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DIVERSITY: AT WHAT COST?

Originally published on December 07, 2016 on The Pendulum.

UPDATE: I wrote this article in 2015, when I was 25 years old. There is still much here that I believe very deeply to be valid and simply put: I 100% don’t believe diversity should be the main priority in our military. But, eight years later in 2023, I’ve also come to a point where I’ve reexamined my perspective on a lot of things. And I do think it’s worth mentioning that my understanding of some of these problems has evolved to become much more nuanced… As most things do with time, experience, and challenging conversations.

I’ve written extensively about systemic dysfunction, organizational corruption, and institutional incompetence in the military. In contrast, in this article, I made the argument that the idea of systemic discrimination is invalid and in order for discrimination to exist in an organization, it must manifest itself in overtly discriminatory policies or discriminatory people. I’ve come to realize that openly discriminatory policies and people simply aren’t the only manifestations of discrimination. Similarly, there are many Army policies that aren’t overtly dysfunctional or corrupt, but inherently promote systemic dysfunction and corruption. The two arguments I made were logically inconsistent, and I see that now.

Let me give you an example: in other writings, I’ve made the argument that there are certain talent management policies in our military that foster transactional leadership and inherently encourage negligence or carelessness. Obviously, these policies don’t openly endorse incompetence or negligence, but the fact is, upon examination, there are some pretty concerning correlations between some policies and the resulting behavior of the organization and individuals. No, correlation does not equal causation, but it’s certainly worth examining and understanding. In the end, the truth is what matters. Thanks for reading, the original article begins below.

INTRODUCTION

Diversity, equality, and inclusion have once again fought their way to the forefront of issues in the U.S. Army as societal change has paved the way for subsequent policy change. Research and countless studies have acknowledged that there is value in organizational diversity — it can become a competitive advantage by increasing creativity, innovation, organizational flexibility, and problem-solving capabilities.[1] It’s simple: People with different backgrounds offer different ways of looking at problems, leadership, and the world. The Army has made several policy adjustments in an effort to promote diversity and inclusiveness. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed in 2010, and homosexual Soldiers can now openly serve. The Combat Exclusion Rule was lifted, and females can now serve in all Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs). And in the past year, the Army granted long-term religious accommodations to Sikh Soldiers to allow for turbans and beards.

While the U.S. Army has taken an active role in promoting diversity, equality, and inclusion, some of the policies we’ve implemented or may implement run counter to the alleged goals of these policies and are potentially detrimental to merit-based talent management. I’ll provide a snapshot of the current state of diversity, equality, and inclusion policies and initiatives in the Army. Then, I’ll unpack the rationale behind these policies and movements. Ultimately, why are we doing what we are doing, and does it make sense? Finally, I’ll conclude with recommendations.

CURRENT CONDITIONS AND POLICIES

The most obvious manifestation of the Army’s diversity efforts is the Equal Opportunity (EO) Program. Army EO provides education for the force and a channel for Soldiers to report discrimination. The Army’s website states the goal of the EO Program is “to cultivate and sustain an environment free of unlawful discrimination and offensive behavior.” [2] Discrimination and offensive behavior very clearly exhibit themselves in either discriminatory policies or discriminatory people. Therefore, we should direct our efforts toward modifying or removing policies and people, rather than nebulous issues such as alleged inherent systemic discrimination. Identify a sexist person and we can remove him or her. Identify a racist policy, and we can change it. What would happen if I asked you to describe institutional discrimination against female service members? What does that look like? Where is the evidence of such systemic discrimination? There is plenty of evidence for discriminatory policies and people, which — as a whole — results in large-scale discrimination, sure. But we can rationally confront this through recognizing the problem: policies and people.

The discriminatory application of fitness standards is to the detriment of building the most talented and combat effective team. Women fire the same weapons. Women wear the same gear. And women are expected to carry the same weight in a combat or training environment. As an organization, we preach equality of opportunity and gender-neutrality. Then how can we advocate inequitable policy that influences arguably one of the most important standards to the safety, welfare, and combat effectiveness of military units? How can we passively accept such sizeable gaps in the requirements for the physical performance of males and females? On a female private’s first day at Army Basic Training, we have essentially informed her that she is expected to perform at a standard much lower than that of her male peers. We have told her that at no point during her time in the Army is she expected to perform at the same level of fitness as her male peers. And so it should not surprise us when females consistently perform lower than males. In a profession — that at its core — is the application of physical force and violence, fitness is perpetually recognized as absolutely essential. Female servicemembers who are capable of meeting the minimum male standards are the exception, not the norm. Is this a risk that our military should be willing to assume?

