Military Leadership Too White and Male?

The top ranks of the military are whiter and decidedly more male than the country as a whole. Should that change?

US President Barack Obama, with US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen (C), speaks alongside the Joint Chiefs of Staff and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (R) after meetings at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, January 28, 2009. AFP PHOTO /  SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The top ranks of the military are whiter and decidedly more male than the country as a whole. Should that change?

Pauline Jelinek for AP (“Report says too many whites, men leading military“):

The U.S. military is too white and too male at the top and needs to change recruiting and promotion policies and lift its ban on women in combat, an independent report for Congress said Monday.

Seventy-seven percent of senior officers in the active-duty military are white, while only 8 percent are black, 5 percent are Hispanic and 16 percent are women, the report by an independent panel said, quoting data from September 2008.

One barrier that keeps women from the highest ranks is their inability to serve in combat units. Promotion and job opportunities have favored those with battlefield leadership credentials.

The report ordered by Congress in 2009 calls for greater diversity in the military’s leadership so it will better reflect the racial, ethnic and gender mix in the armed forces and in American society.

Efforts over the years to develop a more equal opportunity military have increased the number of women and racial and ethnic minorities in the ranks of leadership. But, the report said, “despite undeniable successes … the armed forces have not yet succeeded in developing a continuing stream of leaders who are as diverse as the nation they serve.”

But the military doesn’t exist as a job corps; it’s there to fight our nation’s wars and to deter conflict by sheer readiness. Nor is the racial disparity particularly high. Indeed, the top ranks of the armed forces are much more racially and ethnically diverse than those of the Fortune 500. A college degree is an entry level requirement for commissioning (with rare exceptions) and whites are much more likely to have crossed that hurdle, for a variety of factors.

Gender equality, on the other hand, is sorely lacking. But, traditionally, we’ve excluded women from the most dangerous–some would say the most military–career fields.

Among recommendations is that the military eliminate policies that exclude women from combat units, phasing in additional career fields and units that they can be assigned to as long as they are qualified. A 1994 combat exclusion policy bans women from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level even though women have for years served in combat situations.

“If you look at today’s battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s not like it was in the Cold War, when we had a defined battlefield,” retired Air Force Gen. Lester L. Lyles, the commission’s chairman, said in an interview. “Women serve — and they lead — military security, military police units, air defense units, intelligence units, all of which have to be right there with combat veterans in order to do the job appropriately.”

Because they are technically attached to, but not assigned to, combat units, they don’t get credit for being in combat arms, something important for promotion to the most senior ranks.

If that’s an accurate description of the report–which I have not yet read–it’s a pretty silly argument. The point isn’t “credit” for being in combat arms but the relevant experience. Senior leaders coordinate the combined arms team and those in the combat support and, especially, combat service support specialties simply don’t do that. It would be strange, indeed, to have an airborne division commanded by an officer who came up the ranks in the Finance Corps.

Stretching the definition of diversity, the report also said the military must harness people with a greater range of skills and backgrounds in, for instance, cyber systems, languages and cultural knowledge to be able to operate in an era of new threats and to collaborate with international partners and others.

Again, I haven’t read the report. But this is not only right it has rather broad implications. The military currently has a one-size-fits-all policy for recruiting, initial entry training, physical fitness and appearance, and so forth. Those standards are based on the need for a fit fighting force. But we’re currently excluding the vast majority of high school and college graduates from military service with these standards. To recruit and retain a large number of people with technical and language skills might very well require relaxing those standards.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. jwest says:

    Sheila Jackson Lee appears to have the requisite leadership qualities for a top military position.

  2. george says:

    Seventy-seven percent of senior officers in the active-duty military are white, while only 8 percent are black, 5 percent are Hispanic and 16 percent are women, the report by an independent panel said, quoting data from September 2008.

    Women are clearly underrepresented by population, but blacks seem to be pretty close and probably closing in on their representative number given that the makeup of senior officers lags social developments(according to wikipedia they’re 13% of the population). Hispanics are pretty far off (they’re 16% of the population).

