Thursday, October 15, 2009

Life/Work balance hits shoal water

For Diversity Thursday, I thought this guest post needed a unique title. Some of you know who this is, but let's give her an extra layer of smoke and keep her "Nom du Blog" out of this unless she wants to bring it up in comments.

I invited the author, a Naval officer and long time reader of unquestionable credentials, to tell her story and let me post it here. Thanks to her for letting me.

This story is one I know many of us have heard, listened, or seen a variation of. This story though, is an example about what happens when a person stands up for the truth and states their honest opinion.

Clone this officer.

If Senior Leadership wants to know why there is such silence at "Admiral's Call" - or that they get stale questions and comments from the peanut gallery - or that many Navy bloggers feel the need to hide their actual identity, this may help explain why.

The post in black is hers.

It was during my first tour on active duty, while I was still a very junior junior officer, and hadn’t quite realized that when an O-8 asks for your honest opinion, what they really mean is “I might want your opinion, I might not, but if you are honest with me, as pleased as I may appear with your candidness, you’ve just pissed on the shoes of someone junior to me, but senior to you, who will indeed make you pay for your honesty.” I learned this lesson the hard way.

A number of female officers were rounded up for a series of focus groups with our Admiral. The focus of the focus group was to address, what else, diversity issues in the community as they relate to gender. How can we make our community more “female friendly.”

Of course the first topic on the agenda was telecommuting. Because what we need to retain qualified and competent women is not a ground level addressing of the lingering bastions of institutionalized sexism, not an acknowledgment that some of our officers are indeed still Neanderthals when it comes to their views of women, as the fleet reflects society, and society is still pretty darn sexist, no this daily hostility to the fact that you exist couldn’t possibly be one of the factors why many of our talented females seek higher pay elsewhere after growing tired of abusive work environments. No. Really, the only reason we lose women is because they’d rather stay home with their children than go to the office. You see how the suggested solution really proves the true root of the problem. This may come as a surprise, but not all women want to be stay home mothers. Kudos to those who do, and who feel that is the best choice for their family. But it’s not the choice for everyone. Certainly not the choice for me.

So as it came my turn as the token “young single JO” at the table (it was quite clear what demographic I was chosen to represent) I raised the following points: (1) This is the military. And we are officers. We don’t give our enlisted women, with lower pay, and frequently less stable extended families, the luxury of working from home, so we should lead by example. (2) Someone has to man the fort, so while some telecommute, who will be working the harder, longer hours to pick up the slack? Oh, right…me. The one who has already been doing all the travel, all the inconvenient TAD, all the holiday duty, and generally all the unpleasant heavy lifting because I’m the one “without a family”. And this is with fellow officers who work a full day in the office. Allowing them to just stay home? I can see where this will go. No. I don’t like telecommunitng.

At this point I should have noticed I was going against the “life work balance” agenda and shut up. But on we moved to the next topic: The career sabbatical.

This is a brilliant idea in which officers will be able to just “take a break” from the Navy for up to three years and then have their lineal number retroactively adjusted so they won’t have to compete against people with three years more work performance. Of course, you will have to apply for this option, and spots are extremely limited (so you can already see the potential for those with special snowflake syndrome managing to garner even more preferential treatment while everyone else has to suck it up and make do…no, that won’t be a morale issue down the road at all), and there is no set reason for the sabbatical. However, we all know the unspoken reason…again, it’s so that women can have babies without penalty. I somehow doubt if I submitted a sabbatical package to backpack through Europe I would be approved. So again, I raised my concerns. First, the potential for this to become overly political, and second, the flat out unfairness of a system that allows some people to just “take a break” and then compete on equal footing with those who have continued to roll the stone uphill without interruption. Not to mention the fact that this program will likely just do more to entrench the negative and undeniably present views that the women in the fleet get coddled. I for one, would not take this option, even if it were offered to me on a silver platter, because I wouldn’t want to spoon feed people who want to dismiss me based on gender alone a superb argument that I am in fact a weaker officer. It will serve only to advance the careers of a select few, while systemically furthering the perception that women are not as strong as men to the detriment of many. So no, I don’t like the sabbatical either.