Discriminatory people will always exist, and Army EO has established systems to identify people who display discriminatory behavior in order to punish or remove them from the organization. I think we can all agree that those who discriminate based upon race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation don’t have a place in our Army. If our goal is to assign the right person to the right job at the right time, then discrimination based on any of these demographics is detrimental to meritocracy and talent management.

In addition to addressing discriminatory policies and people, the Army EO Program also identifies and compares trends in the statistical demographic profiles of major Army commands, the entire Army, and the United States population. Disparities are identified and examined. For instance — why is the percentage of Asian Pacific Islanders in the United States x%, but only y% of Asian Pacific Islanders are represented in the Army? Army publications vaguely define success. Guidance straight from the top — The Department of Defense Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity — says, “We are working to build our military into a force that is representative of the nation it serves and protects.”[7] This activity led by the Army EO team doesn’t combat discriminatory people or policies, but more so focuses on the perception of discrimination based on statistical disparities. This rationale can potentially pave the way for quotas for particular demographics. Just this October, the U.S. Air Force announced it will mandate diversity quotas with the aim of increasing opportunities for women and minorities.[8]

Aside from EO, the second method I’ve seen used to promote diversity is the creation of sub-groups and diversity recognition campaigns. In 2013 at Fort Bragg, the 16th Military Police Brigade established the Women in Uniform female mentorship program in order to “help better develop female Soldiers in the unit and support strong women leaders.” The 369th Adjutant General Battalion initiated a parallel effort in 2014 and Fort Jackson currently hosts a similar program. The ROCKS, Inc. is a mentorship program for active and former African-American officers. In a 2012 speaking engagement with The ROCKS, Inc. and an audience of mostly African-American Soldiers, former Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno said, “It doesn’t matter what race you are, an officer is an officer is an officer, and what we need to know is why we’re not meeting what we believe are proper numbers for our diverse Army.”[9] What did General Odierno mean by the “proper numbers?” This Veteran’s Day, Lean In Women Veterans and Think Broader championed an “I serve/served” awareness campaign to “promote the diversity and celebrate the accomplishments of women who serve or have served.”[10]Do these sub-groups and campaigns encourage divisiveness instead of inclusiveness? Do these groups and movements alienate others in the organization by highlighting differences?

ANALYSIS

Fundamentally, it seems some of these policies and initiatives are based on assumptions that ignore basic principles of rationality and ultimately undermine diversity and inclusiveness efforts.

Areas of the EO Program that address education and grievances are valuable. Educating Soldiers and providing a mechanism to report discriminatory policies and people are important. Where I would offer criticism for the EO Program is its lack of transparency and vague allusions to “diversity goals.” Furthermore — whether organizationally sanctioned or not — sub-groups and diversity campaigns undermine unity and inclusiveness.

EO initiatives that promote diversity goals, statistical demographic profiles, or quotas are logically flawed. Their existence is justified by assuming that systemic discrimination inherently exists and a goal or quota will bring equality to the system. There is no evidence to support this. I offer two basic facts: A statistical disparity does not equal discrimination and correlation does not equal causation. The fact that female officers only make up 4% of the top Army ranks does not necessarily indicate systemic discrimination exists.[11] Countless variables could contribute to this statistical disparity. Again, there are either discriminatory policies or discriminatory people. If either of those two phenomena are potentially the cause of a statistical disparity, reporting channels exist to investigate those allegations. So is the goal equal opportunity, or is it equal results? A lack of transparency can make motives seem disingenuous and cause cynicism. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said “What matters most is what someone can contribute.” If that’s the case, why has the Air Force established female and minority quotas for certain positions? Will the Army follow suit?

Though not mutually exclusive, there is the potential for friction between diversity and meritocracy. Who decides which of these is more important for the organization? What’s the priority? Rationally, fighting our Nation’s wars is serious enough for merit and ability to trump diversity. However, as U.S. military organizations begin to promote diversity goals and implement quotas, the lack of transparency grows and distrust intensifies.