    But that’s irrelevant, in the same way its irrelevant that blacks are overrepresented by population in the NFL and NBA – the military isn’t about reaching social norms, its about performing a function.

  3. JKB says:

    Here’s an idea, when they are selecting the Joint Chiefs or CINCs they should expand the search to include Harvard faculty and Berkley as well. Otherwise, they are discriminating against those who don’t like the military.

  4. steve says:

    I think a broader point to which you allude, is the rigidity of the promotion system. When guys like McMaster almost dont get promoted, you have a problem. We need people with expertise in areas like training, but we need to find a way to not exclude them from promotions. Exum and his old colleague (Kip?) used to write about this. Taking the job of training troops in Afghanistan or Iraq, an essential job, derailed people from the promotion track.

    I think that you are also correct about needing to find a way to get more people with technical and language skills into the service, and keep them. Maybe they could take some clues from private industry and look at how they manage information specialists.


  5. James, I have a question for you: where do you stand on women being in combat positions? Do you think they can “hack it”, so to speak?

    Personally, I don’t. For every woman I served with that was worth a darn, there were five who weren’t.

  6. Because a hammer should also serve as a nail file in the interest of social engineering.

  7. Neo says:

    I blame all of this on Columbia and Harvard for not delivering that diversity in their ROTC programs

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Christopher Bowen

    I had strong, strong reservations about it all but women have integrated superbly well into formerly male-dominated roles, including fighter pilots aboard aircraft carriers. I don’t think they’ll ever make it in the infantry but most everything else is wide open at this point.

  9. @James Joyner

    What about social issues? I’m a former Navy guy (enlisted), and it was a consistent problem. Not only could most of them not do even those jobs well (damage control? Forget it. Put her on the phones and tell her to stay out of the way), not to mention the fact that they were constantly NJPing people for having sex.

    I’m pretty much against it at this point. Granted, it’s different for us plebeians than it is for you officers. 😉

  10. DC Loser says:

    While the very top of the military is dominated by white males, the part of the leadership most military members see on a daily basis is very diverse, with many minorities and women in leadership positions in command levels from company through brigade and maybe even at the division level (and similiar sized units in other services). That, I think, has been the single most significant achievement in the military in the last 30 years from my personal observation.

  11. Naval Aviator says:

    Interesting points all around. Just one comment- yes, women are flying fighters off the boat with us. And they do as good or bad as everyone else, because carrier aviation doesn’t discriminate. It hates and punishes anyone who can’t hack it.

    But the dynamics of the squadron ready room just feel…different… when a female is in the wardroom. It does interfere with certain aspects of male bonding in a close knit combat unit. Its not a conscious decision on the part of males (for me at least, can’t speak for everyone), but gender difference is always the 1000 lb gorilla in the room, especially affecting the ability to have frank and candid conversations about ANY subject remotely connected to sex or gender.

    Last point regarding promotion opportunities, and I’ll quote an old center for military readiness paper: “In combat training or in war, it is a mistake to focus on individual rights alone, for the basic military reason that each person’s desires, interests or career aspirations are totally subordinated to the accomplishment of the military mission.”

  12. Wayne says:

    One basic question needs to be answer first. Do we want a military that is the best it can be in its ability to defend this country or do we want a military that is a test bed for social experimentation and to force so called “social justice”?

    Granted many will try to act like they want diversity in order to have a “better” military. However they either mean “better” as in better social justice or make weak arguments in how it makes the military a better combat organization.

  13. sam says:

    @Naval Aviator

    “But the dynamics of the squadron ready room just feel…different… when a female is in the wardroom. It does interfere with certain aspects of male bonding in a close knit combat unit.”

    Does this impact your combat efficiency? Does it prevent you from performing your mission to the best of your ability? It appears you’re saying that the women pilots are not part of the close knit combat unit. Is that the feeling among the male pilots, that the women are not really part of the unit?