Finally, the topic came up about IA/GSA assignments to Iraq and Afghanistan. And several raised concerns that the precept language was unfair. That not everyone could leave behind their children to deploy, and it wasn’t fair that they be penalized at promotion time. My question was “why not?” We ask our enlisted sailors to deploy, to go to sea, to live as geo bachelors all the time. Male and female, married, and single parent, we expect our junior sailors to tough it up and make do. We need to lead by example. And those who shoulder the burden of more arduous assignments, especially while our country is fighting two wars, should indeed be rewarded. My only question about the deployment issue was “when do I get to go?”

So that was the meeting. Not a focus on how to address the root cause of the problem, that America is not nearly as advanced in gender relations as it claims to be (for proof of this, look at the disgraceful way the media portrayed Sara Palin and Hillary Clinton during the presidential elections, and the way Ms. Clinton, whether I approve of her politics or not, has been marginalized in what should be one of our most important offices) but instead, we focus on artificially creating different tracks for underperforming women in order to justify promoting them based on number rather than competence. And this is an insult to the many, many competent and strong women we have in the Navy, many of whom I’ve had the honor of considering mentors. Ask any female E-9 if she’d like to telecommute, or “take some time off of her career” and let me know how she responds. The problem I saw in these programs is that the women we want to retain, would never, ever take advantage of them. They will bend over backwards to reach their own work life balance without complaint or intervention from big Navy because they want to be seen as capable. Those that need the time off, or the extra time to organize….I have to ask “why can she do it, but you can’t? Is it gender, or is it you?” And yes, it is hard, and yes, you have to make a choice. Be a career woman, or a homemaker, or somewhere in between, but whichever you chose comes at a price. You cannot have it all…but guess what? Neither can the men. How much time does a 4 star truly spend with his family? How many men have been passed over because they homesteaded to let their kids finish high school rather than taking the career-maker billet? It’s a choice we all have to make. And all I ask is that *I* make that choice for myself. Not because society has told me it’s the choice I ought to make. And all these programs, these life-work initiatives, are predicated on the idea that the woman should be choosing family and so we need to make it easier for the woman to choose family over career without penalty. It’s reinforcing the root problem. And that’s why I hate it. But I digress.

Now, I wasn’t the only person at these meeting voicing dissent. Actually several women spoke out. But I was the most junior. And somehow my opinions made it to my department head, who is very much a proponent of life-work initiatives. Who has never gone to sea. Who will never deploy. But who insists from her ivory tower of liberal feminism that she needs to be treated as an equal for less than equal career performance. She was not pleased with me, and I received a verbal counseling on my “attitude” and my “teamwork”. I was confused. I thought I remained respectful and polite in voicing my opinion, afterall, wasn’t that the point of the focus group? Didn’t the Admiral *want* to know what women thought? And teamwork? What team did I betray? And that’s when I realized my error. In the diversity industry, I am the wrong kind of woman. I want to deploy, I want to support the war, I want to serve in [REDACTED], and I want to pull my weight. I am the biggest threat to the agenda, because I am proof that even with the undeniable sexist attitudes that linger in this country, and the fleet, I can succeed without their help. I am the wrong kind of woman for their agenda.

So I took my counseling, [REDACTED] and, upon the advice of a truly great Naval Officer, I got over the sting and realized that the only person who could ever define my worth as an officer was me. So it was a learning experience, but not the end of the world.

Now I know better than to offer my opinion, as a woman, if it doesn’t align with the preconceived notions of what women need from the Navy. And if a woman can’t speak her mind about when programs to promote women have possibly gone too far without being blacklisted, I shudder to think how a man with my opinion would be treated.

Again, it’s not sexism to simply want our female officers to perform equally, as they have demonstrated time and time again they can. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

That may not be a Conversation with the Country - but it is the word from Phib's front porch.

'Nuff said.

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