Congress must address gender gap in nominations to military service academies

Congress must address gender gap in nominations to military service academies
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As an unprecedented number of women run for president, issues of gender equity and women’s rights continue to headline the 2020 election. Many candidates have trumpeted their support for policies like equal pay for women, access to reproductive health care, and, amid reports of a troubling rise in sexual assault in the military, polices to combat military sexual trauma. But despite all the bold rhetoric on gender equality, some presidential hopefuls, and many more members of Congress, have failed to measure up in one of the few areas in which each member has direct control: nominations to our nation’s military academies.

Most students who want to attend a military academy must secure a congressional nomination. Because of this requirement, individual members of Congress serve as gatekeepers, exercising near-total control over the students they choose and the selection processes they use to do so. With the military branches commissioning academy graduates as officers, senators and representatives have an outsized influence on the makeup of military leadership, shaping the face of the institution and potentially transforming the lives of the nominees they select.

According to a new report from the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, members of the current Congress have collectively used this opportunity to nominate nearly four times as many men as women to the service academies. The imbalance is a bipartisan occurrence, with women accounting for 20 percent of nominees from Republican members and 22 percent of nominees from Democratic members. This nomination gap contributes to a steep gender imbalance that has obstructed much-needed culture changes in these prestigious institutions and the military at large—both of which have alarming rates of sexual assault and have overtly excluded women for most of their history. 

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Amongst the presidential candidates, Senator Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs MORE (D-NJ) had the most equitable record, with women accounting for 40 percent of his total nominations. Senators Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Senators raise concerns over Facebook's civil rights audit Biden's marijuana plan is out of step with public opinion MORE (D-CA, 34 percent), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocrats seek to tie GOP candidates to Trump, DeVos Democratic lawmakers call for expanding, enshrining LGBTQ rights The Hill's 12:30 Report: Fauci 'aspirationally hopeful' of a vaccine by winter MORE (D-NY, 34 percent), Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Senators raise concerns over Facebook's civil rights audit House Democrats chart course to 'solving the climate crisis' by 2050 MORE (D-CO, 32 percent) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenTrump defends Roger Stone move: He was target of 'Witch Hunt' Democrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Pharma pricing is a problem, but antitrust isn't the (only) solution MORE (D-MA, 31 percent) also placed among the top 15 in the Senate. Meanwhile, Representative Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardFinancial firms facing serious hacking threat in COVID-19 era Gabbard drops defamation lawsuit against Clinton It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE (D-HI, 38 percent) was among the top 15 nominators of women in the House. Despite holding themselves out as supporters of gender equality, Senators Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Fauci says focus should be on pausing reopenings rather than reverting to shutdowns; WHO director pleads for international unity in pandemic response State election officials warn budget cuts could lead to November chaos Biden strikes populist tone in blistering rebuke of Trump, Wall Street MORE (D-MN, 16 percent female nominations) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden wins Louisiana primary Oh, Canada: Should the US emulate Canada's National Health Service? Trump glosses over virus surge during Florida trip MORE (I-VT, 17 percent), and Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonHouse panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday Democrats expect Russian bounties to be addressed in defense bill MORE (D-MA, 16 percent), had three of the least equitable records for nominations. Only one person – the delegate from American Samoa, Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-AS) – had a record of nominating more women than men to the military academies.

Some members have already pushed back on these rankings, arguing that their skewed nominations merely reflect the smaller number of women applying to be nominated. Senator Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonPublic letter in Harper's sparks furor Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE (R-AR), who has nominated the second-lowest percentage of women among current Senators (13 percent), pointed out that in 2017 he nominated 90 percent of the women who applied to his office versus less than 50% of the men who applied.

But members’ responsibility for gender equality at the academies runs deeper than simply selecting from the applications that land on their desks. Individual congressional offices have complete control over the application process, and the range of practices varies widely. While some offices conduct affirmative outreach within their respective districts and invite women alumnae of the academies to help with interviews, others display little to no desire to obtain a diverse applicant pool. Selection criteria can be equally opaque: Some high schools have even taken to specifically instructing students to use family connections to gain a nomination from their Representative or Senator. 

Failing to actively recruit qualified female candidates has a number of effects. First, it does a disservice to the military and the country at large by depriving them of the best leaders. Data indicate that the military is losing some of the most qualified candidates because of this gender imbalance.

For example, in West Point’s 2018 graduating class, women accounted for 44 percent of the academy’s Honor Graduates – and six of the top ten graduates overall – even though women comprised only 20 percent of the graduating class. This over-performance of women when compared with their male peers indicates that they were underrepresented in West Point’s admissions. Graduates of our nation’s military academies consistently go on to become high-ranking military officers, elected officials, and leaders in industry. Failing to find the best candidates for these spots is a loss for the potential candidates, the academies, and society as a whole.

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Additionally, increased admission of women to the academies strengthens the experience of other women who are already there. Economics professors Nick Huntington-Klein and Elaina Rose found that when female cadets were the only women in their companies at West Point, their attrition rates were on average five percentage points higher than their male colleagues. But adding just one additional woman to a company erased that gap.

Finally, veterans’ advocates like the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center see numerous clients who have survived sexual assault in the military only to receive unjust military discharges as a result of the trauma from their assault. Indeed, “other-than-honorable” military discharges are disproportionately given to sexual assault survivors. Increased female leadership within the military holds the potential to change this culture.  

As gatekeepers to these institutions, members of Congress should commit to working towards gender equality in their nominations. With these nominations they can directly affect which high school students of today get a chance at being the military leaders of tomorrow. They are uniquely positioned to make this change. They should do more.

Liam Brennan is the executive director of Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, which provides free legal services to homeless, low-income and mentally ill veterans and advances veterans law through advocacy and education. Follow him on Twitter @LBNewHaven