacted so strongly followed my lead, but very grudgingly. It felt like he was just looking for a chance to give me problems, and it finally came to a head one midnight watch.
On the midnight watch we have to prepare the room for a morning briefing. This means sweeping, mopping the deck, and general tidying up. As usual I assigned out responsibilities, but when I got to him, and gave him the job of mopping the floor, he pushed back, said it didn't need a complete mopping. I'm always willing to consider alternatives, I took a look and agreed. I asked him to take a sponge and clean up any scuff marks off the deck and that would do.
So he did this, but he didn't dry off the spots he cleaned after he finished them. Consequently as people walked around the space dirt was tracked everywhere from their shoes. The floor ended up looking much worse than when it started. I called him over, pointed out how the floor was even worse and told him he'd have to mop now. This was when he said "I'm not doing it."
So here it was, a direct challenge to my authority over something so damn trivial. My brain was going a hundred miles a minute, I knew if I backed down here I would be toast. I would not be able to lead this group. If he continued to refuse I would have to report him, but generally, reporting someone was seen as a failure of leadership. I was between a rock and a hard place within days of taking my first leadership role. I mentally scrambled for what to do.
Pretty quickly I replied with a very stern tone and a dead serious expression "Either you get a mop and clean up this floor or you're going to do the whole thing on your hands and knees!" And I stood my ground, didn't back up a step and waited to see what he would do. (Understand that everyone who knows me would probably be shocked that I would say such a thing, very very not my style!)
He visibly struggled with this, he shifted his feet, looked down and back at me, and then after what seemed like forever he turned and stomped off to get a mop. Oh goodness I was so relieved, and do you know what? After that night, he never gave me a problem again, in fact quite the opposite. He became cooperative, trusted me, the entire group gelled fantastically, so much so that when their former supervisor returned, he took over a different group!
But overall his initial behavior was a systemic problem in the military. What finally got me fed up was the constant having to prove myself to every new guy I had to work with. Men's reputations precede them. "Oh, that guy really knows his stuff!" People accepted what they said based on reputation alone.
In proficiency exams they gave every year I had tested at the top of my job in the Atlantic and then Pacific Fleets in sequential years, I even got a commendation for it. I was good enough at my job to get a full-time day staff position. None of it mattered. The moment some new guy would meet me, I'd have to perform like a trained dog before he'd believe I was capable.
After 6.5 years in the military, I'd had enough of that. I could not see proving myself over and over for another 13.5 years. I decided I didn't have to prove anything to anyone any more about whether I was capable just because I happened to be a woman, and I'd never do it again. People who thought that way just weren't worth the time and grief. I've only got one life, I'm going to spend it working with people who appreciate me, appreciate what I can do and want me there.
There were many other smaller stories from the military, all examples of the mistreatment of women, and I think I may do an odds and ends post at the end of this series because some of these littler stories are still worth sharing. But this was the big one. Next it was back to school! And wow, what a difference 9 years can make in the world.