Inside the Army’s Decision to Eliminate Photos from Officer Promotion Boards

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An officer is promoted to captain on Dec. 10, 2016. (Army photo by Sgt. Hector Rene Membreno-Canales)

The Army’s announcement that it would eliminate official photos from officer promotion boards came just days after Defense Secretary Mark Esper proposed the measure as a way of reducing unconscious bias in the career advancement process. But service officials said the proposal had actually been under consideration for a year and a half before a decision was announced.

The suspension of photos will begin in August, according to an Army memo published Wednesday. Officials have also said they will begin an evaluation in August of whether to remove photos from enlisted and warrant officer promotion boards.

The service began studying this issue about 18 months ago when it launched a study to better understand the role of the Department of the Army (DA) photo within its promotion system, said Col. Carl Wojtaszek, U.S. Army Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis during a briefing with reporters.

The study ran an experiment that involved two promotion boards -- one with official photos and one without them.

"From taking a careful look at the data we collected from that experiment, our study finds that when you remove the DA photo ... voters took less time to cast the votes on each individual file, and then the outcomes for minorities and women improved," Wojtaszek said.

The study showed that using official photos led to decisions from board members that appeared to reveal unconscious bias, Army officials say.

"It's just that people, even if they don't think about it, they tend to want to be around people that look and think and act like them," said Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville. "When you get to a higher level, you start to realize you want diversity because you want different perspectives. You want people from all walks of life, from different ethnicities, different races, different genders, different branches -- all to come together and give you a picture of things that you may not see, and that is where we are going with this whole Project Inclusion."

Many advocating for an end to promotion photos have also called on the Army to remove other indicators of race and gender, such as visible names and a box on forms where soldiers must state their race.

Army leaders admitted that a race box still exists on forms for enlisted career advancement programs, such as the Selective Retention Bonus program. The race box is redacted for officers and warrant officers, officials said.

Leaders said they are open to looking at the issue, but Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston pointed out that the study keyed in on the official photo, not "words on a page" because it was suspected of being a visual discriminator.

"So, when I look at the records ... the unconscious bias is the picture, not necessarily the words," Grinston said.

Project Inclusion, the Army’s initiative to promote greater racial diversity, will also create new training aimed at elevating awareness of unconscious bias in the ranks, beginning in entry-level training all the way up senior leader training.

"I have always been an aggressive proponent of diversity," McConville said. "But it's really more [about] inclusion. ... It's not just about percentages, it's not about numbers. It's really about making people feel that they are a valued member of the team and you recognize the importance of having different perspectives."

"A lot has to be done to address the symbolic challenges that we face that could create divisiveness in our ranks ... to ensure that every man and woman has the opportunity to reach their maximum potential," Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told defense reporters as he unveiled Project Inclusion.

As part of the program, McCarthy has directed the Army Inspector General's office to conduct an examination of possible racial disparity within the service's Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) proceedings and report back within 60 days with initial findings.

The Army will "continue to look at whether or not there are UCMJ disparities, find those root causes and address them accordingly," McCarthy said.

Army leaders will also visit bases worldwide to talk to soldiers and civilians about topics such as race, diversity, equity and inclusion.

"We know we have to do more as a leadership team," McCarthy said. "We are all going to be traveling to our installations to meet with groups of soldiers in small venues and have very hard and uncomfortable conversations."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

Related: It's Official: The Army Is Getting Rid of Officer Promotion Photos to Help Eliminate Bias

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