Congress must address gender gap in nominations to military service academies
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.
Amongst the presidential candidates, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) had the most equitable record, with women accounting for 40 percent of his total nominations. Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA, 34 percent), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY, 34 percent), Michael Bennet (D-CO, 32 percent) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA, 31 percent) also placed among the top 15 in the Senate. Meanwhile, Representative Tulsi Gabbard (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 Klobuchar (D-MN, 16 percent female nominations) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT, 17 percent), and Rep. Seth Moulton (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 Cotton (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.
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
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