Capt. Audrey Atwell is an active-duty Army Engineer Officer and a master’s degree student in the Eisenhower Leadership Development Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Capt. Kyle Atwell is an active-duty Army Officer and a Ph.D. student in Public Affairs at Princeton University. Capt. Nadege Benoit is an active-duty Army Adjutant General Officer and a master’s degree student in the Eisenhower Leadership Development Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Capt. Julia Means is an active-duty Army Military Police Officer and a master’s degree student in the Eisenhower Leadership Development Program at Teachers College, Columbia University.
The Army just announced its next generation of battalion commanders, and the number of women selected is concerning. A snapshot of Operations Division branches (formally known as combat arms) highlights the disparity: 1/31 Engineer, 3/42 Aviation, 2/15 Military Police, 2/5 Chemical, and 0/11 Air Defense Artillery. Altogether, women represent 8% of the selected population in these five branches, a drop from 15% two years ago.
Battalion command is a pivotal milestone in an Army officer’s career, and an important step on the path to becoming a general officer. Why were so few women selected this year? Is this year an exception, or part of a broader trend? Most importantly, what signal do these numbers send about the chances of career advancement to junior female officers?
The Army has made a lot of positive changes to its talent management systems over the past two decades. It is an exciting time to serve in the organization we love. In 2003, Heidi Brown became the first woman to command a brigade into combat. In 2013, the military lifted a ban previously preventing females from serving in combat roles, although women had already been serving in combat for years in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2015, women were allowed to attend Ranger School for the first time, a key discriminator in operations branches. Perhaps most significantly, in 2016 women began to integrate into combat arms units such as the Infantry and Combat Engineers where they were previously not allowed to serve.
While there are several plausible explanations for the data we’re seeing, which we will discuss in detail below, all point to a need for the Army to communicate why so few women were selected this year. The Army has clearly decided to provide equal opportunities for women to serve, and many have pursued those opportunities. Nonetheless, the low number of women selected for battalion command may lead to the perception that a woman’s prospects for career advancement into senior leadership remain uneven. If unaddressed, some promising young officers may choose to get out early.
We have a personal stake in learning why so few women were selected. Three of us are female Army officers (Audrey, Julia, and Nadege) who will be eligible to compete for Battalion Command in the next five years. Two of us (Audrey and Kyle) are married and raising a teenage daughter whose goal is to attend the United States Military Academy and become an Army officer. We believe women from across the Army will initially view these numbers with concern and will want an explanation.
In fact, there are multiple potential explanations for why so few women were selected; some of which would indicate the system is biased against them, while others would suggest a more promising outlook for those who choose to stay in. The variance in these explanations and their implications for women currently serving make it a critical talent management initiative to not only understand why so few women were selected this year, but also to communicate that reason to junior officers.
One explanation may be that many women get out long before being considered for battalion command, which does not occur until about the 15th year of service. Women may be more inclined to get out early for family reasons. Also, it is not hard to imagine some ambitious women, seeing few successful females ahead of them, choose to pursue promising opportunities outside of the military. If this is the case, it could feed a pernicious cycle where women get out because they see few women above them selected for command – meaning fewer competitive women are available for future looks at those same positions.
A second potential explanation is that talented women stayed in, but did not have the same qualifications as their male counterparts. The cohort of women who competed this year would not have been able to attend Ranger School or command the combat units that are often reserved for the most promising young leaders; they were junior officers before these opportunities were open to women. In this scenario, the women who competed did not have the same opportunities as their male counterparts, even when they were as talented.
If this is the case there is a silver lining: over the next five to ten years, we should see women competing for battalion command who had equal opportunities to build their credentials thanks to the recent policy changes discussed above. Promising junior female officers should keep optimistic that their prospects have improved, but it may take years for that to translate to a strong cohort of senior female leaders rising. But how can the Army ensure its junior officers know this is the case? What can the Army do to prevent the cycle of female talent drain that is likely if women lose faith that they have an equal shot at success? It may take a deliberate communication effort to convince a promising young woman that, even though she sees few examples of success before her, things might change in her time.
A third explanation may lie in the battalion commander selection process itself. This year, the Army completely revamped its promotion process through the new Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP). This was the first cohort that underwent the new selection process. We are optimistic about the BCAP, which provides a more holistic consideration of who is chosen to command battalions compared to the previous system. However, there is a possibility that the novel BCAP itself explains the low female numbers and the decline in females from previous years if it either directly or inadvertently discriminates against women.
There are multiple steps in the BCAP where bias may have influenced a candidate’s ranking. Where in previous years battalion commanders were selected through a review of their digital file, the BCAP adds to this an additional four days of in-person assessments at Fort Benning, Georgia. Over these four days, candidates go through a series of physical and non-physical assessments, subordinate and peer feedback is reviewed, and they attend a blind panel interview. The assessments are scored and an order-of-merit list by branch is produced. How were biases controlled for at each of these gates? Our initial research suggests the BCAP deliberately sought to mitigate gender (and other) biases throughout the process; the pertinent question is whether these efforts were successful.
We do not have enough data to determine why so few women were selected this year for the critical career milestone of battalion command. Our initial impression is that the first two explanations are likely correct: this year’s cohort of females were junior officers before equal opportunity for career advancement existed. This may have resulted in fewer females choosing to stay in over the past 15 years, and those who stayed in having fewer opportunities to become competitive for command. However, we cannot discount that there may have been bias in the selection process as well.
We believe further research will be beneficial for Army talent management. Each possible explanation implies its own policy solutions to ensure the Army retains the broadest pool of talent to compete for command and senior leadership positions. We also suspect that without a deliberate communications effort from the Army, some talented junior female officers who see the low number of female Battalion Commanders selected this year might lose faith that they will have an equal opportunity to command, and may choose to get out early.
The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect the position of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.
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