The military is a male-dominant organization. When we think of military leadership, we typically think of old, poker-faced, highly decorated men who sit around dictating policy in some boardroom. Recently, we’ve seen a number of female leaders who change that idea of leadership in the military. Women have been serving in the military since the early 19th century, when congress established the Army Nurse Corp, and opportunities for women to work in other job areas expanded over time. Throughout most of history, women have taken on a majority of administrative and medical roles in the military since there existed restrictions on positions that women were allowed to serve in (Bensahel, Barno, Kidder, & Sayler, 2015). So, that’s still where we see more female leadership when we look at the military as a whole. Recently, many gender-based job restrictions have been lifted and women are able to serve in more positions that were typically seen as male-only positions, such as positions specific to working in submarines, and soon more combat positions will be available as well (Bensahel, Barno, Kidder, & Sayler, 2015). As more jobs open up to women, more leadership opportunities may become available to women as well.
If more women were in leadership positions in other job fields throughout the military, does that mean they’d be more effective? Not exactly. Although female and male leaders approach leadership differently, male and female leaders each bring something unique to the relationship between leaders, followers, and the situations. In terms of the difference between the leadership styles and gender, Northouse points out that a meta-analyses of research examining style differences between women and men found that, contrary to stereotypic expectations, women were not found to lead in a more interpersonally oriented and less task-oriented manner than men in organizational studies (Northouse, 2015, 407). This means that both male and female leaders are able to remain task-oriented, which is how the military generally operates. So, in terms of effectiveness, both male and female leaders are just as effective at accomplishing the mission.
However, there are ways that gender diversity in leadership can be beneficial for the military. One of the more vital benefits is that it could enhance leadership effectiveness by giving people the opportunity to engage in the best leadership practices (Northouse, 2015, pg. 415). Because notions of leadership in the military is often seen as masculine and autocratic, most leaders tend to focus on leadership styles that are more coercive and authoritative. Introducing more female leaders could change those notions and allow for more variety in leadership approaches to be utilized throughout various situations.
I do have personal experience regarding this topic and seeing how female leaders can bring about changes in the military community. When I arrived at my first command, most junior sailors, especially junior female sailors, did not feel heard and understood by our leadership. This was the norm, and most people accepted it as their reality for the next few years. That norm was changed when higher-ranking women entered the command to lead us. One stark difference was that our opinions were heard, regardless of rank, which brought to light issues that affected lower-ranking service members. The female leaders demonstrated a participative style of leadership that allowed many people to feel heard, which Northouse stated is a robust difference between female and male leaders (Northouse, 2015, pg. 407). They also implemented monthly meetings for service members to address issues and bring forth new ideas for the command. This allowed more programs geared towards volunteering, community outreach, and mentorship to be available to all service-members.
By applying a different leadership approach in the military environment, the female leaders created significant changes that impacted other leaders as well. More leaders in the command were open to discussing various matters with their entire team, rather than just the higher-ranking members. Also, with more mentorship and career development opportunities being available and utilized throughout the command, more low-ranking service members received the attention and guidance they needed to advance to higher ranks much more quickly.
As times change, I believe we’ll see more diversity in higher positions within both the military and the private sector. Each generation brings forth new mindsets that challenge the old, and a more diverse leadership is an idea that many generations that are currently in the workforce, or will soon join the workforce, seem willing to embrace.
Bensahel, N., Barno, D., Kidder, K., & Sayler, K. (2015, January). Battlefield and Boardrooms: Women’s Leadership in the Military and the Private Sector. Retrieved June 27, 2020, from Center for a New American Security: https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/187251/CNAS_BattlefieldsVsBoardrooms_BensahelBarnoKidderSayler.pdf
Northouse, P. G. (2015). Leadership: Theory and Practice 8th Edition. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publishing. Retrieved June 27, 2020
Reynolds, G. M., & Shendruk, A. (2018, April). Demographics of the U.S. Military. Retrieved June 28, 2020, from Council on Foreign Relations: https://www.cfr.org/article/demographics-us-military