Marine Commandant Wants Answers on Why Women, Minorities Decline to Seek Command

A Marine officer commissioning ceremony
Officer candidates from Class 220 recite the oath for commissioned officers during their commissioning ceremony Nov. 24, 2015, at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia. (Marine Corps photo by Ida Irby)

Women and people of color take themselves out of the running for Marine command screening boards "at a much higher rate" than white men, the service's top officer said this week, leaving the Corps with less diversity in its leaders.

The Marine Corps has work to do when it comes to building diversity in its top ranks, Commandant Gen. David Berger said Thursday. That means not only looking at what happens during promotion selection boards, but also how the service can build its pool of eligible officers who can lead battalions or squadrons, so commanders are more representative of their units.

"Women and minorities tend to remove, by request, from command boards," Berger said during a virtual Women in Defense Leadership Symposium. "... You're allowed the opportunity to write a letter and say, 'Please don't consider me,' because of family reasons or whatever. Women and minorities asked not to be considered at a much higher rate than their white male counterparts."

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Berger's comments follow a military-wide effort to rid the ranks of policies that leave some at a disadvantage. The Marine Corps recently ended its longstanding policy of requiring photos for promotion and selection boards, following a Defense Department-wide directive to do so.

Each branch has also been ordered to review grooming standards for racial bias and update any policies that could lead to pregnancy-related discrimination.

When it comes to Marine Corps promotion and selection boards, Berger said data shows women and minority officers are not facing a disadvantage. Selection rates for those groups, he said, are "roughly the same as the percentage of female and minority applicants being considered."

But that's not the whole story, he added, because the problem isn't that women and minorities aren't getting promoted or selected for command -- they're opting out of the process.

Female and minority officers tend to retire or resign their commissions at lower ranks than white men, Berger said. Many female Marines still feel the need to choose between their military careers and having a family. And a lot of minority officers are mustangs, meaning they're prior-enlisted Marines who already served several years, earning their commissions through what's known as MECEP, the Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Education Program.

"That means that they're going to be older than their counterparts at every grade," Berger said. "So, they retire as captains and majors, and they don't get to be lieutenant colonels and colonels."

But that's not the only problem affecting diversity in the ranks. The New York Times recently profiled Col. Anthony Henderson, a Black officer with several combat tours, leadership experience, and a letter of recommendation from the former Navy secretary who's been passed over three times for promotion to one-star.

As retired Gunnery Sgt. Milton Whitfield Sr., according to the Times, said, "Tony Henderson has done everything you could do in the Marines except get a hand salute from Jesus Christ himself." But the colonel still hasn't made brigadier general.

Berger acknowledged on Thursday that the Marine Corps has done "a really poor job" of explaining why it needs a more diverse force. Too often, he said, it's based on ambiguous studies that point to more diverse organizations producing better outcomes.

"It comes across as sounding sort of politically correct, which is never going to sink in deeply," he said.

Marines need to see the tactical benefits, he said. If a squad that looks and thinks alike is sent into the fray, they're going to walk right into a minefield before they even realize it.

"We're much more powerful when we have different people looking at the same issue from different perspectives," Berger said. "We're going to come up with better tactical solutions, but we have to be able to explain that. I also firmly believe that war is going to get only more complex, so we're going to need a diverse force to solve the problems that are in front of us."

Right now, the Marine Corps has a blind spot when it comes to minority and female officers who opt to leave the service.

"We didn't ask ... 'Why did you remove your name from contention? Why did you pull your name out of the hat?' to get at the root cause of the problem," Berger said. "I don't have the answers today, but I'm telling you now we are surveying everybody who gets out of the Corps to find out why they're leaving."

"We have to understand," the commandant added. "To really manage our talent, we have to understand why so many Marines -- with all that experience and all that competency -- why are they leaving the service?"

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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