Demographic profile goals, quotas, minority sub-groups, and diversity campaigns are counterproductive to the genuine organizational integration of minorities because — while well-intentioned — they defy logic in many ways:

  • Quotas and goals are essentially a patronization of minorities. As a racial minority female, quotas stipulate that since I am incapable of earning a particular position based on my own merit or ability, I need the organization to improve my potential for success based on my gender and race.
  • Quotas and goals perpetuate stereotypes: “The only reason he got that job is because he is Hispanic.”
  • Quotas and goals create a perception of “equal results” as the goal instead of “equal opportunity.”
  • Quotas and goals fundamentally contradict the principle of gender, sexual orientation, color, and religious “blindness” in talent management. Instead, they do just the opposite.
  • Minority sub-groups and campaigns create divisiveness by seeking celebratory attention for minority groups for nothing more than their existence in the organization.
  • Minority sub-groups and campaigns undermine inclusiveness by highlighting differences that make minorities special, while simultaneously advocating for minority-blindness.

RECOMMENDATIONS

How can we best address equality of opportunity and inclusiveness in our organization? First, we should minimize officially-sanctioned minority sub-groups and campaigns. These initiatives quite literally highlight the differences between us, instead of working toward forging a unified, difference-blind team. On a micro-level, if you were to take a squad of Soldiers and single out a homosexual Soldier or a female Soldier for recognition and celebration within the squad for doing nothing more than merely existing as a minority, it would very quickly cause resentment and cynicism. In the same manner, when organizations and groups do this on a macro-level, byproducts include resentment and divisiveness. No one should be discriminated against because of gender, religion, race, or sexual orientation. Similarly, no one is any more special than another based on their gender, religion, race, or sexual orientation. It goes both ways! The act of dividing our organization into exclusive minority groups and special campaigns contradicts the ideas of inclusiveness and integration.

To promote equality of opportunity, we should remove names, genders, religions, races, and photos from ERBs and ORBs for selection boards for promotion and nominative assignments. Candidates won’t earn the opportunity to interview if they don’t advance beyond initial minority-blind screening. If we want equality of opportunity, “minority blindness,” and the removal of alleged institutional discrimination, this is a potential method.

We need more transparency. The Army hasn’t explicitly stated that it won’t compromise standards in the name of diversity. Army leaders and publications have only used vague language. The Army’s Diversity Roadmap says one goal is to, “Develop and implement a strategy that contributes to mission readiness while transforming and sustaining the Army as a national leader in diversity.” A statement like this is largely meaningless. The Army certainly doesn’t owe an explanation to its Soldiers. However, if the aim is to change culture, then clearly explaining what we are doing and why we are doing it is crucial.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, the organization absolutely cannot compromise standards. The expectations of our Army are far too serious for us to allow less-qualified individuals to permeate our organization in the name of diversity. Diversity is certainly beneficial — but not beneficial enough to justify deviating from established standards. What can my fellow minorities do to promote inclusiveness and diversity appreciation in the Army? First, do your job, and do it well. Second, use appropriate channels to report discriminatory people and policies — they have no place in our Army. Third, as leaders, always be fair and impartial, and take a hard look at yourself to identify potentially discriminatory biases you hold.

REFERENCES

[1]. Nicola M. Pless and Thomas Maak, “Building an Inclusive Diversity Culture: Principles, Processes and Practices,” Journal of Business Ethics 54: 2004, accessed November 7, 2016, and Jacqueline A Gilbert, Bette Ann Stead, and John M Ivancevich, “Diversity management: A New Organizational Paradigm,” Journal of Business Ethics: 1999, accessed November 8, 2016.

[2]. “Army Equal Opportunity Program,” last modified March 21, 2014.

[3]. “Executive Order 9981: Desegregation of the Armed Forces,” accessed November 13, 2016.

[4]. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010,” accessed November 8, 2016.

[5]. Bill Chappell, “Pentagon Says Women Can Now Serve In Front-Line Ground Combat Positions,” NPR, December 23, 2015.

[6]. “Army Directive 2016–35, Army Policy on Military Service of Transgender Soldiers,” accessed November 8, 2016.

[7]. “DoD Diversity and Inclusion 2013 Summary Report,” accessed November 11, 2016.

[8]. “Fact Sheet: 2016 Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives,” accessed November 9, 2016.

[9]. J.P. Leipold, “Chief Asks for Mentorship Help from ROCKS,” April 3, 2012.

[10]Women Veteran’s “I SERVE” / “I SERVED” Campaign, October 13, 2016.

[11]. Daniel Sagalyn, “Report: U.S. Military Leadership Lacks Diversity At the Top,” accessed November 11, 2016.

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