  14. Wayne says:

    I will let Naval Aviator talk for himself but I have experience in dealing with them in an infantry environment. Yes they do interfere with not only my ability to do my best but the many in the unit and the unit as a whole. As a leader I wanted to deal with as few variables and issues as possible when in the field. In staff or in garrison situations you have a good deal of flexibility but not in the field. A woman in the mix changes a great deal.

    For example, once we had female that was part of a group of support personnel that were playing indigenous forces for us. Support personnel are usually a bit limited in the infantry skills. That is not their job so that is expected. Anyway the female did as well of a job as the average person that we usually get. Nice enough person and fairly intelligent. However she disrupted the hell out of the company size element. She knew it and tried to minimize it but to no avail. I would be out checking on things and ask someone where so or so leader was. The answer was “take a guess” which meant that she was once again pulling radio watch and once again leaders made excuse to be around her. There are many more examples of situations and extra dynamics that I had to deal with because of her. It interfered with my ability to do my job. This was by no means the only time that I had to deal with females in a similar environment just one of the simplest. I am not a fan with the results.

    Some may say the leaders should have been reprimanded or such and such. One, some of the leaders outrank me and many others situation were not that simple. The more important fact is people shouldn’t have to deal with those situations in the field unless they absolutely have to. I don’t mind if that stuff happens at HQ as much but people shouldn’t have to deal with it in the field.

  15. newrouter says:

    what part of Darwinian evolution don’t you clowns acknowledge as to the female’s purpose in procreation?

  16. Richard Gardner says:

    I think this commission started with the assumption of racism/sexism and found what they were looking for, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s look back 20-30 years when the now senior officers were junior officers. The military then had large equal opportunity programs for minority officer candidates. However:

    – A large portion of the minority junior officers were prior enlisted, with 4-10 years already served. They reached 20 to 30 years in the military and retired before they got to O-6 and above.
    – Some came via the various academy prep schools (not good enough to get into the academies, so an extra year of, well, high school, to teach them what their high schools should have taught them). I’d be interested in seeing figures on how well the prep schools have fared. The folks were motivated, so they may well have done better than average. I do not know if this is a factor or not.
    – Government contractors and some corporations (P&G comes to mind) had very active recruitment programs to hire minority junior officers in the 1980s and 1990s to meet equal opportunity quotas. Why hire someone to just fill a quota when you know if you hire a military veteran you are probably also getting a good employee? So many of the best minority JOs went off to corporate jobs (and so the best never made it to field grade, much less senior officer).
    – Few early leadership position for female officers in the “line.” Someone that was a female junior officer 20-30 years ago spent the first 10+ years of her career in staff positions. She probably did not gain leadership experience as a junior officer and so was at a disadvantage to succeed from stuff that happened decades ago – not relevant to current discussions. Or was suddenly thrust into a position of leadership at the O-4/5 level and failed due to lack of experience (AKA air-dropped). Or excelled in a few cases. I’ve known several great female leaders, but I’ve also seen some big failures.

    I remember a briefing in the late 80s bemoaning the scarcity of Jewish officers in the Navy, except in the Supply Corps (really). This was in the middle of a long diversity brief (pre-Powerpoint). Diversity Inc will always find something to keep them in business. I see this as another example of GIGO. I’m sure the staffers for this report have all attended and produced many EO seminars.

  17. Mark Well says:

    More to the point, the US military is more ethnically and racially diverse than the US Senate.

  18. whiskey says:

    Let’s get real. The NBA is 90% Black, and there is no pressure for “diversity” to put in a bunch of White guys. The NFL is 65-70% Black, with many positions (Safety, Corner, Wide Receiver, Running Back) either exclusively or nearly exclusively Black. There is no concern that the NFL is like the NBA, “too Black.”

    If you want big, tall, explosively fast guys in the NBA and NFL, they will be nearly all the time, Black. That’s not racism, just fact. If you want guys who think a good time is jumping out of airplanes, serving on dangerous submarines, and are willing to take on combat roles, guess what? They will be almost exclusively White men. Women don’t like combat (and are not very good at it either). Black and Hispanics don’t volunteer much for the military and even less for combat arms. Black and Hispanics are almost entirely absent from Special Forces (forget Hollywood, the reality is that they are almost entirely White).

    The cognitive demands for combat arms leadership (if you make a mistake your people die, get hideously mutilated, your country can even lose a war) is probably higher than that of the physical demands in the NFL and NBA. Both filter according race, be assured neither Goodell nor Stern sit in the locker rooms excluding White guys, nor does the military keep out talented Black/Hispanic guys from leadership in an all volunteer military. Major Hassan (a “diversity” officer) was allowed to plan his Jihad massacre untouched because he met Muslim diversity goals. Probably the reverse, if there were any likely candidates for advancement among Black and Hispanic servicemen, be assured they’d be moved upward. There just aren’t many.

  19. Lou Gots says:

    The problem here is that the left is afraid that the military will remain true to their oath to defend the Constitution. The concept of oath-keeping has them scared, so the would like to pack the military.

    Those statistics are not at all out of line when we correct for education ans experience. Actually, the percentages of minorities as high-ranking military officers appears a bit high. The question should not be how many minority-group officers are selected for flag rank in comparison to ethnic percentages in the population at large, but rather how many are selected relative to the population of qualified candidates.

  20. Husband says:

    My wife was in the military for 14 years in a support role. She got out when the kids were very young and she decided she did not like the idea of being stationed away from them. We know other women who made the same decision. Just like a woman with kids may decide the travel of some corporate positions is undesirable. They are going to self select out and you can’t overcome that.

  21. seanmahair says:

    Here’s a novel idea. Let’s choose the best person for the job.

  22. Ryan M. says:

    But. . but. . .allowing for a ‘best’ person for the job makes it sound like someone might be better than someone else, and liberals CAN’T have that!!! If we start deciding things based on silly factors such as merit rather than ‘important‘ things such as what sex organs someone has or their melanin content, where will we be?

  23. @Husband says:

    @husband: I’m a Navy HR officer and you nailed it. Today’s DOD front office joined the military just out of high school (military academy, ROTC, etc), took every tough deployment, missed kids being born, double-dipped (work + grad school + joint ed), and made several rotations through DC or senior staff/aide jobs that were 18 hrs a day, 6.5 days a week. while a few women have tackled this, the sort of commitment this life takes is a couple where he works/deploys and she mans the home front.

    DOD is looking at diversity and flex service options to give women more options, like taking breaks in service to have a family. that’s fine, but it won’t cultivate the 24/7 sorts of women they want in DC.

    Most of those women, by the way, run the State Dept…

  24. TRO says:

    That’s it, make the military even MORE PC than it already is being forced to be. That’s a sure way to make it a third-rate force.

    Relaxing standards has never created a better organization. Police departments did it in the 1970s and look at all the corruption that followed. Memphis, New Orleans, NYPD, etc.filled their ranks with criminals and low performers. The Catholic Church lowered standards for priests about the same time and look how that worked out.

    Placing women in ground combat roles is doomed to failure – just as the Israelis. Placing too much emphasis on race or gender would tear the military apart.

  25. bandit says:

    But the military doesn’t exist as a job corps;

    Au contrair – it is part of the gov’t no?

  26. Tina says:

    “Statistics don’t count for anything. They have no place in in engineering anywhere.”
    Will Willoughby, NASA head of reliability and safety during the Apollo moon landing program.

    Statistics can’t be the basis of adequate decisions about war or military success or guarding our nation, either.

  27. Fen says:

    greater diversity in the military’s leadership so it will better reflect the racial, ethnic and gender mix in the armed forces and in American society

    Wonderful idea. Pick the Commander-in-Chief based on the color of his skin over of his qualifications or experience. What could possibly go wrong?

    DHOTUS. Diversity Hire Of The United States

    How’s that been working for ya?

  28. just me says:

    I think the issue of women in high leadership and minorities in high leadership are in reality two different issues or problems.

    The key to minority in high leadership is recruitment and keeping the recruits.

    Personally, I think a lot of women do opt out of the military for family reasons and the prime military ages are the same ages at which child bearing is optimum. Women do not want to leave their kids and they especially aren’t keen on leaving them to be sent to war zones. Perhaps there are ways to make it easier for women who want to have families but don’t want to leave their families, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the men in the military who don’t want to leave their families either.

    A good percentage of the reason my husband opted to leave the Navy after his 8 year commitment was up was because he didn’t like leaving our kids. He missed one child’s first three birthdays due to deployment and all but missed the birth of the other. We found out quickly that as a couple we could deal with the deployments but as a father we wanted him home. If the military adjusts how women are deployed to give them the opportunity to be mother’s in a safe billet, it shouldn’t be at the expense of deploying the men in their place (since the overseas, war zone billet has to be filled).

    So while I think there may be easier answers to why there are fewer minorities at the top of leadership, I am not sure there are going to be easy answers or easy fixes to get women in that leadership role. The military isn’t suitable for everyone and the military is really tough on those who want to have a family-and I imagine my husband isn’t the only person who left because spending time with his family was more important than a career in the service.

  29. Obdurate says:

    Surely this will end with affirmative action quotas for senior officers. What could go wrong?

  30. If you want more minority senior officers, say, 15-20 or more years from now, you have to first of all start graduating more minorities from college right now. When it comes to officers, the relevant population isn’t the general population, but college grads.

    The best stats I could find were from 1998 (which would be junior O-4s right now), when blacks and hispanics made up 8.3% and 5.6% of college grads, respectively. And that’s been a generally upward trend for a while, so if you roll it back to 1990 or before, blacks and hispanics might actually be over-represented.

    I’m not sure about the other services, but as of 2009, women make up 17.2% of the Army, the biggest service by manpower. So 16% of senior officers isn’t really out of whack, statistically. And for reasons that previous commentors have mentioned, women tend to leave the service at greater rates than their male counterparts.

    Even if you did open up the ground combat arms (infantry, armor, artillery, combat engineers) to women, the number of women who both wanted to do it, and were physically capable, would be quite small. Certainly nowhere near enough to increase the percentage of female senior officers to almost 50%. Newsflash: there aren’t more women in the military because they don’t want to be. Men are dramatically underrepresented among the ranks of elementary school teachers, nurses, and nail salon operators. Why? Because men don’t want to do those jobs. Nobody’s crying about it, either.

  31. Blacque Jacques Shellacque says:

    …an independent report for Congress said Monday.

    I hope the outfit/people who created this report weren’t paid with taxpayer money…

  32. SongDog says:

    Despite the obvious risk of degrading the forces by making selection decisions on any criteria other than qualifications and performance, quotas are coming to the military just as they have everywhere else, and we’re just going to have to deal with it until we can overcome the general notion behind all this, that there are no differences among racial and gender groups in terms of their qualifications, motivations, performance, etc; therefore any discrepancies in representation in any organization at any level must be the result of invidious prejudice.

    Merely to state the proposition is to refute it.

  33. John says:

    I spent 6 years in the Army during the Regan years.

    Max the PT test – check.
    Max Education credits – check
    Max the board – check
    Expert qualification – check
    Max MOSQ tests – check

    Passed over for promotion multiple times while lessor points and time in service/time in grade minorities/women promoted over me – check.

    ETS’d from the Army to get a job where my qualifications and skills provide better opportunity for advancement – check

  34. GaryS says:

    The idea that there are too few females in top command ranks is pretty much like saying there are too few male mothers.

    Jesus freaking Christ! We are doomed!

  35. Wayne says:

    Re “quotas are coming to the military just as they have everywhere else, and we’re just going to have to deal with it”

    It came to the military a long time ago just not officially. Bad part is it undermines those who get promoted legit. I have work with some topnotch females as a staffer and some piss pore ones. Unfortunately many when they first work or briefly work with the topnotch ones assume they are where they are because of quotas.

    Yes some white males are incompetent to. However it is a % game. If one group is 35% incompetent and another group is 5%, then it is 7 times more likely you are working with an incompetent person with the first group. Regardless of reality the perception of they got there because of quotas is there.

  36. Steve Gregg says:

    There are fewer women generals in the military because fewer play with toy soldiers as girls, nor do you see little girls charging around the neighborhood with toy guns playing war. If you ask the average guy if fighting a war would be cool, he’s likely to say yeah, even if he’s a nerd. A girl will give you a scrunchy face or eye roll.

  37. Walter Small says:

    Read carefully. The recommendations made to increase diversity at leadership levels speak to the removal of a key barrier affecting promotions. A major, even controlling barrier has been the use of illegal boards that determined who made it to the next level by cuting off a candidate’s opportunity, or promoting another’s before their formal promotion consideration. The disparities now being addressed resulted from commanders adding a non-transparent evaluation procedure shown to produce promotion opportunities for white officers, verified by statistics and demonstrating the altering of records in some cases. Records in the official file may not be the records in the illegal file. Records reviewed by selection boards and scored were subjected to the officiating officers screening and editing using a pre-board “list” system composed in violation of the affected officer’s privacy rights and by those unauthorized to do it . The President should have this investigated, evaluated, eliminated, and considere remedies for those who can prove injury. Experts have lost their common sense when suggesting that all is fair when the facts of a sinister program have reaked the havoc giving rise to the observations leading to current recommendations. Condemn my statements–but first investigate.

  38. A lot of the push for women in combat is coming from women who don’t want to be in combat but who want a ticket punched to be competitive for high rank. It’s a little like a Harvard degree. If Harvard would just hand our degrees for $160,000 in cash, there would be a jump in efficiency. No wasted four years.

    Those women don’t want to admit it (and they wouldn’t get into Harvard anyway) but that is what they want; the credential.

  39. Sigivald says:

    George: Remember that “senior officers” are two things:

    a) college graduates
    b) in for a long time

    You can’t usefully compare them with the Hispanic population as a whole now; but if you compare them with the college population of 15-20 years ago… turns out that the numbers are very close.

    Any problem there would have to do with a lack of Hispanic college graduates, rather than something inside the military.

    (See here for links to details. [Not me, over there.])

  40. Micha Elyi says:

    America is a female country now.

    Let the females do all the fighting for it.

  41. WJ says:

    Forget blacks and Hispanics. I’ll start taking these complaints about too many whites seriously when I hear an establishment media organization complain that Jews are too overrepresented in Profession X, Y or Z.

    Jews are less than 2% of the population, but 35% of the 400 richest Americans (according to Forbes), ~30% of Harvard students, 33% of the Supreme Court, ~12% of the US Senate, and a hugely disproportionate share of doctors, lawyers, Fortune 500 CEOs, and Hollywood bigshots.

    But you will never, never, ever hear that Jews are “too much of” anything. You’re only allowed to say that if the folks overrepresented are white gentiles.

    And Asians are overrepresented in elite professions, too. I guess that must prove that American society is systemically biased in favor of Asians and Jews.

  42. mannning says:

    This is yet another witch hunt by the left to find some form of discrimination everywhere possible, thus giving them still another issue to use to clobber anyone in their right minds. Discrimination cures, whether real or not, seem to be focus of the left these days.

    Non-discrimination has been lifted into a place of undue influence and undue attention as a goal for literally everywhere in society. The thought that some people are better suited to certain roles than are others is anathema; that some people are smarter, stronger, jump higher, command more respect, have more experience, have more education, or are physically far better suited to a whole passel of roles in society seems to escape the left completely.

    One-size-fits-all is an obviously stupid mantra, but that is the line taken.